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Silver Lining

Oct 13, 2023
Written By: Mark Newman

After losing his job in Boston, former Griffins head coach Bruce Cassidy rolled the dice by going to Vegas and managed to collect his first Stanley Cup title in the process.

Photo by Getty Images

Ask Vegas Golden Knights head coach Bruce Cassidy about his summer and his response is entirely predictable for something that, at least in his case, seemed so short and sweet.

Needless to say, Cassidy was overjoyed that he was able to bring the Stanley Cup home to his Cape Cod summer getaway, especially after spending the previous 14 seasons in the Boston Bruins organization.

"Yeah, it was pretty good – no complaints," said Cassidy, in an obvious understatement. "You never know how things are going to work out, but things worked out pretty well. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

"You don't know what's in front of you sometimes and here we are talking about the Stanley Cup a year later. I'm very proud to be the first coach to bring the Stanley Cup to Vegas."

At age 58, Cassidy became the oldest head coach to win his first Stanley Cup, edging out John Muckler, who won the Cup at age 56 with the Edmonton Oilers in 1990. Barry Trotz, the third-oldest, was just short of his 56th birthday when the Washington Capitals captured the Cup in 2018.

"I was surprised when I read that because I don't feel that old," Cassidy said "I mean, it was satisfying, but I don't know if it really matters what age you are when you win it. It has been a quest, certainly a long quest, let's put it that way."

Cassidy became the first former Griffins head coach to win hockey's most coveted chalice. It's been more than two decades since Cassidy was learning the ropes in Grand Rapids, where he posted a 95-49-11-7 record in two seasons (2000-01 and 2001-02).

"It's extremely satisfying," he said, reflecting on his route to becoming a Stanley Cup champion. "You never know if you're ever going to see the finish line, so I would say it's been very, very satisfying."

His journey to the Cup was hardly a straight line.

Following his stint with the Griffins, he lasted less than a season and a half in his first go-round as an NHL head coach, with Washington. He spent a season as an NHL assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks, then decided to reboot his Cup dreams by going back to junior hockey.

Cassidy was head coach of the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs (2006-08) before becoming an assistant coach with the AHL's Providence Bruins. After three years as an assistant, he served as the head coach for the next five in Providence.

He was promoted to the NHL as an assistant in Boston for 2016-17, becoming a mid-season replacement as head coach that same year. He proceeded to take the NHL's Bruins to six straight playoff appearances, including the Stanley Cup Final in 2019.

When Boston got knocked out of the first round of the 2022 playoffs, Bruins management decided a change was needed and gave Cassidy his walking papers. The Vegas Golden Knights, meanwhile, fired coach Peter DeBoer after failing to make the playoffs for the first time in their short five-year history.

For Cassidy, going to Vegas presented an opportunity for a fresh start with an organization that had been able to reach the Stanley Cup Final in its very first season but had failed to get that close again.

"We both had some unfinished business," he said. "I lumped myself in with them because I lost in the Final in Game 7 the year after them. I think we shared that 'close but not good enough' mentality. That was part of it."

One of Cassidy's first moves after landing the job was to reach out to Vegas superstar Jack Eichel, who had been acquired by the Golden Knights in a blockbuster trade with Buffalo. Eichel had grown disgruntled in Buffalo after the Sabres had refused to allow him to have disk replacement surgery for a neck injury he had suffered the previous year.

"It was a matter of Jack had been the centerpiece of a big move by the organization the year before," Cassidy said. "He had his surgery and although it wasn't his start with the team, it was going to be the start of a new year.

"I knew him a bit from Boston because he had skated with some of our guys, so I knew him to say hello. We met at a coffee shop in the middle of nowhere, so we could just sit and talk as equals – obviously, 'I'm your coach, you're a star player' – but it was an opportunity to get to know each other a little and talk about expectations."

Cassidy felt it was important to take the first step to make sure they were on the same page. He had done something similar before taking the Washington job years earlier, when he flew to the Czech Republic to meet with Capitals star Jaromir Jagr.

He felt Eichel could be the cornerstone of what he was looking to build in Vegas.

"I thought it'd be important that we sit down and talk about what we could do for each other because I felt we were tied together," Cassidy said. "I was new there and he was basically new, too, so what does he need from me and 'here's what I expect from you.' It was two hockey guys talking."

Cassidy convinced Eichel that it would be in his best interest to become a solid 200-foot center. Getting Eichel to augment his playmaking skills with sound, defensive hockey would help Cassidy sell his defense-first philosophy to the rest of the team.

Strong defensive play had long been a hallmark of Cassidy-coached teams, even back to his years in Grand Rapids. The 2001-02 Griffins allowed the fewest goals in the AHL and his 2000-01 team had finished with the second-fewest in the IHL, just three goals more than the league leader.

"I was an offensive defenseman when I played and I certainly love that part of the game, but I also won two championships as a player. In Ottawa with the 67s, we had a high-end offensive coach in Brian Kilrea, yet we won because we had a really good, stout defense, and the same was true with Darryl Sutter when we won in Indy.

"I had learned that even though offense is a lot more fun, you're not gonna win if you can't defend, so I've always carried that with me. I've always felt that if you play good defense, you're in the game because good defense leads to good offense.

"It was a big reason why we were successful in Boston and it's why we won it all last year."

The 2022-23 Vegas Golden Knights got off to an impressive 13-2 start under Cassidy, who quickly managed to get his message across.

"First of all, you have the players' attention because the previous coach got fired and they missed the playoffs, right? So they're looking at you as the new voice," he said. "As a team, they knew they didn't meet their own expectations, no matter who the coach was.

"Secondly, I think there was a mutual respect – for the team, for what they'd accomplished and, as a coach, because they respected the success we had in Boston. So it was probably like, 'Okay, we want to hear him out. We want to hear what he has to say and how he wants to play.'

"Typically, you need to have success early. Otherwise, they're going to look at you like, 'well, this isn't working.' And so when we started 13-2, they were like, 'OK, this is working for us. We can do this,' and off we went from there."

Cassidy referred to the Golden Knights as an "imperfect team" at different times throughout the season, but they were close enough to perfect when it counted.

Vegas had finished the regular season with the fifth-best record in the league. The team was 14th in scoring and 11th in goals against. The team's power play ranked 18th and the penalty kill was 19th. The Golden Knights didn't have a player inside the top 70 for league-wide scoring.

"As a coach, you’re always thinking you have to be up here all the time [but] there are a lot of highs and lows," Cassidy said. "You just have to find your game at the right time, and we were able to do that. What we did very well was we made the plays we needed to make at just the right times.

“We were close to perfect in the second period of Game 5 [to clinch the Stanley Cup against Florida],” he said. “Game 6 in Dallas. The second period in the clinching game in Edmonton. The third period [of Game 5] in Winnipeg. All four clinching games, I thought we dominated.”

Indeed, the Golden Knights outscored their opponents in close-out games by an astounding 24-6 margin.

"We didn't get lucky," Cassidy said. "No team could say, 'Oh, there's a bad call. They scored a lucky one.' We didn't luck out in any of those games because when it was time to put the hammer down, we did. We could really be dominant at the times we needed to be and it showed in those lopsided games."

Of course, Cassidy knows things don't always work out the way you planned.

Cassidy, who was coaching the Griffins during the organization's three-year affiliation with the NHL's Ottawa Senators, believes both of his teams in Grand Rapids were capable of winning it all. The Griffins claimed the IHL's final regular season championship in 2000-01 before losing in the conference finals, then won a second straight division crown in 2001-02 during the team's inaugural AHL campaign.

"I had two good situations with two different teams," he said, giving credit to the rosters built those years by Senators general manager Marshall Johnson in tandem with Griffins general manager Bob McNamara.

"That first year we had a veteran team but Orlando beat us, and that always bothered me because I thought we had the team to win and I always wonder what I could have done differently. The next year we had a younger team and I felt like I did a lot to get them to play together. We had a good year, but we lost to Chicago when they got all those players back from their Atlanta affiliation, and that changed the whole dynamic of the series."

Cassidy said he has many good memories of being in Grand Rapids.

"I enjoyed coaching there," he said. "When the team was going to [an affiliation with] Detroit, my situation was coming up –– was I going to stay with Ottawa or was I going to go to Detroit – but then I got hired by Washington, so in the end, it didn't matter."

He has stayed in contact with a number of Griffins over the years.

"One of the guys I've kept in touch with a lot is Rob Snitzer, our medical therapist, because I spent a lot of time with Snitzy there," Cassidy said. "I still talk to Danton Cole and Gene Reilly, the two assistants during my time there.

"I still talk to Derek King, who is now an assistant coach in Chicago. I always have lots of time for him. I always enjoyed coaching Travis Richards. He worked hard with the younger guys and I know he's running a rink back in Grand Rapids now.

"Hugo Boisvert reached out to me because he got into coaching. When your players start getting into coaching, that's when you know you're getting old. Petr Schastlivy was a young guy when I coached him and he still texts me a lot. He's in Florida now. I wrote a letter on his behalf to help him with his citizenship.

"You cross paths with different guys over the years and some you talk to more than others, but I have good memories of both teams." Coincidentally, he shared the Cup victory with Vegas head equipment manager Chris Davidson-Adams, a West Michigan native who served as Grand Rapids' assistant equipment manager during Cassidy's second season with the Griffins.

Cassidy admits that while his coaching philosophy has generally stayed the same over the years, his coaching style may have changed.

"I used to demand a lot from myself, to get the team to play a certain way, and I learned you don't have to be perfect to win all all the time. If you play well at the right moments and dig in when you start to slip, it's OK.

"I had to learn to be a little more understanding and show patience that these things happen. You have to keep working through it. In the moment, as a coach, you don't always like what you see but you have to be able to see the big picture.

"I've learned to become a little less affected by what's immediately going on. You still let the players know that certain things are unacceptable, but you also understand as a coach that they're human. You're not going to get everything you want all the time. That's just life.

"As you get older, you tend to roll with things a little better, I guess."

And now, Cassidy is facing a whole new challenge. For the first time, he is in the enviable position of leading a team that is the defending Stanley Cup champion.

"I've talked to a few coaches, but at the end of the day, I think we have a good plan in place," Cassidy said. "You hear people talk about teams having 'a window' but I do not believe that for one second.

"We're an experienced team, but I wouldn't consider us an old team. We're not this cap-mangled team – we have been able to retain most of our guys, so let's just roll right into it like two seasons into one. We have the right people in place, so let's keep the same winning mentality.

"There are always situations where you overestimate how good you are. Everyone usually feels good about their team in September. I think it's going to play out well for us, but we won't know for sure until we start playing.

"We didn't miss a beat last year and that's a credit to everybody. We didn't luck our way through any of the series. I thought we were the better team in every series. And I think if you ask the people we played against, they would say the same. I thought we earned our way."

So if the hockey gods have his back, Cassidy will be happy to celebrate another feat – becoming the oldest coach in NHL history to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in his first try.

"That," Cassidy smiled, "would be nice."