The Washington Capitals, their bench once directed by Bruce Cassidy, will be at the Garden Monday night in Act 2 of their Eastern Conference showdown with the Bruins, perhaps a prelude to a sizzling best-of-seven matchup in the spring.
Now Boston’s respected 54-year-old coach, Cassidy was only 37 when he landed the Capitals’ job, hired by general manager George McPhee after only six years of coaching in the minors, including a two-year starter tour with the ECHL Jackson Lizard Kings.
If Cassidy could go back today, what would he tell the 37-year-old rookie who inherited a Capitals team with veterans Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, and Olaf Kolzig?
“I guess what I’d tell him is be comfortable in your own skin,” said Cassidy, who was reassured about his standing in Boston when GM Don Sweeney signed him to a lucrative contract extension before the start of this season. “Treat the players as people first and players second. I think you learn that over the years.”
By his own admission, Cassidy in 2002 was “intimidated” by the group of veterans who dotted the Capitals’ lineup, in part because his own NHL playing career was so limited (36 games), hindered by a severe knee injury he suffered only days after being a first-round pick (No. 18) by the Blackhawks in 1983. He couldn’t boast the kind of bona fides that might have helped him win over the Capitals’ locker room.
Upon Cassidy’s arrival in D.C., Jagr was 30, with a pair of Stanley Cup titles won in Pittsburgh, and was about to start his second season as the headliner for a team desperate to establish playoff chops. Bondra, 34, was among the game’s most prolific scorers, with eight seasons with goal totals ranging from 31 to 52. Gonchar was 28 and among the NHL’s most offensively productive blue liners. Kolzig, 32, averaged nearly 70 games a season in the five years prior to Cassidy arriving and was two years removed from winning the Vezina Trophy.
And here was Cassidy, with zero NHL coaching experience, bereft of playing cred, trying to navigate through it all. Only weeks earlier, he was in Washington to interview for what he believed was one of the assistant coaching spots, after McPhee had dismissed coach Ron Wilson and assistants Tim Army and Tim Hunter. Instead, McPhee made Cassidy the boss.
“These guys are accomplished NHL players,” said Cassidy, recalling that he was aware of his shortcomings upon arriving in Washington. “I didn’t have much of an NHL career. It was my first NHL coaching job of any sort. So for me, I probably had some insecurity that I was battling through more than anything. I think I came off as being kind of aloof, but it was the opposite.”
In Boston, when he was promoted to head coach after less than a season on Claude Julien’s staff, Cassidy inherited Jay Pandolfo, Joe Sacco, and Bob Essensa as his assistant coaches. In D.C., he had Glen Hanlon and Randy Carlyle, neither of whom had an abundance of NHL coaching experience.
“Randy Carlyle was an accomplished guy, but he was new [in Washington], and so was Glen,” said Cassidy, dismissed in Washington less than halfway through his second season. “So probably could have done a better job there.”
Above all, stressed Cassidy, he learned the critical factor in succeeding is getting to know the players “as people first and players second.”
“I think you learn that over the years,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure with this type of job. And I think sometimes you come in thinking, ‘I’ve got to win, I’ve got to win every game,’ and you lose sight of the fact they are people, too. I’d say that would be the biggest difference I’ve kind of experienced in myself over, whatever it is now, 15 or 20 years.”
Getting to know the working help is a craft unto itself, one that has changed dramatically, especially from the media’s standpoint, over the last 20 years. Points of contact with players were more frequent and far less structured up through the 1980s and ’90s. Teams, especially the Bruins, typically welcomed traveling media members on team fights and buses, often leading to conversations (and stories) that had little to do about hockey and more about personality and personal interests. Airport luggage carousels and hotel lobbies acted as the water holes where stories flowed.
Today, the standard across the industry is to restrict the media’s time with players and coaches (Bruins assistants are not permitted to talk beyond NESN appearances). Flights and buses are off limits (beyond TV and radio right-holders here in the Hub of Hockey). Rather than chat leisurely in a hotel lobby, or in the gate area while a plane is de-iced, individual players are trotted out to speak in media scrums of varying size. It goes off with near-military precision, controlled, managed, and usually void of good story-telling marrow.
How do coaches today get to know the players?
“That’s a good challenge,” said Cassidy. “I think it’s just taking time with them every day, whether it’s in the medical room, the locker room, on the bus, in the lobby of the hotel . . . I’m not saying that you’re going to go out to dinner with players — coaches and players have their own thing — but it’s just in small conversations that have less to do about hockey and maybe more to do with families, or whatnot. Some of that just grows over time. You have kids. They have kids. So you have some common interests. So some of it evolves just over time.”
Overall, Cassidy learned it’s about connecting on a personal level and then getting players to commit to X’s, O’s, systems, and methodology (much of it the same throughout the league). It took him from December 2003 until February 2017 to regain an NHL head coaching job, and prior to weekend play his record with the Bruins was 138-59-30 (.674). He’s a long, long way from Washington.
Recovery now Thomas’s focus
Bill Zito, today the Blue Jackets’ assistant GM, was an agent in the early ’90s when he first met Tim Thomas, prior to the goalie’s highly successful University of Vermont days.
While the common perception of Thomas has long been that he thrived as an underdog, succeeding because of a well-placed chip on his shoulder, Zito always felt otherwise, believing his former client was motivated solely by competition and the desire to win.
“Like this one tournament he played in Finland,” Zito recalled. “He took a shot to the helmet, one of those old birdcage models, you know, with just no protection. Bad cut, split his forehead open, and it bled the whole game. Maybe he got stitches, but it didn’t stop bleeding . . . he played the whole game, the whole game, and the blood’s just dripping down between his eyes and down his face. Wouldn’t come out. And he was awesome. He had to win the game. It was, ‘Win the game! Win the game!’ Just how he was . . . the ultimate competitor.”
Two weeks ago, when being inducted into the USA Hockey Hall of Fame, Thomas noted for the first time in public his struggles with mental health, including a prolonged bout of depression and thoughts of suicide. Now 45, he has spent the better part of the last six years working diligently to regain clarity of thought and the ability to communicate and perform ordinary tasks.
“I’m so much better,” said the former Bruins goaltender. “But I wake up every day and basically have to reorder everything in my mind for the first couple of hours. Then make a list of things and try to make some choices to get some stuff done.”
All the competitive energy of his playing days, said Thomas, has been channeled elsewhere, though no longer to hunting, which was his previous No. 1 passion away from the rink.
“I have no problem with it,” he said, chuckling when adding, “Well, I wouldn’t have been safe with a gun or bow and arrow for a few years there, but . . . well, I would have been . . . I was still there somehow. But the interest I’ve developed really is learning about the stuff that has helped me to get better.”
High on his list of aids to recovery, said Thomas, has been his use of oxygen- and water-related therapies, and an understanding of how the human body reacts to electromagnetic energy.
Thomas on oxygen: “About two years ago, I started to come back to myself, so to speak. I did some oxygen therapy that started to help, started to wake me up, I guess, if that’s the right way to put it.”
Thomas on water: “Really, really good water. Ionic minerals that are so small in size that they can get into your cells . . . I’ve actually come to find out that you have to rebuild yourself from the ground up. There’s a lot about water an average person wouldn’t think about.’
While living for a short time along the Florida coast, walking barefoot on the beach became one of his therapies.
“Indigenous tribes are all barefoot,” he said. “They don’t deal with depression and all that other stuff. It might actually end up being because of the electromagnetic conductivity of the earth.”
Whatever is behind it all, be it science or be it simply his will to get better, it’s working for Thomas. He feels better. He is optimistic again. He said he went years with barely talking, feeling locked inside himself, confused, at times feeling too afraid even to check the balance in his bank account.
“When you have that type of head injury,” he said, referring to a concussion he suffered in December 2013, drilled by a shot during pregame warm-ups with Florida, “you’re constantly in [a state of] fight or flight. I’d go six months at a time without looking at my bank account. I was too afraid. But I was always pleasantly surprised when I did look.”
Upon leaving the USA Hockey Hall of Fame induction in Washington, Thomas returned to Phoenix, his current year-round residence. His life now is not one of defending 24 square feet of net, but one of building back his mind and overall well-being. Instead of a mind focused on competing, he proudly refers to himself as a survivor, and it’s obvious he’s been in a fight he never wanted.
“I ended up learning so many lessons out of the experience,” he said. “It brought me tighter with my family. It taught me a value for life . . . and a value for my brain that I never had before. And I have an appreciation for everything that I never had before.”
Playing it safe is what counts
One year ago last week, longtime Minnesota youth hockey coach Harv Graczyk died because of a traumatic brain injury he suffered when falling backward and smashing his head on the ice during a pee-wee team’s practice.
USA Hockey some 13 years ago mandated that all coaches wear helmets.
According to reports, Graczyk had his helmet on but failed to secure the chinstrap. When his skate caught a rut, Graczyk tumbled backward and his helmet flew off before his head struck the ice.
In the NHL, players are mandated to wear helmets on the ice at all times, including pregame warm-ups — a rule some players initially resisted.
“I can’t believe it took that long to bring that one along,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney. “Guys zinging ’em off the crossbar . . . pucks flying by your head.”
In his Boston playing days, recalled Sweeney, Bruins winger Randy Burridge barreled into then-coach Terry O’Reilly during a practice, O’Reilly banging his bare head badly against the ice.
In September, Cassidy, still healing after offseason knee replacement, was wiped out at the knees by a tumbling Alexander Petrovic. It took a minute or two for Cassidy to regain his feet and then skate away gingerly. Another reminder that the office is an ever-dangerous workplace.
Despite the risk of potentially catastrophic injury, NHL coaches do not wear helmets during on-ice workouts. Among the Bruins’ staff, ball caps with the Spoked-B logo are the standard wear. Skating coach Kim Brandvold opts for a tuque.
“I don’t,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, asked if he’d ever consider wearing a helmet. “I do for my kids’ practices because I have to. But the kids are a little more dangerous, running around not paying attention. It’s more that they’re under foot than pucks flying.
“I imagine at some point a coach will take a puck to the head in practice . . . we certainly do on the bench, in the line of fire . . . and that discussion will start. We try to stay out of the way. It may happen one day. I think coaches coming up are all used to it. As players we all wore helmets. But I think we’re probably all too cool right now to have to do that. But eventually, for your own safety, I’m sure it will get brought up.”
The Coyotes surrendered only prospects (three) and draft picks (two) this past week to acquire Taylor Hall. No headliners. No plug-and-plays for a New Jersey roster that needs help now. Meanwhile, it’s possible Hall falls in love with the desert and signs an eight-year uber free agent deal there on or before July 1. More likely he hits the open market, where one of the more aggressive suitors should be the Islanders. Boss Lou Lamoriello has plenty of cap space, even when considering he’ll have to roll out a big payday for dazzling forward Mathew Barzal, whose entry-level contract expires after this season . . . Zdeno Chara was set to play in his 992nd game as a Bruin on Saturday vs. Nashville. Provided Big Z stays healthy, he’ll hit the 1,000 mark in Black and Gold on Jan. 9 with the Winnipeg Jets in town. Chara thus will become only the second NHLer to log 1,000 games with one team after reaching the 500-game plateau elsewhere. The only other: Jumbo Joe Thornton, who played his first 532 in Boston. Headed into weekend play, he had 1,070 with the Sharks . . . As the weekend approached, 36-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk had yet to find a new NHL landing spot after having his contract terminated this past week by the Kings. Rare move in today’s NHL, but Kovalchuk’s numbers were, let’s say, tepid. He gets to walk with some $14 million total for a line of 19-24—43 in 81 games (not to mention his minus-36). Per one Kings insider: Kovalchuk’s work ethic was not the issue, but rather his adherence to coach Todd McLellan’s game plan. In other words, too much freelancing. Oh, and did we mention the minus-36? All that said, he likely lands elsewhere in the Original 31, but for very short money, maybe a token $1 million for summer fun back in Russia. The truth about Kovalchuk: His last outstanding year was 2007-08, when he potted 52 goals with the Thrashers. Otherwise, not worth the price or the bother.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.