Just Skating By

As the young players of the Phoenix Roadrunners strap on their gear and stretch their sore legs, coach Garry Unger skates graceful laps around the ice with one of his stars, Bruce Boudreau. While the men glide along during practice at Tower Plaza's ancient rink, they tap a puck back and forth and chat about their team, a collection of near-misses that, until a few weeks ago, always seemed to fall just one goal short of winning games.

Boudreau and Unger have a lot in common. They've each played more than 1,000 professional hockey games. But there's a big difference. Unger was a big star in the National Hockey League, and Boudreau is, well . . . SOME SPORTS FANS might look at Bruce Boudreau's career and see echoes of the movie Bull Durham, the story of a journeyman baseball catcher who spends his career on the fringes of "the show." Boudreau says he hears about that movie all the time, that one and Everybody's All-American, which tells a much darker story about a football player who can't give up playing.

"I don't think I would ever get into that situation," he says. "It's a scary thing when you've played hockey your whole life, and if something doesn't come up and you have to make a career change at 36 or 37, and you have a family with three kids. You look at it and it gets you a little worried."

The Roadrunners are Boudreau's thirteenth pro hockey team, and most of his teammates can barely buy beer. The Roadrunners, who play in the International Hockey League, have brought ice hockey back to town this year after a decade'sMDRV absence. Boudreau, who has come to the desert for his seventeenth pro season, has spent practically his whole career as a center in the minors.

To make himself ready for that inevitable career change to hockey coach, Boudreau has been thinking like one for the past several seasons.

"When I'm sitting on the bench, I make all my judgments not on emotion but on how I would react to everything if I was in charge," he says. "Right now that's just the way my mind thinks. That's the way the thought waves go, I guess."

Unger says Boudreau's bush league odyssey might actually prove a benefit when he eventually starts to work his way up through the underside of the coaching pyramid that leads to the NHL. "The players that have more of a struggle during their career, and have to go through the minors, I think that players like that learn more about the game," says Unger. "I definitely think he'll make a good hockey coach."

ON THE LONG BUS TRIPS that make time in the minors move so slowly, Boudreau and Unger often sit together and trade thoughts. "We throw ideas back and forth, stuff like that," Boudreau says. "A lot of times we talk about how we did it when we were young."

When they were young, Unger and Boudreau sometimes were opponents in the NHL. "I'll say 50 percent of the guys don't remember Garry as a player," says Boudreau of his coach, who was picked as an NHL all-star seven times. "Garry Unger was a helluva hockey player." And so is Boudreau, in his own way. Of Boudreau's 1,300 pro games, however, only 141 were played in the NHL.

Unger, now 41, spent most of his career playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, and St. Louis Blues, among others. Boudreau, who turned 35 last month, played for the Cincinnati Stingers, Baltimore Skipjacks, and Springfield Indians, among many others. He spent only brief stretches with the NHL's Maple Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks.

"I would love to go back and change a few things," Boudreau says. "Obviously I wasn't big, and I'm not very fast. Those were the two No. 1 knocks. But when I played in the NHL, I always had success. I always did good.

"I came up in the Toronto system at maybe the only wrong time of their whole history. When I first came up, they were a fairly good team, and they weren't going with rookies. So now I play a couple of years in the minors and I come back up. Now all of a sudden they're going into a complete youth movement. I always had good enough training camps to stick. But the teams had the attitude, `Let's try our No. 1 draft choice ahead of Boudreau now, or our No. 2 draft choice or whatever, because we know if he goes down there, he's gonna work his butt off. We can always bring him up. He's good insurance, so let's try the other guy first.'

"From the moment I knew what I wanted to be, when I was five years old, I wanted to be a hockey player. Granted, I wanted to play in the NHL the whole time, but I wanted to be a hockey player, and this is the way it worked out."

Says Unger: "Part of playing in the NHL is being at the right place at the right time. There's no doubt in my mind that Bruce has the ability to play."

BOUDREAU'S FAMILY has followed his dream around the continent. For this season, his wife of eleven years and three young children have moved from their family home in Saint Catharines, Ontario, to a townhome in Chandler. The odds are slim that they'll have to move again before the end of the season in April. "I am owned by Phoenix, and they don't have an affiliate in the NHL," Boudreau says of his chances of getting called up to the big league. "It's an impossibility, unless they sold me to somebody. I don't think anybody would want me now, anyway."

Last summer, Boudreau lined up a job with the IHL team in Saginaw, Michigan. Boudreau and the Saginaw general manager had an understanding that Boudreau would start the season as a playing assistant coach and move behind the bench full-time once the franchise got up and running. When the operation folded before a single puck could be dropped, Boudreau decided to spend another season in skates. According to team officials, a typical salary for a player with Boudreau's skill and experience is about $35,000.

"There's no doubt in my mind that if I wanted to play, I could play for five years at this level of hockey and still be very competitive," he says. "I'm 35 now and second in the league in scoring by a very close margin. I very rarely--touch wood--get hurt. The thing I have on most everybody is the desire to succeed.

"But I'm not playing just for the sake of playing. I'm not moving my family all over the place--to Phoenix, Arizona--because I want to continue playing minor league hockey. I have a goal: I want to coach.

"I've had people that I respect tell me to play as long as you can. Once you stop playing, you can never play again. Coaching will always be there, because you can do that 'til you're sixty years old." WHEN GARRY UNGER and Bruce Boudreau started in hockey, all players spent a season or several riding the bus in the bushes. These days the best players from the Canadian junior hockey leagues get their shot in the NHL as teen-agers. The phenoms who don't catch on will get to meet Unger and Boudreau on their way down.

Veterans' Memorial Coliseum is one of the nicer arenas IHL players will see as they make their way through garden spots like Peoria, Illinois, and Muskegon, Michigan, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Most of the long road trips are done by jet, but the Peoria-to-Muskegon leg is always done via chartered bus. The difference between the minors and the NHL is the difference between a Holiday Inn and a Hyatt. After half a lifetime of that kind of late-night roadwork--and the prospect of many more years of small-town jumps ahead as a coach--Boudreau is somewhat stoic.

"If you come to the minor leagues feeling, `Aw, this is crappy, and this is crappy,' it's gonna feel like shit," he says. "If you accept it, it's not all that bad. You travel six or seven hours maximum on a bus in this league at any particular time, and for the most part, it's at night, and you sleep for three of those hours. So you're spending time with your friends for the other three hours. You can either look at it as a positive point and make ways to have fun for those three hours, or you can bitch and moan and complain. The guys who bitch and moan and complain don't usually play for longer than two or three years anyway.

"In the old days, everybody had to go down to the minors, whether you were the best player in hockey or not, and you played for a year and paid your dues. Nowadays, they give guys NHL jobs that they don't deserve, and they shouldn't be there at all. In four years, you get them down here. They've been given all the chances in the world, and they're the ones that are bitter. They don't realize the breaks they got."

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Dave Walker

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