Before taking the Boston Bruins to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, ex-Griffins head coach Bruce Cassidy spent eight seasons in the AHL, rebuilding his resume following an ill-fated introduction to the NHL with the Washington Capitals.
Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Getty Images
The American Hockey League teaches many things. Among the more important is patience.
There are no guarantees – the proverb of “all good things come to he who waits” does not necessarily apply here – but if you put in your work and excel, you can certainly improve your chances of being rewarded with a promotion to the NHL.
Few NHL coaches know the odds better than Boston Bruins bench boss Bruce Cassidy, the ex-Griffins head coach who spent eight seasons in the AHL with Providence after an ill-fated introduction with the Washington Capitals.
Cassidy has guided the Bruins to three consecutive playoff appearances, including last season when Boston came within one win of the Stanley Cup, dropping Game 7 by a 4-1 margin to the St. Louis Blues. Boston rewarded Cassidy with a multi-year contract extension this past summer.
A former first-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, Cassidy made the most of his two seasons coaching in Grand Rapids (2000-02), leading the Griffins to consecutive playoff appearances and in the process establishing himself as one of the most highly regarded young coaching talents in the sport.
“I have good memories of Grand Rapids,” Cassidy said this past summer while recovering from knee replacement surgery. “Bob McNamara was the GM and he was a good guy to work for. We had two different teams during my time there.
“The first year was a veteran team in the IHL with a lot more older guys. We lost to Orlando in the playoffs, which was disappointing because I thought we were one of the best teams in the league during the regular season.”
In fact, the Griffins tallied a league-high 113 points during the IHL’s 2000-01 campaign and compiled a 53-22-4-3 record.
“My second year we were a lot younger with 11 or 12 rookies and playing in the AHL,” he said. “Again, we had a very good team. We won the league goals-against title with three young goalies (Ottawa prospects Martin Prusek, Simon Lajeunesse and Mathieu Chouinard), but lost in the first round to Chicago. The Wolves got five guys back from Atlanta for the playoffs and those guys made a big difference and they ended up winning the title.”
Despite the disappointing postseasons, Cassidy has nothing but good to say about his stay in Grand Rapids.
“My time there was a lot of positives, no negatives,” he said. “I loved the fans in Grand Rapids. We had good support in a good building for a minor league team. We made a lot of good friends with whom we’ve kept in touch.”
His successful two-year run with the Griffins provided Cassidy with his first NHL coaching opportunity. He took over a veteran Washington team that would qualify for the playoffs with a 39-29-8–6 record during the 2002-03 season. But his relationship with some of the veteran players eventually soured and he was fired after the Capitals stumbled to an 8-16-1 start the second season under his helm.
Looking back, Cassidy realizes that his inexperience may have been his downfall. “When I left Grand Rapids, I was 37 years old and I had been coaching only six years,” he said. “All of a sudden, I found myself in the NHL, so things happened in a hurry.”
The Capitals would eventually finish with the third-worst record in the NHL, but they won the draft lottery and chose Alexander Ovechkin with the first overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
Cassidy found another NHL job two seasons later, working as an assistant coach with the Chicago Blackhawks, but his contract was not renewed after the Blackhawks missed the 2006 playoffs. Thanks to the team’s poor finish, Cassidy’s former team again secured a draft lottery pick following his departure, selecting Jonathan Toews with the third overall pick.
He subsequently became head coach of the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs, a detour into junior hockey that he now sees as ill-timed for his career. He ultimately decided the proper path back to the NHL led through the AHL and landed a job in Providence.
In all, Cassidy spent eight years with the Bruins’ AHL team, the first three as an assistant coach and the next five as the head coach.
His time in the AHL was well-spent. Cassidy honed his craft, not only sharpening his coaching techniques and tricks of the trade but also enhancing his empathy and understanding of the player psyche as well as ways to manage and motivate players.
“Obviously the Xs and Os change over time, but coaching is more about dealing with people than Xs and Os, to be honest,” he said. “It’s all those things you learn as you get older, the general things you learn in life, as well as hockey.
“With experience, you learn how to handle different scenarios – what to do to get out of a losing streak, how to keep the guys focused when winning, how to bounce back from a tough loss in the playoffs. Over the years, you go through a lot of different experiences. You learn patience and you learn balance.”
Coaching in the AHL helped Cassidy get his career back on the right track. Out of the NHL spotlight, he tinkered with everything from perfecting power play blueprints to exercising new strategies in bench management.
“What I liked about the AHL is how different scenarios would pop up,” he said. “You can practice all week, feel like you’ve got your power play all ready and then you get a call from Boston and they’re short a couple of guys now, so they’re going to take the guys who were key to your power play.
“Suddenly you’re faced with trying to reconstruct your power play and I enjoyed that part of it. You learn to do a lot of things on the fly.”
The AHL provides fertile ground for experimentation.
“Bench management is the AHL is less scrutinized. If you want to change lines, make a centerman a winger, if you want to try some different things, it’s not going to be written about like in the NHL,” he said. “Coaching in the AHL allows you to think outside the box.”
Cassidy also enjoyed working with the young players who are the lifeblood of the league.
“If you can’t teach down there, you’re going nowhere because all these young guys come in with some habits that need to be corrected,” he said. “The AHL is certainly a place that teaches you patience in that regard.”
The AHL, in other words, is a great training ground for players and coaches who aspire to reach the NHL.
“Some players are fortunate to make it to the NHL right away, but I think every player can benefit from time in the AHL,” Cassidy said. “And from a coaching standpoint, I think most coaches can benefit from coaching at that level, too.”
Cassidy never worried that he might get stuck in the AHL but he did wonder.
“I didn’t know if I was destined to be an AHL coach the rest of my life, but I knew I wanted to be a head coach,” he said. “I enjoyed my time in Providence, but I always hoped that I would get a second chance. That’s human nature.
“So I didn’t sweat it. I knew there were other opportunities to get back to the NHL as an assistant and if I eventually got tired of riding the buses in the AHL, I might have pursued one of those assistant jobs. I’m just fortunate that it worked out for me.”
By the time he was promoted to Boston, Cassidy felt like he knew Bruins well because a number of the players – Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller and Tuukka Rask, among others – had played for him in Providence.
Cassidy’s transition to being an NHL head coach for the second time was also eased by the fact that the Bruins were led by a strong group of veterans who recognized what was required for success.
“(Zdeno) Chara and (Patrice) Bergeron had won a Cup in Boston and they remain among the hardest working guys on the team,” he said. “If you’re a smart coach, you recognize that you’ve got to let them have the room and you encourage them to do a good job so you can focus on other things.”
The second time around, Cassidy tried to be honest with himself and his players.
“I think you can be yourself coaching at any level – in fact, I would recommend it,” he said. “When I went to Boston from Providence, I thought I coached the same way that I had in the AHL, but I was much more comfortable in my skin because I had been up there before and I had coached a lot of the guys when they had been in Providence. There was a familiarity that helped the process and when you have the backing of your players, it helps a lot.”
The 2018-19 NHL season will forever remain a memorable one for Cassidy.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget Game 7,” he said. “You go through in your head the things you could have done differently. You try to learn from every experience, good and bad, but it doesn’t take away the sting of losing (in Game 7). It will always be there, especially if you never get back, but I’m an optimist. Things happen for a reason.
“We had a lot of great moments last season, starting with opening our year in China. We played The Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium and we won that game. We came back against Toronto in the first round by winning Game 6 and Game 7. We experienced too many great things last year to flush them all down the toilet.”
Cassidy is doing his best to focus on this season, not last season.
“It’s healthy to unplug during the summer, so I haven’t been sitting in front of the computer every day, trying to fix that one game. I’m smart enough to know that a lot of different things can happen in a game. You just hope your players are better prepared and ready to do enough right things the next time they’re there – that’s it.”
Cassidy has compiled a 117-52-22 record in 191 games since taking over the Bruins, and Boston’s 256 points over that span are second-most behind only the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning.
He hopes he is building a legacy in Boston.
“I’ve heard coaches say anybody can have one good year – it’s consistency that matters,” he said. “If you want to be considered among the better people at your craft, you’ve got to build that consistency. You’ve got to keep your team at the top and a lot goes into it. I just want to do my part.”