VANCOUVER — Bruce Boudreau and Scotty Walker planned to be coaching together in December. They just didn’t knew until last weekend that it would be in the National Hockey League for the Vancouver Canucks.
The coaches, who first got to know each other when Walker played the last nine of his 829 NHL games for Boudreau with the Washington Capitals at the end of the 2009-10 season, were invited by Hockey Canada to be part of Claude Julien’s staff for national-team tournaments this month in Russia and Switzerland.
Boudreau had nearly hired Walker to be his assistant coach with the Minnesota Wild in 2016, but instead gave the job to Scott Stevens.
But the two stayed in touch, and when Hockey Canada held staff meetings last month to plan Team Canada’s appearances at the Channel One Cup in Moscow and Spengler Cup in Davos, Walker and Boudreau reconnected and really got to talk hockey in depth. Boudreau loved Walker’s presentation at the summit on how to run the penalty kill.
Hockey Canada’s press release announcing Team Canada’s coaching staff came out on Nov. 26. Nine days later, Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini hired Boudreau to replace Travis Green, and Vancouver’s new head coach insisted Walker come with him from Ontario.
It wasn’t a hard sell.
“Knowing the kind of guy he is, the personality he is, he just said yes,” Boudreau explained Tuesday, his second day on the job. “He didn’t ask: ‘What about my contract? What about anything?’ I said, ‘Listen, I need you there tonight.’ And he bought his own ticket and flew to Vancouver. That’s the kind of character you want whether you’re playing or coaching. It came together in a hurry. I just felt that Walks was the right guy. And an ex-Canuck to boot, which is always a good thing.”
Walker is more like a double-ex.
A fifth-round pick of the Canucks in 1993, when few NHL teams were willing to draft a five-foot-10 defenceman, Walker spent five years in the organization before former general manager Brian Burke lost an argument with fleeting head coach Mike Keenan and allowed the player known as “Wild Thing” to join the Nashville Predators in the 1998 expansion draft.
Seventeen years later, Trevor Linden, Walker’s captain in Vancouver, brought him back to the Canucks in a player-development role. A year after Linden left as president in 2018, Walker departed for a more senior position with the Arizona Coyotes.
But after last season, Walker returned home to Cambridge, Ont., and took on a hockey-operations title with the Guelph Storm, the junior team he still partially owns, coached for four years (at a winning percentage of .625) and took to the 2014 Memorial Cup.
And then on the weekend, Boudreau called and asked him to join him in Vancouver, where Walker would run the blue line and coach the penalty kill.
“This team means more to me than people know,” Walker told Sportsnet on Tuesday. “I was telling Steamer (interim general manager Stan Smyl) the other day, I got drafted as a 19-year-old undersized defenceman, back when that wasn’t in vogue, by Pat Quinn and George McPhee. Ronnie Delorme was on the scouting staff with Mike Penny. And they had Steamer, Thomas Gradin, Jack McIlhargey, Curt Fraser on staff. That means a lot to me. I feel like those people had a big impact on who I am in my life, not just as a player but as a person. I feel a great deal of responsibility to them, you know what I mean?
“People say, ‘Yeah, but you didn’t play much here.’ But it has nothing to do with playing. Look at these guys. I stayed in the game because of character, being a good teammate. But I learned all that from those people.
“I’m not trying to be, like, arrogant but I turned down two other NHL teams, last year and the summer before that, for assistant coach (jobs) and it wasn’t because I didn’t like them. Just for me, where I am in my life and in my kids’ life, the fit has to be perfect. Honestly, when Bruce said it was Vancouver. . . the feeling of getting back here was like you couldn’t even imagine.”
Boudreau is 66 years old and working on a two-year contract. Walker is 48 and, although on an NHL coaching staff for the first time, is building a pretty impressive resume with his success in junior and numerous Team Canada assignments in addition to his scouting and player-development experiences.
His career trajectory is trending towards an NHL head-coaching job one day, and it’s not ridiculous to think that it could be in Vancouver after he is groomed by Boudreau.
“I played for a lot of guys that are good coaches and great people,” Walker said. “But I’m not sure anybody that these guys will ever play for will care more about them than Bruce does. To be honest with you, as a player, that almost means more. He’s a great tactical coach and he knows the game. But a lot of coaches are good at that stuff and they aren’t successful. He actually cares. It’s not a care like, ‘Oh, you’re a good hockey player because you got the puck out.’ It’s a care about: ‘What’s your family doing? How many kids do you have? How’s your mom and dad?’ I don’t know, it’s unique, especially nowadays.”
The last time the Canucks underwent this level of upheaval – and this level of disappointment through the first quarter of the season – Walker was a depth player still trying to establish an NHL foothold on the 1997-98 Vancouver team that saw Quinn and Tom Renney fired, replaced by Keenan, who had control of the roster until Burke arrived as the new GM the following summer.
“My chaos wasn’t all the changes going on,” Walker said. “I was hardly playing. I think I was scratched 15 straight games. My chaos was: ‘Am I going to be an NHL player?’”
But he added that Canuck players then, just like now, were looking for “something to grab on to.”
Asked what that life raft is, Boudreau said “hope.”
“Hope, communication, direction,” he explained. “The meetings I’ve had with the guys so far, they talk about communication a lot. They all want to win, and when things aren’t going good, they don’t like the crowd booing the heck out of them. Who would like that? They want to win. Sometimes it’s a breath of fresh air when somebody with a different personality comes in. Like I said yesterday, it’s like a do-over. You’ve had a mulligan.”