If any NHL team’s recent history can tie in with American Thanksgiving, it’s the Washington Capitals. Back in 2007, one of the most significant moves that changed the entire complexion of the franchise was done while most Americans were preparing their turkey and stuffing,
Back when Washington entered the 2007-08 season under coach Glen Hanlon, the Capitals fully expected to take the next step in their rebuilding process towards ending their postseason drought.
The team’s 2006 first-round draft pick Nicklas Backstrom crossed over from Sweden to join the team that season, and the Caps added a couple of free agents in the off-season in Michael Nylander and Tom Poti. Hopes were high with a more talented roster in the nation’s capital that the team would return to the playoffs for the first time since 2003 and become a Stanley Cup contender.
However, the promise seemed to fade quickly as the team struggled out of the gate. While Hanlon’s hard-working, defensive system worked well with a less talented lineup to keep the games close, the team was outgrowing his style and slumped badly.
The night before Thanksgiving was perhaps one of the ugliest losses the Capitals have had at home. The team’s usual home date the night before the holiday, usually a festive affair with the holiday, was an ugly scene as the team wasted an early Alexander Ovechkin goal with five straight goals against in a 5-1 loss to Atlanta Thrashers. The setback was the team’s fifth straight loss and left an angry crowd of 11,669 at Verizon Center booing loudly as the last minute elapsed, while chanting “Fire Hanlon.”
With the loss, Washington was off to its worst start since 1981-82 at 6-14-1, and it was clear the team needed a change in direction to salvage its playoff hopes.
Looking to Hershey
Bruce Boudreau, a career minor-league coach, had great success since joining the Hershey Bears in 2005. In his first two seasons, the Bears had reached the Calder Cup Final twice, beating Milwaukee for the crown in his first season, and falling to Carey Price’s Hamilton Bulldogs in his second.
Several of the young Capitals had experience in playing for Boudreau during those seasons, as Mike Green, Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann were part of those Hershey clubs, where he employed an up-tempo style that made the Bears one of the best teams in the AHL.
Hanlon, who got the most out of a rebuilding Capitals team since taking over during the 2003-04 season, was at a loss for answers, and the team made the change to Boudreau.
“It was a good day,” Boudreau recalled in 2011 when writing Red Rising. “It was very surprising, but I was 52 and I’d wanted to be back in the NHL for as long as I can remember.
“I remember my kid jumping on his bed when he heard, and I remember my wife jumping up and down, and I remember forgetting how to get to Kettler [the team’s practice facility.]”
The coach indeed did get lost on his way down from Hershey to the team’s rink in Arlington, VA, but him asking for directions was one of the few mistakes he made in Washington in his first season.
Jump Out of the Gate
One of the biggest changes Boudreau introduced when he arrived to run his first practice on Thanksgiving Day was allowing the defensemen to carry the puck up the ice, which benefitted Green tremendously. The defenseman, who had 12 points the year before, went on to record 56 that season – 49 which he recorded under Boudreau’s guidance.
He also gave the Capitals forwards more freedom to roam offensively, and Backstrom responded right away, too. He scored the overtime game-winner in Boudreau’s first game behind the bench the day after Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, and the Swedish center recorded 60 of 69 points – including 3 in that win over the Flyers – under the new coach.
Boudreau also made the Capitals a must-see team, turning what had been a hard-working club that would try to grind out wins into a free-flowing offensive juggernaut, a style they held during Boudreau’s tenure in Washington.
The Caps went 37-15-7 under their new coach that first season – including winning 11 of 12 to pass the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division title on the final night of the regular season – and Boudreau won the Jack Adams Award for his work, despite spending the first quarter of the season in the AHL.
While not as dramatic as the Thanksgiving when he arrived, Boudreau also saw his time in Washington end over the long weekend of Thanksgiving in 2011. The team started out the season 7-0, but by the time the holiday rolled around, they had gone 3-7-1 since, and dropped a home game to the Rangers on Black Friday and were routed in Buffalo the next night, which led to Boudreau’s dismissal.
Washington brought in Dale Hunter, who returned to a defensive style during his short tenure, while Boudreau was quickly rehired by the Anaheim Ducks.
But the change it did little to diminish what Boudreau did for the Capitals during his time with Washington, making Ovechkin a more dangerous forward, along with Backstrom becoming a top center and Green being a Norris Trophy candidate with his dangerous offensive prowess.
Few around the Capitals will forget the strange Thanksgiving of 2007, and how the holiday decision changed the face of the team for years to come.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.