- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Can't you just see Jaromir Jagr watching ESPN and hearing that his new coach the new coach of the Washington Capitals is Bruce Cassidy?

"Hey, I saw him in a cowboy movie. I wonder if the Sundance Kid will be one of his assistants?"

Sorry, but Butch Cassidy references are likely to be standard operating procedure during his tenure. Heck, owner Ted Leonsis couldn't resist it at the news conference yesterday at MCI Center to officially announce the hiring. "It's a good move for marketing," he joked. "Butch Cassidy. Now that's a name."

Butch Cassidy is a name. Bruce Cassidy is not, and in the spirit of the film, we must ask, "Who is this guy?"

He was coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins last year. Before that, he was coach of the Trenton Titans, and before that the Indianapolis Ice and before that the Jacksonville Lizard Kings. He was a heck of a coach on the Greyhound Bus Line circuit.

"I'm 37 years old, and never coached a day in the National Hockey League," Cassidy said. "But I don't think that will stop me from doing what I want to do, and that is to win."

He may be 37, but looks young enough that if he ordered a drink at the Acela Club, where yesterday's news conference was located, he would be carded.

"I'd feel better if he had a few gray hairs on his head," Caps general manager George McPhee said. "But I'm sure he'll have them by the end of the year."

I'm sure as well. There isn't enough Grecian Formula in the city to wash the gray away from a coach's hair after a season with Jagr. There are still chunks of Ron Wilson's hair on the floor of the coach's office at MCI Center.

"Jaromir is unique, and whoever coaches him, a veteran or a young guy, will have his hands full," McPhee said.

The irony is that McPhee and Wilson were Butch and Sundance, two partners in crime with outlaw souls. But instead of going out in a blaze of glory, one simply fired the other.

"There comes a point where players get tired of a coach and coaches get tired of players," McPhee said yesterday. "Ron Wilson is a great coach, but they got tired of each other."

McPhee may have lost his sidekick, but he didn't lose his willingness to jump off a cliff. He showed the guts of a burglar by hiring Cassidy. Give him credit for that. McPhee could have taken the safe route and hired a name coach, like a Ted Nolan or some other recycled NHL name, and the risk would be minimal. At worst, the team would have treaded water for a few years before anyone would lose his job.

But if Cassidy fails, it is McPhee's neck on the line, and just as there is the possibility that this young coach with rave reviews in hockey circles for his minor league coaching has the potential to be the next great coach in the NHL, there also is the possibility that he could be a disaster, and there won't be much patience for that possibility. If that happens, Bruce Cassidy's next coaching job could be in Hole In the Wall.

But he could also become the gold standard by which all coaches are measured in Washington. He could be Joe Gibbs, a highly respected coach within the inner circle of his game that no one had ever heard outside of that circle.

Caps owner Ted Leonsis said McPhee had the option of hiring whoever he wanted to, and the general manager said he was "completely open-minded about who to bring in here. There were no real restraints on what I could do."

When McPhee asked the scouts in his organization for a list of candidates they would recommend, Cassidy was on that list. McPhee interviewed him in May in Toronto and they hit it off, sharing many philosophies about hockey and coaching. McPhee said he came away from the interview thinking, "This guy is going to be a good coach in the NHL one day."

As the process went on and he did more interviews, McPhee kept thinking about Cassidy. He brought him back last weekend for another interview in Toronto during the NHL draft, this time with Leonsis and fellow owner and team president Dick Patrick, who came away equally impressed with Cassidy. "We were all young once," Leonsis said. "The time comes in one's career when you have arrived. We both said we think this is the guy who can do the job now."

Cassidy convinced McPhee, Leonsis and Patrick. Now all he has to do is convince the players.

The Caps are a veteran team that should be competing for the Stanley Cup. They have the best player in hockey in Jagr, one of the top scorers in the league in Peter Bondra and a strong goaltender in Olie Kolzig. If the Caps are going to put these ingredients together to make a run at the Cup, time is running out.

Normally, that's the sort of team that would seem to be well suited for a veteran NHL coach to come in and take over, someone with a proven resume who could go toe-to-toe with the players right from the start.

That's not Bruce Cassidy. He led Grand Rapids to a 42-27-11 record and a division championship last year, and was named American Hockey League Coach of the Year. The year before, he was the Hockey News Coach of the Year when Grand Rapids went 53-22-7. In six years of minor league coaching, Cassidy had a record of 215-169-50. By all accounts, he has been a good coach.

He'll have to be better than good now, because he will have to win his players over early and convince them that he knows what he is doing, he knows how to win and he knows all of this better than they do and he will have to do this in Boston one night, Montreal the next, Philadelphia after that, New York, and on and on. We're not in Grand Rapids anymore.

"If you know how to coach, it works in a lot of places," McPhee said.

If not, the raindrops will be falling on George McPhee's head.

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