Bruce Cassidy is a long way from his first NHL coaching tenure in Washington.
His brief two-year stint behind the Capitals bench had its share of ups and downs in the nation’s capital. The team’s return to the playoffs in 2003 was quickly wiped away one year later when Cassidy fell way to a hostile locker room full of intriguing personalities like Jaromir Jagr and Sergei Gonchar. The Bruins, interestingly enough, acquired Gonchar during the 2004 trade deadline, while Jagr arrived in Boston nearly a decade later.
The hostility between Cassidy and his players in DC was quite mutual. Former Caps and Hurricanes journeyman forward Bates Battaglia rehashed that time during an appearance on the Spittin Chiclets podcast. Safe to say that Cassidy and Battaglia haven’t mended fences since that tumultuous stint.
“Oh yeah, piece of [expletive] — tip to tail. Never liked that guy, Battaglia said. “I don’t know how he is still a coach. It boggles my mind — I honestly didn’t know he was still coaching. I randomly saw a highlight, as you can tell I don’t follow the [league] a whole lot. I watch some, but I am not a die hard, but I saw him on the screen and I couldn’t believe it. … It just shows how good Boston is, that they are playing [well despite] him.”
But even Cassidy, a former Chicago Blackhawks prospect, would tell you about his rough tenure in Washington. Heck, Cassidy didn’t even get another NHL coaching gig until February 2017 when Don Sweeney promoted him to interim bench boss after firing Claude Julien.
“I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin now than I was then. I was young,” Cassidy said as he celebrated his 54th birthday on Monday.
“I really hadn’t had any NHL experience — I was up in Chicago for bits and pieces. So you walk into an NHL locker room and to me there was still a little bit of awe in that role. You know, there’s guys like Gonchar, there’s Jagr and there’s guys who’ve been around [a long time]. So, it probably took me awhile to walk in there and say ‘this is what we’re doing today’ and have the confidence in communicating with that. So I think I’ve learned over the years to have that mentality a little bit more.”
A humbling experience, for sure, especially with more turmoil along the way. An assistant coaching stint in Chicago under Trent Yawney and a rough tenure with the Kingston Forniacs of the Ontario Hockey League didn’t improve his resume, either.
Cassidy landed in Providence as an assistant coach in 2008 a few months removed from leaving Kingston. He then received the head coach promotion two years later after the Bruins fired his Baby B’s predecessor, Rob Murray.
The proud Ottawa native turned the P-Bruins fortunes around in his five years at the helm. Torey Krug, David Pastrnak, Danton Heinen and countless other Bruins started their professional hockey careers under Cassidy as he smoothly established a pipeline to help younger talent get ready for the next level.
Slowly but surely, Cassidy also paved a path for his coaching future while learning a thing or two along the way.
“Listen, you’re around the game for an extra 15 years. You don’t learn that stuff [overnight],” Cassidy said following Monday’s practice. “So there’s different ways to communicate and different ways to see the game…how to use your staff, how to use your top end players that help you reach that common goal. So I think that was the biggest difference. A lot of newness back then and this time there’s a little more experience [for myself] at this level.”
Cassidy came prepared. And the Bruins haven’t looked back.
Yet, Cassidy didn’t have the smoothest transition to the head coaching with all the drama surrounding Julien’s departure. But he navigated the team through rough waters and guided them to a playoff berth after an 18-8-1 stint to end the 2016-17 season.
A Jack Adams Award nomination followed in 2017-18. And now here they are, under Cassidy, just four wins away from hoisting the franchise’s seventh Stanley Cup.
The two-and-a-half year run is a testament to Cassidy’s coaching perseverance. But he’s had plenty of help along the way, namely a stellar veteran core of captain Zdeno Chara (who returned to practice on Monday), four-time Selke winner Patrice Bergeron, a more mature Brad Marchand, a two-time postseason scoring leader in David Krejci, a former captain in David Backes and a 2014 Vezina Winner — and a heavy favorite for this year’s Conn Smythe Trophy — in Tuukka Rask.
“I think this leadership group is second to none. And I don’t know if I’ll ever have a group like this to work with,” Cassidy said. “I’ve said that probably since the second week I was on the job here. Those guys are fantastic, and they sure made my job easier.”
Cassidy sends the message. His veterans make sure the younger players listen to their coach, while also sharing their own advice along the way.
With experience comes wisdom. Cassidy has come a long way since his time in Washington. He’s the right guy to be leading the Bruins — young and old — into the Stanley Cup Final.
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