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Tara Sullivan

The Bruins and Celtics have the best records in their leagues, but do coaches Jim Montgomery and Joe Mazzulla have anything else in common?

Jim Montgomery didn't try to reinvent the wheel when he took over as coach of the Bruins.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As the NBA and NHL seasons got under way at TD Garden, Jim Montgomery and Joe Mazzulla had little more in common than a home address.

Boston’s newest head coaches had moved into the building amid similarly surprising situations, hired after the dismissals of their predecessors, Bruce Cassidy and Ime Udoka. Yet as much as they were bonded by circumstance — taking over well-built, win-now teams looking to get over a championship hump — their personalities didn’t seem to reveal much else that made them alike.

Then they started coaching.

And as they have led their teams to dominant starts, in being named to coach in their leagues’ recent All-Star Games while each bringing along two of their players, Montgomery and Mazzulla have displayed many of the same coaching qualities, profiles of leadership and tactical know-how that have both as vegasinsider.com’s favorites to win Coach of the Year honors.

A flashback to a tumultuous offseason reminds us this was never guaranteed.


Here was Montgomery, moving into his office via Second Chance Way, the Bruins being the first team willing to step up to hire him as a head coach after he was fired by the Dallas Stars in 2019 as he dealt with treatment for alcoholism. The 53-year-old native of Canada, who won a national championship as a collegian at Maine, played for five NHL teams before working his way up the coaching ladder from college to the pros. Management’s decision to axe the hard-driving Cassidy in favor of a coach they believed would have a softer touch was risky, given Cassidy’s success.

And here was Mazzulla, whose opportunity to take over the Celtics was more of an unexpected drive down First Chance Boulevard, his elevation from little-known, back-bench assistant taking Boston and the NBA by surprise. The 34-year-old Rhode Islander, who reached an NCAA Final Four as a guard for West Virginia, did not play professionally and began his coaching career at Division 2 Glenville State and then Fairmont State, before becoming a Celtics assistant in 2019. Udoka’s unceremonious exit, spurred by inappropriate workplace conduct, seemed to call for a veteran, steady hand if the franchise intended to clear the Finals hurdle Udoka missed by a mere two wins. But the front office put its chips behind Mazzulla.


Here they are, heading into their respective Saturday night games with the NHL’s and NBA’s best records, the Bruins winning their fifth straight Thursday in Seattle to improve to 44-8-5 and the Celtics taking Indiana in overtime the same night for a league-best 43rd win.

Few expected Joe Mazzulla to be in this position, a bit like Jim Montgomery not so long ago.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

And if you ask the coaches, none of it is about them. From the start, both Montgomery and Mazzulla made it clear how much talent they knew they inherited, consistently crediting their rosters for the success. With the return of Patrice Bergeron from potential retirement, with the quick return from surgery of Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy, with the ongoing brilliance of David Pastrnak, Montgomery started with a solid locker room. So did Mazzulla, whose familiarity with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Al Horford paved the way for a smooth transition.

But this smooth? It’s a credit to coaching styles that do have their foundations set in kindred ways. Start here: Neither tried to reinvent the wheel.

As Montgomery pointed out in an interview back in November, when he had a chance to speak with Mazzulla before the Celtics took the court, both coaches stuck with defensive approaches that worked well a season ago, while both tried to punch up their offenses. The result?


“They’re scoring at levels they haven’t scored at and so are we,” Montgomery said. “There’s a lot of similarities in the way we both have approached taking over new teams and the results have been dynamite for both teams.”

Their approaches mirror each other: “I know [Montgomery] talks a lot about spacing,” Mazzulla said. “I know he talks about getting less shots but getting more quality shots. So just found a correlation to the things he’s doing with the Bruins now and what we’re doing.”

Beyond the X’s and O’s, both men have demonstrated a willingness to listen to their locker room leaders. For Montgomery, that meant hearing Bergeron and Co. when they made it clear they didn’t back the controversial signing of minor leaguer Mitchell Miller. For Mazzulla, it meant keeping the space open to heal from the loss of Udoka, very much beloved by his players.

On the list goes — both coaches make it clear they value every last player on the bench, finding quality minutes for everyone backed by a belief it will be needed come playoff time. The way Montgomery trusts both goalies Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman is much the same as the way Mazzulla trusts Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White to carry important minutes. Both focus on coaching the person as much as they do the player, knowing players are more empowered than ever to use their voices off the fields of play. It was heard in the way Mazzulla addressed his All-Star team before that recent exhibition.


“The reason why I came into the league was to let people know and build a platform of how great of people you are,” Mazzulla said in a video shared by the NBA. “You guys don’t get enough credit. People judge you by your basketball and I want to try to help change that for you. And so, the person that you guys are, you’re just as important and I like the individual empowerment. I think that’s important.”

With empowerment comes accountability, and that’s another aspect the coaches share, with a willingness to be vulnerable in sharing their own mistakes of the past and owning up to them, and sharing how they worked to better themselves. For Mazzulla, a college arrest that included a domestic battery charge for allegedly grabbing a woman by the neck at a bar moved him to seek counseling and deepen his faith.

First chance or second, both are making the most of what they have in Boston. Rare is the rookie coach who wins a championship — the NBA’s Paul Westhead, Pat Riley, Steve Kerr, Tyronn Lue, and Nick Nurse have done it in the post-merger era — rarer still is the same city pulling off the NBA/NHL championship double. Amateur research shows that since the NBA was founded in 1946, eight cities have had teams play for NBA and NHL titles in the same season, but none has accomplished it.


Now that would be a cool thing to have in common.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her @Globe_Tara.