- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2002

NHL coaches are largely anonymous, almost by definition. After all, the average stay on the job is less than two years leaguewide. The Philadelphia Flyers are on their fifth since 1997.

But Bruce Cassidy, new coach of the Washington Capitals, opens a whole new realm of anonymity. Completely unknown outside the tightest of hockey circles and a top-level minor league coach for just three seasons, the 37-year-old inherits a team that will be aiming for the Stanley Cup under a head man with no coaching experience of any kind in the NHL.

"I think one of the reasons you see a lot of younger coaches being hired now is because they can communicate a little better than the old-school type of coaches," Cassidy said. "I think thats a strength of mine. I didnt have the career some of these guys did in the NHL, but I played for 10 years so I know what they go through."

Five other current NHL coaches inherited the jobs without first serving as an assistant or head coach elsewhere in the league: Barry Trotz in Nashville, Curt Fraser in Atlanta, Bob Hartley in Colorado, Michel Therrien in Montreal and Mike Babcock in Anaheim.

Cassidys primary coaching experience with the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Griffins was a start-to-finish success. His teams finished first in their divisions each of the last two years, and he was named American Hockey League coach of the year last season after guiding the Griffins to a 42-27-11-0 record amid a flurry of player injuries and NHL call-ups. Cassidy was runner-up for International Hockey League coach of the year honors the previous season, when the Griffins played in that now-defunct circuit.

People who know Cassidy say he is more even-tempered than predecessor Ron Wilson and particularly adept at melding his teams playing style to their personnel.

"Hes had to play it all ways, and hes shown he can do that," said Griffins general manager Bob McNamara. "He can play wide open, run-and-gun, he can play a heavy forecheck, a defensive trap style. Hes extremely versatile in that regard."

McNamara said he has been prepared to lose Cassidy to the NHL for more than a year and was kept abreast in recent weeks as the Caps interest grew more serious.

"When you have a coach as good as he is, losing him to the next level was pretty much always a possibility we had to be aware of," McNamara said.

Even with the chance of that happening, Cassidy last month signed a two-year contract extension with the Griffins, with permission to leave only if he got an NHL job.

The Griffins will be switching their NHL affiliation this upcoming season from Ottawa to Detroit to draw more local interest. But the Senators, who rely on homegrown talent as much as any team in the NHL, gave Cassidy high marks for the stewardship of their young players. In particular, Cassidy is credited with marshalling the growth of top Russian prospect Petr Schastlivy from a raw offense-only player to a much more well-rounded one skating on the Senators top line with franchise star Daniel Alfredsson before injuring his knee.

Other current NHL players groomed under Cassidy include current Senators forwards Todd White and Chris Neil.

"Bruce did an excellent job developing our guys. He absolutely knows what it takes to be a pro, both at the level and also at the National Hockey League level," said Trevor Timmins, director of hockey operations for the Senators. "Hes very adaptable and can work with guys in different ways to push them to their potential."

Cassidy, the Chicago Blackhawks top pick in the 1983 Entry Draft, played 36 NHL games between 1983 and 1990 as a defenseman. But the Ottawa native tore his the ACL in his right knee at 18 playing ball hockey and never fully recovered. Eleven years later, he sustained the same injury in his other knee and finished out his playing career in Germany, Italy and Indianapolis of the IHL.

Two years are left on the five-year plan of Caps owner Ted Leonsis to win the Stanley Cup, and with a veteran-laden team, the franchises window of opportunity is clearly closing fast. But Leonsis, who had final approval on general manager George McPhees selection of Cassidy, said he had no reservations turning over the team to a rookie coach of whom he had no knowledge six weeks ago.

"This is a breath of fresh air," Leonsis said. "This is a guy with a completely positive outlook, and that will make a difference in the dressing room. He just blew us away in the interview. He didnt try to sell himself. There was just a calmness, a confidence he knew what he was doing. With some guys, you have a sense of when its their time, when they are arriving. This guy just reeked of it being his time to move to the next level."

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