Bruce Cassidy’s first impression as an NHL head coach did not go over well with his players.
At 37, Cassidy was the youngest head coach in the league when the Washington Capitals hired him in 2002. He was entering a difficult situation for someone with no experience at that level. Walking into a dressing room with veterans like Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Michael Nylander, and Olaf Kolzig, among others, and trying to lead a team that had just missed the postseason was a tough situation to be in.
And so, as the 2003 Washington Post story goes following his firing, Cassidy’s greenness in the coaching realm was clearly evident.
“It was bad right from the start,” an anonymous Capital told Jason LaCanfora. “He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and started writing stuff on the blackboard. Everyone was just kind of looking at each other. We didn’t know what was going on. It looked like he was winging it. He had all summer to prepare for this day and it looked like he didn’t know what he was doing. Guys started to worry right away.”
Cassidy’s Capitals made the playoffs his first season, but the 2003-04 season would be the end of his time there. After 28 games and an 8-16-1 record, he was fired. Between the record and the growing discord between the head coach and his players, the relationship wasn’t going to last the entire season.
In fact, the coaching change was made a week after Cassidy apologized for wondering aloud if the family lives of his players was affecting his play. This was a Capitals team that featured Kolzig, who’s son is autistic; Brendan Witt, who’s wife had a life-threatening battle with sepsis; and Jason Doig, who’s wife had recently given birth.
Those comments, which were the final straw for many Capitals players, did not sit well in the room.
“I just don’t think he ever understood the level of professionalism it takes to coach in this league,” one player told LaCanfora. “All of the little things matter.”
Fast forward 15 years and Cassidy is in his fourth stop as a hockey coach since those forgetting days in D.C. After being dismissed by the Capitals he was an assistant coach for the Chicago Blackhawks for the 2005-06 season before moving on to take the head coaching job with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. In 2008 he joined the Bruins’ American Hockey League affiliate in Providence as an assistant and was promoted before the 2011-12 season to head coach. He quickly improved the AHL Bruins and was named one of Claude Julien’s assistants in 2016. Just 27 games into that season Julien was fired and he was handed a second opportunity.
Looking back now at his 107 games in charge of the Capitals, Cassidy admits he wasn’t comfortable being such a young head coach for a veteran group. “To be honest, all I learned was I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin now than I was then,” he said this week. “I was young. I really had no NHL experience.”
There was so much experience in that Capitals room that Cassidy was intimidated, unable to take charge and be a leader — vital traits for any head coach.
“These guys have been around, so it probably took me a while to just walk in there, be comfortable and say, ‘This is what we’re doing today,’ and still have the confidence and still be a good communicator while you’re doing that,” he said.
It was a familiar situation when Cassidy took over for Julien in 2017, though the 4,808 days between getting the Capitals’ and Bruins’ gigs allowed for plenty of personal growth. When he walked into that Bruins dressing room for the first time as boss, again there was that abundance of experience staring him right back in the face. Scanning the room, the name plates above the stalls read Backes, Bergeron, Chara, Krejci, Marchand, Rask. Stanley Cup rings and thousands of NHL games under their belts — another veteran team, except this time he was better prepared.
“When you’re around the game for an extra 15 years, you learn stuff,” Cassidy said. “Different ways to communicate, different ways to see the game, how to delegate, how to use your staff, how to use your top-end players to help you find that common goal. I think that was the biggest difference. A lot of newness back then. This time around there’s a lot more experience at this level.”
That experience has paid off. Under Cassidy, the Bruins have a 61% win percentage (117-52-22) and have accumulated the second-most points (256) in the NHL. They made the playoffs in each of his three seasons in charge, with at least one extra round added each year, culminating in this Cup Final appearance, the franchise’s first since 2013.
The skills Cassidy acquired and improved upon since his first time as an NHL head coach have been aided by a Bruins team that has a strong core, talented leadership, and a buy-in attitude of his players.
“I think this leadership group is second to none and I don’t know if I’ll ever have, wherever this career takes me, a group like this to work with,” he said. “I’ve said that since probably the second I got the job here. Those guys are fantastic and they sure make a coach’s job a lot easier.”
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