BOSTON --The Stanley Cup Final begins Monday and while the Capitals did not make it back to defend their title, two former members of the organization, Bruce Cassidy and Craig Berube, are coaching the two teams that did.
Cassidy, now the head coach of the Boston Bruins, held that position in Washington for two seasons early last decade and failed spectacularly before a long, slow rise back to the NHL.
Berube is now the head coach of the St. Louis Blues, dead last in the entire league on Jan. 3 and now four wins away from their first Stanley Cup. A fan favorite with the Capitals for seven years over two stints, Berube was a no-nonsense tough guy and key role player on the 1998 Eastern Conference championship team. The seeds of both men’s success were planted a long time ago in Washington.
The Bruins and Blues play Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday at 8 p.m. on NBC.
Cassidy, just 37 when he was hired in 2002 by former Capitals general manager George McPhee, battled personal issues off the ice and too often lacked the professionalism and organization expected of an NHL head coach, according to several of his former players. At least twice during road trips in his first season, he was the last to arrive for the team bus.
Cassidy, now 54, knew the game, according to those same players, but struggled to connect with a roster laden with big-name players and healthy egos. He led Washington to the playoffs in 2002-03 but was fired 28 games into his second season thanks to a terrible start and internal fissures. Many of his players just didn’t respect him.
It’s hard to square that image with the Cassidy of today, who gets high marks from his Bruins players and plaudits around the league for juggling a talented roster comprised of veterans and rising young stars to reach the Cup Final. It’s a pretty good comeback story.
“[Cassidy] took his demons head on and built himself back up to a point now where he’s four wins away from winning a Stanley Cup,” said former Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig, who played for Cassidy along with stars Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra, among others. “You’ve got to take your hat off to him. Despite what he did in the past he’s become the opposite of what he was.”
Cassidy does appear a different man than he was in Washington. Married again now, he was dealing with multiple personal issues then, including a nasty, complicated divorce, while coaching the Capitals. The road back included one year as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks, a two-year stop as head coach of a junior hockey team in Kingston, Ontario, and an eight-year apprenticeship with AHL Providence, Boston’s top minor-league affiliate.
The final five seasons there Cassidy was Providence’s head coach, developing some of the same players who have helped get him to the Cup Final with the Bruins. In 2016 Cassidy earned an NHL promotion of his own as an assistant coach under Boston’s Claude Julien and then took over on an interim basis when his boss was fired.
“All I’ve learned is I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I was [in Washington],” Cassidy said. “I was young. I had really no NHL experience. I was in Chicago for bits and pieces. So you walk into an NHL locker room and there’s still a little bit of awe in that, ‘Oh, there’s (Jaromir) Jagr,’ there’s so many of these guys that have been around. So, it probably took me a while to just walk in there and say ‘This is what we’re doing’…and be a good communicator when you’re doing that.”
A lot of those problems were of Cassidy’s own making, however. According to reporting by the Washington Post at the time - and confirmed by several of his old players this week - Cassidy showed up to his first meeting with his new team at training camp in 2002 and pulled a napkin out of his pocket with notes scribbled on it. It was not a good first impression.
Cassidy was a first-round draft pick in 1983 by the Chicago Blackhawks, No. 18 overall, but his NHL playing career consisted of 36 games. He had never been an NHL assistant when hired by McPhee. He spent two years as head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins, first in the IHL and then, when that league folded, in the AHL, which absorbed the franchise.
“The thing that I think would probably be the bigger challenge for Bruce when he first arrived was that he hadn't played that long as a player,” said NBC analyst Keith Jones, another former Capitals player, but not one who played for Cassidy. “You wouldn't have the same cache when you first walked into the locker room as you would, say, if you were a Craig Berube or a Dale Hunter.”
The Capitals had reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1998 and were still a competitive, if aging, team. They finished second in the Southeast Division in Cassidy’s first season and went up 2-0 on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But they lost the next four games, including a triple-overtime crusher on an Easter Sunday that ended their season and arguably began what became the Alex Ovechkin era.
“You could tell Butch was a smart hockey guy. He was a smart hockey guy,” Kolzig said using Cassidy’s nickname. “He understood the game. Maybe too much so that he took for granted that other guys understood the same thing. He’d get frustrated if Joe Schmo didn’t know a certain breakout or a certain play. What came easy to him didn’t come easy to other players.”
Tired of paying big money for an old team that couldn’t get out of the first round, owner Ted Leonsis green-lit moves the following season that gutted the roster. Long-time forward and team captain Steve Konowalchuk was traded in October after a slow start.
Later, Jagr, Robert Lang, Michael Nylander, defenseman Sergei Gonchar and Bondra, a franchise icon, were dealt, too. The team finished with the third-worst record in the NHL but won the draft lottery that got them the No. 1 pick and Ovechkin. Cassidy was long gone by then, but his failure led to the rebuild that ultimately brought Washington its greatest player, a Stanley Cup and, eventually, his own redemption.
“Butch was I don’t want to say in an impossible situation, but he was in a very tough situation,” said Capitals defenseman Ken Klee, who played nine seasons for the team, including Cassidy’s first. “We had so much success before he got there. We had some big stars on our team. You look at Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Calle Johansson, Olie. You figure out quick that coaching in the NHL is not just coaching, it’s management of players and personalities.”
The Capitals lost six games in a row in October of 2003 during Cassidy’s second season and things only got worse from there. After a 3-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 4 left them 8-16-1-1, Cassidy ripped into his team during a closed-door meeting. He’d given them rest. He allowed them to be home with their sick kids - or even pregnant wives when necessary.
But, according to players in the room, he told them issues at home shouldn’t have any impact on their play. They were no excuse. That message, born of legitimate frustration, but tone deaf to what his players had gone through, spelled Cassidy’s doom.
Capitals defenseman Brendan Witt’s wife, Salima, had almost died after a difficult childbirth in 2002, according to Kolzig. The room froze. Veteran players were appalled. Cassidy later apologized, but the damage was done. Washington was outscored 11-4 its next two games and Cassidy was fired on Dec. 10, 2003. His next chance to be an NHL head coach wouldn’t come for another 13 years.
“I know Brendan wasn’t very quiet about it. That was probably the nail in the coffin. It was a tumultuous time.” Kolzig said. “But having said all that you see how [Cassidy has] gone back to square one. His personal life is in order. He did a fantastic job in Providence for a number of years, continued being a good soldier in the Bruins organization. And then the opportunity was there for him and he took advantage of it. He’s done a fantastic job. There’s no other way to put it.”
Cassidy took over a Boston team that had lost its way under longtime coach Claude Julien. The Bruins had missed the playoffs two years in a row and were scuffling at 26-23-6 when Julien was fired on Feb. 7, 2017. Cassidy paid immediate dividends as an interim coach leading Boston to an 18-8-1 record to finish that season.
It lost in the first round of the playoffs, but he earned the job full time. Last year the Bruins were 50-20-12 and reached the second round. This year they were second in the Atlantic Division at 49-24-9. It is Boston’s third Cup Final in nine seasons, but first since 2013. Many of those hard lessons Cassidy learned with the Capitals have served him well in his long-awaited second act.
“If you’re around the game for an extra 15 years you’re going to learn stuff,” Cassidy said. “Different ways to communicate. Different ways to see the game. How you delegate, how you use your staff. How do you talk to the players to help you find that common goal? I think that was the biggest difference. A lot of newness back then. This time around it was a little more experience at this level.”
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