ST. LOUIS — Bruce Cassidy sank into a chair in the Stifel Theatre, the 86-year-old building next to the Enterprise Center. He was watching the crew set up the stage for the media day.
It was his first time back in this city since June 9, when his Bruins beat the Blues, 5-1, in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. He had no hard feelings about this place.
“We won here. That wasn’t a problem,” Cassidy said. “Last time I left here I was in a great mood. When I left here, I thought I had a great chance to win the Cup.”
Everyone back home knows what happened next. Cassidy has no problem discussing it. He reviews those days with the calmness of a man who has been kicked before and responded.
Cassidy has overcome a lot in this game. A first round pick (18th overall in 1983, Chicago) who blew out his knee. There was the firing in Washington, another in the OHL (Kingston) and a comeback through the minors. He got another chance in the NHL — and after bringing the Bruins to the sport’s biggest stage, they were blown out in Game 7 at home.
Now Cassidy is here as the coach of the Atlantic Division All-Stars, tapped for his work with the first-place Bruins at the league’s midseason break. There’s no place he’d rather be.
Cassidy was twice an all-star coach in the IHL (1998 and 2000). What they’ll call him Friday and Saturday has a different ring.
“It sounds great,” he said. “I’m proud to represent the Bruins. It’s a reflection of the players. I get to go to the game because of their performance on the ice. It’s an honor for me.”
His two children, Cole, 9, and Shannon, 10, were waiting for him backstage as he chatted with a Globe reporter Thursday afternoon. They were about to watch their dad absorb the hockey glitz and glamour for the first time. A special treat awaited.
They were to head to the Enterprise Center ice Friday morning, at the NHL’s player-coach family skate, to meet the stars from the other teams. “They’re fortunate they have Pasta and Marsh and Bergy around the room,” Cassidy said of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. “But this will be different. Cole still talks about Pavel Datsyuk’s moves. It’s a great memory. Can you imagine skating around with these guys?”
Cassidy said he doesn’t stop and smell the roses too often. If he does, it’ll be in the summer. Being here, though, he was reflective.
As were those who have watched him grow.
His coach with the Ottawa 67s, Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Kilrea, remembered a young defenseman who didn’t say much, and didn’t have to.
“He was just so cool and easy with the puck,” said the 85-year-old Kilrea, recalling Cassidy’s 111 points in 70 games in his OHL debut, in 1982-83. “He knew where the puck was going on every shift.”
Anaheim general manager Bob Murray, his teammate in Chicago and the IHL, watched knee injuries limit what that mind could do on the ice.
“He couldn’t move anymore,” Murray said. “I know if I was that good — and he was really good — and it gets taken away from you, it’s going to hurt. That’s all we wanted to be as kids.”
When Cassidy was thinking of calling it quits and coaching in the mid ’90s, Murray consoled and counseled him.
“You feel bad for him, but you don’t want to say that,” Murray said. “If anything, I was hard on him. [Expletive] that, go and do it. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for you.”
Cassidy has earned his respect from the GM who fired him in Washington, Vegas president of hockey operations George McPhee.
“It didn’t mean he wasn’t a good coach, because he was, and he is,” McPhee said. “It’s a real credit for him to persevere the way he has.”
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, who has coached the Atlantic the last two years, saluted him, too.
“Know what I like? He’s straightforward, to the point, and honest,” Cooper said. “When I talk to him, I don’t see a guy [misleading] me. I appreciate that. He conducts himself like a pro. How he’s grown as a coach, especially having to work his way back from minors, I’ve got tons of respect for that.”
After Cassidy finishes this weekend — about the hardest coaching decision he’ll have to make is who will start Saturday’s All-Star 3 on 3 with David Pastrnak — he’ll enjoy a few more days with his family, then return to the grind. Lately he has injected the Bruins’ lineup with a touch of youth, alerting a group of holdovers from last year’s Cup Final that nothing is promised. Trades are likely to come, changing the team’s makeup. A coach is always moving, always tinkering, always thinking ahead.
Thursday, before he was about to soak in the All-Star experience, he took a moment to think way far ahead.
“I would love — love — it if you look back and say, ‘Hey, that guy was a coach for the Bruins,’ and the Bruins fans say, ‘He did a pretty good job,’ ” he said. “Because that’s been my team my whole life.
“This whole story, to be able to make a comeback, and to do it with Boston? It’s a little surreal. It could have been 30 different teams. Why Boston?
“People believe in what they believe in, but maybe the hockey gods said, ‘OK, maybe we took a little away from him with some knee injuries and some lousy medical care, but we’re going to give a little something later on.
“I believe that in life, you get out what you put in it. They probably thought, you know what, he worked hard, he coached the minor league team and did a decent job, let’s throw him a bone.
“I got an opportunity, I think I was ready for it, did a good job and got rewarded. It’s that simple. Me and a lot of guys.”