Canucks firing of coach Bruce Boudreau is the Chernobyl of human-resource management

Vancouver Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau pauses during a news conference after his final game as coach in Vancouver on Jan. 21.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

One of the default assumptions in following professional sports is that people working at the highest levels in it know what they’re doing. They may not always get it right, but they do what they do because they’re smarter than the average bear.

The hundred-year journey to fire Bruce Boudreau is here to tell you differently.

After two seasons and a bit as head coach, Boudreau was clipped by the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday.

This should have been simple. The Canucks weren’t great when Boudreau inherited them, and they’ve since gotten worse. His job is to produce results. He’s failed at it. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about firing a guy in that position. It’s a two-day story. Three, max.

The small wrinkle is Boudreau’s personality. Unusually for someone who works in hockey, he has one.

It’s more than being garrulous and quippy. Everything Boudreau says and does is adorable. The guy could punch you in the face, and you’d still want to give him a squeeze.

Firing a guy like that is tricky. You don’t want people to start feeling sorry for him. You certainly should avoid making him suffer in public.

To avoid any potential for mishap, you want this dirty business handled quickly. The first anyone should hear about it is via a news release after it’s already happened. The tone should be mournful. Boudreau’s complicity ought to be secured with an exit package. Only nice things should be said by all involved.

It’s not hard. Just avoid disasters.

So the Canucks decided to turn Boudreau’s exit into the Chernobyl of human-resource management.

Boudreau was already in trouble before the season started. Everyone knew that. But no one in charge said anything. Saying something would be the worst thing for all involved.

In November, club president Jim Rutherford went on the radio to lament the team’s “structure.” He said the word so often you half-believed he’d taken up transcendental meditation.

Since structure=coach, people assumed Boudreau would be fired shortly. He wasn’t.

That assumption, abetted by a million leaks sprung in the Vancouver front office, curdled into certainty. It was just a matter of time. Then months passed.

By last week Boudreau still hadn’t been fired, but Rutherford was back at it. He did one of those news conferences people remember later as the commencement of hostilities.

Rutherford: “Bruce is a friend. I really like Bruce and he’s done good work here, but …”

There’s a few ways a person can go after saying something like that: “… I’ve been seeing his ex-girlfriend for a while now” or “… he should have known better than to lend me money.”

Rutherford’s choice? “…he’s done good work here, but this is what we review all the time and try to make a decision. All I can say is Bruce is our coach right now.”

“Right now?” Seriously? That’s how you’re going to play it?

You might as well just bring the guy out on the podium, kiss him on the lips and say, “I know it was you, Fredo.”

One supposes Rutherford wanted to be forthright, but if you’re going to do it that way then you have to act. Don’t bring the guy back to live in your boat house. Don’t let him go fishing with your kids. You’ve already decided to get rid of him. Just put him out of his misery.

The Canucks brought Boudreau back to the boat house. They kept letting him go fishing with the kids.

Rutherford’s ruthlessness turned the fans into insurrectionists. If he’d fired Boudreau back in November, most people would have agreed with him. But stretching it out this way turned a failed coach into the hero of the story.

One of the rules of a good sports shooting is that everyone should agree in the end that the guy had to go. The less people like him, the easier that is.

The Canucks made sure everyone liked Boudreau even more. The players were out there every day telling people how great he is and how much they were going to miss him.

While the Canucks dragged things out interminably, Boudreau became funnier and more charming. His media availability turned into an endless wake. He was the talking corpse.

Is it inherent goodness or remarkable savvy that has determined the way Boudreau handled himself these past few days? Either way, it works. The Canucks ought to immediately rehire him as an image consultant.

By Saturday, Boudreau had fully embraced the wistfulness of his situation. That night, Jeff Marek reported on live TV that Boudreau was being replaced by Rick Tocchet. Boudreau was still coaching.

The home fans chanted his name at the end of another loss. Boudreau wept on the bench.

Afterwards, he choked up again: “When you’ve been in it for almost 50 years, I mean, the majority of your life. If it’s the end, it’s … y’know …”

Making a 68-year-old hockey lifer tearfully confront his mortality in public so that you have the entire weekend to book a room for the news conference is not a crime that I know of. But maybe it should be.

The Canucks finally fired Boudreau on Sunday morning. By early afternoon, Tocchet was unveiled as the team’s new coach. Rutherford tried apologizing, saying he’d been “too honest” in interviews. Great idea. That’ll fix it.

You fire a coach to purge the organization of its bad mojo. Afterwards, people should have the sense of fresh starts and new hope.

If that’s the bar, Canucks management has just undertaken the worst firing in recent sports history. The organization, top to bottom, comes out of this looking ridiculous.

In sports, you can be clueless and you can be cruel, but you can’t be both.

Through all of this, the Canucks lost sight of a fundamental truth. That the sports business isn’t about winning, it’s about creating a product that people like enough to pay for.

A month ago, the Canucks weren’t all that likeable. Then Boudreau went on his endless farewell tour. Now you’d have to say there is at least one likeable thing about the team. It’s the guy Vancouver just fired.


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