Inside job: Bruins’ success starts in the locker room
Bruce Cassidy lives under the hood. Though the Bruins coach settles on his lineup come playoff time, he loves to tinker with his group, moving pieces around to see what fits. Even two days before the Stanley Cup Final, he suggested that down the road, he could play a winger as a defenseman.
There is one area of his team he won’t touch: The room. Other than a few speeches here and there, he doesn’t have to.
The locker stalls around the Spoked-B are not exactly a model United Nations. They are filled, however, with players ages 21 to 42, from six countries: 14 Americans, four Canadians, two Slovaks, two Swedes, two Czechs, and one Finn. Like any collection of two dozen adults, they have interests both divergent and common.
Brad Marchand is an avid bowhunter. David Backes is passionate about animal rights. Charlie McAvoy surfs. Zdeno Chara cycles. David Krejci plays tennis. Tuukka Rask plays the drums.
Jake DeBrusk, among several others, is a gamer; he prefers Fortnite, while Sean Kuraly plays Madden with Chris Wagner, and others play NHL. Backes, Brandon Carlo, and several others are united by their shared Christian faith. At least a dozen spend their free time parenting young children, with Torey Krug soon to join their ranks.
To a man, everyone knows his way around a golf course. (It is a hockey team, after all.)
It is a conscientious, intelligent, mature group that is considerably short on one quality:
“For lack of a better way to put it,” defenseman John Moore said, “there’s no [boneheads].”
That no-jerks policy has long been in place, and it is a major reason this Stanley Cup Final is being hosted on Causeway Street.
“I think you could airdrop any two or three guys on our team together in one place and they’ll get along fine,” Cassidy said. “It’s just the way they are. I think it’s the reason we’ve had success, too. Guys want to play for one another.”
Part of that is the nature of the game. Hockey teams don’t make it far without players such as Wagner, who didn’t think twice of dropping in front of a Justin Faulk slapper in Game 3 of the Carolina series. His right arm paid the price. The examples of that are legion. Those in the room believe it comes from the top.
The tireless Chara, in his 13th season as Boston’s captain, demands sacrifice in the gym, not just on the ice. In the room, he doesn’t use the word “rookie,” instead referring to “younger guys and older guys,” or just “teammates.” He abhors the sports culture that separates established players from newbies. He wants no divide.
“I’ve been saying that for a long time, we are treating everybody the same way, no matter if he’s 18 or 40, or somebody has 1,000 games or playing his first game,” he said. “We treat each other with respect, same way as everybody else in the locker room.”
There is decorum, but they’re still having a blast. The split squad that went to China in the preseason quaffed Tsingtao lagers at the summit of the Great Wall, and had a cooler handy for the traffic-choked bus ride back. What happened at the rookie party in February will stay in Vegas, but everyone saw them dressed to the nines as “Peaky Blinders” at the Winter Classic. There’s side action on any number of events, especially for college hockey weekend series.
Nearly every player on the team has worn letters at the elite stops in their careers, including Marcus Johansson (an alternate in New Jersey last year), and multi-year college captains Krug (Michigan State), Matt Grzelcyk (BU), and Kevan Miller (Vermont). Noel Acciari (Providence), Kuraly (Miami), Connor Clifton (Quinnipiac), and Karson Kuhlman (Minnesota-Duluth) all wore the “C” for their schools.
They are following the example set by Chara, as respected as any player of his generation, and Patrice Bergeron, who would undoubtedly be a longtime captain if not for Big Z’s arrival in 2006. That year, at age 21, he was given an “A.”
They have help from Backes, who captained the Blues for five seasons before signing here in 2016; from Krejci, who earned an “A” in 2013; and from Marchand, who was promoted this season. Rask, a Bruin since 2006, is universally appreciated.
With those bedrocks in place, Cassidy, a third-year Bruins coach in his first Final, has had the relative luxury of using the 10-day layoff before Game 1 to worry about St. Louis’s systems and personnel. Chara and Bergeron, part of the six-man group that reached the Final in 2013 (with Marchand, Krejci, Rask, and Krug) have coached their less-experienced teammates on how to prepare.
“I think this leadership group is second to none,” Cassidy said. “I don’t think I’ll ever have, wherever this career takes me, a group like this to work with. I’ve said that since probably the second week on the job here. Those guys are fantastic.”
Weymouth-raised center Charlie Coyle, who arrived home in a February deal with Minnesota, has felt at home since he got a call from Bergeron and Chara the day of the trade.
“Everyone’s a good person around here,” he said. “Everyone’s easy to talk to. They do it right here.”
In part because they are encouraged to, the next wave of leaders — McAvoy, Carlo, DeBrusk, Grzelcyk, and David Pastrnak — have injected new energy into the room. They’ve even gotten some of their older teammates to pick up the controller.
“On the road, we have our own banquet room,” DeBrusk said. “We’ll have a TV posted up there, some Xbox, some poker chips, ping-pong even. Everyone’s in there usually, all mixed together.”
It is essential for a team trying to win now, and win later. Before older players decline and retire, they pass on the traditions, the values, the culture. The Bruins’ foundation continues to be rock-solid.
“Everyone has the freedom to be their own person, but at the same time everyone’s vision and focus is pretty singular,” said Moore, with his fifth NHL organization. “It’s in stark contrast to other teams I’ve been on, which, not surprisingly, didn’t have the success we’ve had this year.”
Even if they had nothing in common besides hockey, they could always talk golf. Everyone plays, and Krejci and Wagner are widely considered the top talents. The weather has been great around here lately, but no one’s picked up an iron of late.
First, they want to lift something made of silver.