- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 4, 2002

Bruce Cassidy's first step on the road to becoming the new coach of the Washington Capitals was a misstep. Actually, it was a collision during a game of ball hockey, which is like regular hockey except that it's played with a ball on concrete and the players wear sneakers instead of skates.
Like a lot of kids growing up in one of the blue-collar neighborhoods of Ottawa's west side, Cassidy was a rink rat. Hockey year-round, which meant ball hockey in the summer, every summer, even after he became a member of the Chicago Blackhawks organization. This was in 1984, a year after Chicago picked Cassidy 18th in the first round.
Cassidy, a lefty defenseman, spent his first pro season with his old junior team, the Ottawa 67s. He was 19, primed for bigger things.
"I was on a breakaway, and a guy dove trying to knock the ball away," Cassidy recalled, as if it happened yesterday. "And he got my knee with his shoulder. I heard a pop."
That was the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee snapping.
There was a torn medial collateral ligament and cartilage damage, too. The Chicago team doctor, the late Louis Kolb, cleaned out the loose cartilage but chose not to operate on the ligaments, which would have caused Cassidy to miss the upcoming season. Kolb believed the injury would heal on its own. The MCL healed, but the ACL, the knee's primary stabilizer, did not. "He gave me bad advice," Cassidy said.
With the knee still weak, Cassidy hurt it again the next year. He was kicking a football, killing time between ice sessions during a summer camp back in Ottawa. Cassidy eventually had reconstructive surgery, performed by the Toronto Maple Leafs' doctor, but the damage was done. During the next two years, he played in one NHL game, four in the minors, 28 in junior hockey. Eventually, Cassidy injured the other knee and underwent four operations in all.
"I joke around and call myself a bust," he said. "But I had four knee surgeries, three at a young age. I was 6 feet, 190 pounds, and I had to get by on agility and smarts and hands. I was never fast, but I could get in and out of traffic."
After the first injury, "I lost a lot of lateral movement," he said. "I never came back."
It is impossible to predict what might have happened had Cassidy not gotten hurt. But probably, his NHL career would have lasted more than 36 games. Probably, he would not have played in the American Hockey League, International Hockey League and in Europe before being told in 1996 that he was through, then gone on to coach in the IHL and something called the East Coast Hockey League.
Probably, at 37, Cassidy would not be the second-youngest coach in the NHL.
"Things happen for a reason," he said.

During the introductory news conference at the MCI Center last week, Caps owner Ted Leonsis couldn't resist pointing out that Bruce "Butch" Cassidy is a handsome man. Couldn't hurt in marketing, Leonsis said, noting that some have said Cassidy resembles actors Rob Lowe and Keanu Reeves (One opinion: Lowe, yes; Reeves, no).
"Women always came up to him," said friend Brian Noonan, who played with and for Cassidy. "That's why I hung with him. They'd bounce off him and come to me, I guess."
Noonan said Cassidy never sought the attention. He'd just sit there. "That's his style, I guess," Noonan said. "He'd rather have a few beers with the guys than chase."
So don't hate him because he's good-looking. Noonan describes Cassidy as a quiet, regular, beer-drinking guy with a dry sense of humor that borders on the sarcastic. He works hard at his job, and he is smart. Those who knew him as a player and minor league coach say that. He was recruited by Ivy League schools. After three years in Europe, he knew how to speak Italian. He already knew French because his mother, Louise, made Cassidy and his older brother, Steve, attend a French grammar school in Ottawa.
He even has a sensitive side. He knows the fact he is recently separated from his wife of nearly 12 years, Lisa, will be reported. "But it's not a 'this kid finally makes it to the NHL and dumps his wife' thing," he said, and wants people to know that.
The real key to Cassidy might be his confidence. Not a bold, "I'm gonna do this" confidence, but a better kind. It's just there. Like when he was asked about his father, Leonard, a machinist for a paper company who died at age 52 in 1985. Cassidy said the two got along but were not particularly close, adding, "I was more of a momma's boy, I guess." It takes a fairly confident person to make that sort of admission, especially as a new coach in a distinctively rough-and-tumble and judgmental sport.
It also takes a fairly confident person to accept this job, given his experience as an NHL player (little) and coach (none). Yes, Cassidy said, he was a little unsteady when he was first contacted by Caps general manager George McPhee. But he quickly got over it.
"I'm not gonna lie to you," Cassidy said. "I wondered if I was ready. But then we met and talked, and I realized how comfortable I was. I thought, 'You know you can handle yourself. You know the game. You can coach.'"
Cassidy, known for changing his style to fit his players (not vice-versa, as some coaches) was the AHL coach of the year last season. Despite numerous injuries and call-ups, he guided Grand Rapids to the best record in the league. "He played to our strengths," Grand Rapids GM Bob McNamara said. "We had the best goaltender and a veteran defense. We had been a pretty high-powered team, but late in the season we didn't have a lot of firepower, and we won a lot games 1-0 and 2-0. Because he adjusted."
Whether in Grand Rapids or Trenton or Indianapolis or Jacksonville before that, "he's shown a propensity for getting the most out of each and every team he's coached, and finding a way to win," McNamara said. "He has tremendous instincts with his players in terms of knowing when to push them or giving them a little rope."
In the NHL, coaches who give their players rope sometimes end up hanging from the end of it. This is a different deal. Cassidy speaks three languages, but the only form of communication important to the Caps is getting his message across, clearly, firmly and once in awhile loudly. A team with such talent as Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Gonchar, Olaf Kolzig and Peter Bondra should not miss the playoffs. Yet that's what happened, and it cost Cassidy's predecessor, Ron Wilson, his job.
Cassidy is not naive; he is clearly aware of the challenge. But he's smart, too, and confident, remember? Too smart and confident to change what has worked.
"My coaching style will probably be the same as my first year as a coach," he said. "There are certain things I believe in. Players have to be accountable to one another. Teamwork, preparation and professionalism, it's the same at every level. And honesty."
Cassidy said he learned to appreciate that from his old coach in Chicago, Darryl Sutter. "You always knew where you stood," Cassidy said. "But he always let the players do what they do best. He let you play the game."
"You've got to communicate the good and the bad," Cassidy said. "Yes, it's stressful and demanding to tell people what they don't want to hear. A lot of days, you don't want to tell them certain things. Obviously, I'll talk to Jagr differently from a guy on the fourth line in the East Coast League. The guy's the best in the world, and I respect that, but the message in the end has to get across. If a guy's not accountable to his teammates, I'm not gonna let it go."
Said McNamara: "He's kind of laid back, a quiet guy, but at the same time he learned how to challenge players."
The Jagr question will persist only because it has throughout his brilliant and stormy career in Pittsburgh and with the Caps last season. For all his ability, Jagr has had testy relationships with teammates and coaches. Last year, his first with the Caps, Jagr said he had trouble fitting in. After Cassidy was hired, Jagr said he had wanted the club to get former NHL great Bryan Trottier, who instead became the Rangers' coach. Cassidy? Jagr said he had never heard of him.
Last week, Cassidy said he was looking forward to getting together with Jagr to find out "what makes him tick." Hey, Butch, when you find out, please let the rest of us know.
After he took the job, "I started thinking about this a little bit," Cassidy said. "What if Jaromir Jagr tells me to [expletive] myself? What am I gonna do if I lose the first three games or I have to go without [All-Star goaltender] Kolzig? Then I thought, 'Why not think about all the positive things?'
"I'm an optimist. I like to see the best in guys. All the crap I went through, I realized the game owes you nothing."
Cassidy thought about that for a moment.
"Maybe the game owes me something after the debacle with my knee. Maybe the hockey gods are rewarding me."

As befits someone who was taken 18th in the draft, Bruce Cassidy once was a terrific hockey player.
"He was one of the elite kids in our city," said Pat Higgins, an Ottawa 67s scout who has known Cassidy since age 12. "Hockey was definitely his love. He always played on the best teams."
Cassidy made a sudden impact when he reached the junior level at 17 and joined the 67s, racking up 111 points. "He was one of those guys who could beat you in different ways," long-time 67s coach Brian Kilrea said. "If he had to move the puck, he could. If he had to beat a player, he'd do that."
Kilrea also said, "He was one of those guys who didn't say a lot, but if he said something, everyone listened. And if I told him to do something, he'd just do it. That's the way it was. He knew what he was capable of doing."
And Kilrea said this: "You could always get 100 percent out of him, no matter if he was hurt or not. He would play at the same high tempo. They're the type of guys who makes teams go."
All of which serves to remind how shocking to an athlete's psyche it can be when an injury robs the skills that served him so well.
Especially at 19.
"I got bummed out about a lot of things at that age," Cassidy said. "My dad passed away. My first girlfriend dumped me. It was like a country music song. But I have a pretty good disposition. Nothing really gets me down for a long time. I bounce back."
Cliche or not, Cassidy insists he means it when he said he kept playing "for the love of the game." He went to college while he was hurt, earning half the credits necessary for a degree, but he always returned to the ice. "I loved the camaraderie, loved the competition," he said. "I loved being a teammate. I'm a sports guy."
He played and played well, making IHL all-star teams and helping the Indianapolis Ice win a title in 1990. He tried Europe and liked it. After three years, the Blackhawks asked Cassidy to re-join the Ice but with additional responsibilities. He also would work with the young players. Cassidy accepted, although he didn't like the term, "player-coach." While in Indianapolis he blew out his right knee, came back yet again, and by late 1996 he was finished at age 31.
As a player.
The news of Cassidy's release was crushing, and he cried. But, as before, he moved on. He moved all the way to Jacksonville, Fla., to become coach of the Lizard Kings, a woebegone team owned by the Ice in last place of the East Coast Hockey League, the low minors. "And I enjoyed it," he said. "I had never thought about coaching, but the thrill of the competition is still there, behind the bench, helping guys. I got a lot of satisfaction out of that. I just took a liking to it."
Jacksonville improved greatly, just missing the playoffs. They advanced to the postseason the next season, and Cassidy's new career was underway. He returned to the Ice, where both the budget and talent were limited. Coaching by himself, Cassidy took Indianapolis to the playoffs, after which the franchise folded. "I think that was the turning point," he said. "I survived." After that, Cassidy went to Trenton, N.J., and led an ECHL expansion team to the playoffs. McNamara noticed and brought Cassidy to Grand Rapids, then an affiliate of the Ottawa Senators.
It was there that everyone began to notice. In his first season, the Griffins had the league's best regular-season record and Cassidy was runner-up for coach of the year.
"He can get players to play as a team yet maintain their own individuality," former Ottawa GM Marshall Johnston said. "It's a fine line, of course, letting a player be himself yet making sure he fits into what the organization is trying to do as a team. That's a slippery slope sometimes, but I think he's capable of doing that."
While he played, Cassidy said he never thought about coaching. But here he is, perhaps a bit earlier than he or anyone planned. He got very good at it in a very short time.
"I had to make a living," he said. "I didn't make a lot of money playing hockey. I had a house in Ottawa, I had a car, but it's not like I could walk away from the game and retire. If this doesn't work out, I'm out in the real world. I had better be successful.
"Fear of failure is one of the biggest motivators. If I didn't make it as a coach, what was I gonna do?"

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