ST. LOUIS — Brian Boucher was able to experience the two sides of Craig Berube in professional hockey.
During his rookie season in 1999-00, the then-22-year-old Boucher was a teammate of Berube’s on the Philadelphia Flyers. At that time, Berube was in his 16th season and had nearly 800 NHL games under his belt. The veteran tough guy was well-liked and kept guys honest in the dressing room. More importantly, he wasn’t afraid to speak up, even on a team that featured a number of players who had plenty of career success like Mark Recchi, Eric Lindros, Rick Tocchet, Eric Desjardins, and John LeClair.
Berube’s personality was a hit with teammates because he could crack a joke one minute then tell it straight when a player or the team needed a kick. Those qualities he possessed 20 years ago clearly still remain today as he was one of the key factors in the St. Louis Blues’ turnaround this season.
Boucher could see those traits back then.
“100%. He could talk to the best player on the team the same way would talk to his linemate on the fourth line,” said Boucher, who’s been analyst with NBC Sports since 2015. “There was no separation to him. He treated everybody the same. I think everybody had a ton of respect for him just because of the role that he played on the team. One of the toughest guys I’ve ever played with in the NHL.”
Berube compiled 3,149 penalty minutes in his NHL career with 241 fights, per HockeyFights.com, helping make up that large number. So when he transitioned to an assistant coach role with the Flyers’ AHL affiliate in 2004-05, the players knew his resume and respected him for the way he played the game.
His approach in communicating with players was and remains a simple one: there are no games. Berube tells it like it is and in a black and white manner.
“You’re not confused when you speak with him,” said Boucher, “you know exactly what the message is. I think guys really appreciate that. Whether it’s at the NHL level or the AHL, they just want to know where they stand, what their role is going to be and how to execute it.”
When Blues general manager hung the still-remaining (for now) interim tag on Berube in November, the new head coach had an advantage compared to an outsider entering the situation. He knew the roster. He knew the skill level of the players, and his relationship with them was already good having been in the assistant coach role where you typically assume the “good cop” role.
Berube had confidence in his team, something that he noticed the players were lacking as they sat with a 7-9-3 record.
“It’s a good hockey team, got good players,” Berube said at the introductory press conference. “We’ve got to get moving in the right direction.”
It took time, but but his message eventually began to resonate.
Brayden Schenn has seen what Berube can do. In six of his last eight years in the NHL he’s had Berube as either a head coach or an assistant. The pair were with the Flyers in Berube’s two seasons there after he replaced Peter Laviolette early in the 2013-14 season.
Schenn saw Berube do in St. Louis what he was able to do in a short time in Philadelphia.
“Just got us to believe,” Schenn said. “Believe in one another, believe we’re a good hockey team. He took down the standing board in the room and worried about one game at a time, and that’s really all it was.”
When Berube was elevated, the Blues sat 30th in the NHL. The process of improvement took some time as St. Louis won only nine of their first 20 games under Berube, and we all know the climb up the mountain began after being dead last in the league on Jan. 3.
“Just don’t look back” is Berube’s mantra. Everyone knew how bad the team’s record was, but that was in the past. The Blues couldn’t change yesterday so they had to focus on changing tomorrow.
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Things looked bleak for the Blues at the start of the new year. Had the tailspin continued into February, Armstrong’s comment after firing Mike Yeo about his patience with the core group being “at its thinnest point” could have led to major changes to the roster. But he held firm and began to see some light. Confidence was coming back and Jordan Binnington was soon on his way.
Four months later the Blues are playing for the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years.
“It is about the players,” said Berube. “They’re the ones that go out and do the job and play. They’ve really bought into what we want from them. I think when we took over, we wanted a team-first mentality. We wanted to put the team first. We wanted to get these guys playing for each other on a nightly basis. That was the biggest turnaround for this hockey team.”
Tyler Bozak appreciates Berube’s direct approach. He also enjoys the coach’s style in dealing with players.
“He’s almost a teammate at times out there,” he said. “Then he’s also very demanding at the same time. It’s a pretty cool dynamic.”
When Berube speaks, players and teammates listen. Boucher remembers that well.
“When he has to get a message across, he gets a message across,” he said. “It doesn’t take forever to get it across. He’s direct, to the point. You understand where he’s coming from. … He hasn’t lost that as a coach. He’s not afraid and go tease a guy or make fun of a guy — not in a way that would embarrass a player, but the kind that would bring a group together. There’s a real skill to that and you have to have the respect of guys to do that.”
Berube will shed the “interim” part from his title this summer. Armstrong’s stated plan back in November that he was going to cast a wide net in a coaching search has been whittled down to a list of one. Along with consistent goaltending, all the Blues needed was some confidence and the right messenger.
“He has conviction when he speaks,” said Boucher. “If he says something, he’s thought about it and when he believes in something, you believe him.”
Blues-Bruins Game 3 is Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET from Enterprise Center on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.