Capitals

Pagano back to coach Colts after cancer treatment

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Pagano back to coach Colts after cancer treatment

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Chuck Pagano stepped to the podium Monday, hugged his team owner, thanked his family for its support and wiped a tear from his eye.

He might, finally, turn out the lights in his office, too.

Nearly three months to the day after being diagnosed with leukemia, the Colts' first-year coach returned to a team eager to reunite with a boss healthy enough to go back to work.

``I told you my best day of my life was July 1, 1989,'' Pagano said, referring to his wedding date. ``Today was No. 2. Getting to pull up, drive in, get out of my car, the key fob still worked. I was beginning to question whether it would or not. When I asked for Bruce to take over, I asked for him to kick some you-know-what and to do great. Damn Bruce, you had to go and win nine games? Tough act to follow. Tough act to follow. Best in the history of the NFL. That's what I have to come back to.''

The comment turned tears into the laughter everyone expected on such a festive occasion.

For Pagano and the Colts, Monday morning was as precious as anyone could have imagined when Pagano took an indefinite leave to face the biggest opponent of his life, cancer.

In his absence, all the Colts was win nine of 12 games, make a historic turnaround and clinch a playoff spot all before Sunday's regular-season finale against Houston, which they pegged as the day they hoped to have Pagano back. If all goes well at practice this week, Pagano will be on the sideline for the first time since a Week 3 loss to Jacksonville.

Pagano endured three rounds of chemotherapy to put his cancer in remission.

That Pagano's return came less than 24 hours after Indy (10-5) locked up the No. 5 seed in the AFC and the day before Christmas seemed fitting, too.

``I know Chuck is ready for this challenge. In speaking to his doctor multiple times, I know that the time is right for him to grab the reins, get the head coaching cap on and begin the journey,'' owner Jim Irsay said. ``It's been a miraculous story. It really is a book. It's a fairytale. It's a Hollywood script. It's all those things but it's real.''

The reality is that he's returning to a vastly different team than the one he turned over to Arians, his long-time friend and first assistant coaching hire.

Back then, the Colts were 1-2 and most of the so-called experts had written them off as one of the league's worst teams. Now, they're ready to show the football world that they can be just as successful under Pagano as they were under Arians, who tied the NFL record for wins after a midseason coaching change.

Pagano also has changed.

The neatly-trimmed salt-and-pepper hair and trademark goatee that were missing in November have slowly returned, and the thinner man who appeared to be catching his breath during a postgame speech in early November, looked and sounded as good as ever Monday.

He repeatedly thanked fans for their prayers and letters, the organization and his family for their unwavering help and promised to provide comfort and support to other people who are facing similar fights. During one poignant moment that nearly brought out tears again, Pagano even recounted a letter sent to him by a 9-year-old child who suggested he suck on ice chips and strawberry Popsicles in the hospital and advised him to be nice to the nurses regardless of how he felt - and he never even paused.

``I feel great, my weight is back, my energy is back and again, it's just a blessing to be back here,'' Pagano said.

In the minds of Colts players and coaches, Pagano never really left.

He continually watched practice tape and game film on his computer, used phone calls and text messages to regularly communicate with players and occasionally delivered a pregame or postgame speech to his team.

``He texted me and called me so much, it was like he was standing there in my face every day,'' said receiver Reggie Wayne, who has been friends with Pagano since the two were working together at the University of Miami.

But the Colts found plenty of other ways to keep Pagano's battle in the forefront.

They began a fundraising campaign for leukemia research, calling it Chuckstrong. Players had stickers with the initials CP on their locker room nameplates, and Arians wore an orange ribbon on his baseball cap during games. Orange is the symbolic color for leukemia. At one point, nearly three dozen players shaved their heads to show their ailing coach they were with him.

That's not all.

Arians and first-year general manager Ryan Grigson decided to leave the lights on in Pagano's office until he returned. Pagano noted the team even installed plastic clips to make sure those lights were not mistakenly turned off while he was gone. Those clips were removed when Pagano arrived Monday morning.

And Arians said nobody sat in the front seat of the team bus.

``He's always been our head coach,'' Arians said.

So after getting medical clearance from his oncologist, Dr. Larry Cripe, to return with no restrictions, Pagano couldn't wait to get to the office Monday morning.

Arians arrived at 7 a.m., three hours early for the scheduled team meeting. By then, Pagano had already driven past the inflatable Colts player with the words ``Welcome Back Chuck'' printed on its chest and was back in his office preparing for the Texans.

Players showed up a couple of hours later, and when the torch was passed from Arians back to Pagano, players gave their returning coach a standing ovation that Wayne said was well-deserved.

All Pagano wants to do now is emulate the success Arians and his players have had this season.

``I asked him (Arians) if he would lead this team and this ballclub and this organization and take over the reins,'' Pagano said. ``What a masterful, masterful job you did Bruce. You carried the torch and all you went out and did was win nine ballgames. You got us our 10th win yesterday and you got us into the playoffs. You did it with dignity and you did it with class. You're everything that I always knew you were and more.''

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Bruce Cassidy’s chaotic time as Capitals coach began a winding path to Stanley Cup Final with Boston.

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USATSI

Bruce Cassidy’s chaotic time as Capitals coach began a winding path to Stanley Cup Final with Boston.

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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Dmitrij Jaskin's year goes from bad to worse as his former team prepares to play in Stanley Cup Final

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Dmitrij Jaskin's year goes from bad to worse as his former team prepares to play in Stanley Cup Final

Dmitrij Jaskin had a tough year. He played in only 37 games for the Capitals and scored only two goals and six assists. He seemed to struggle to earn the trust of head coach Todd Reirden and did not play a single game in the playoffs.

A tough year just got a little bit worse for Jaskin as now he will watch his former team, the St. Louis Blues, play in the Stanley Cup Final starting Monday.

Jaskin was a member of the Blues through training camp, but was a surprise addition to the Caps’ roster just one day before the start of the regular season. Frustrated with his lack of opportunities in St. Louis, Jaskin requested a trade and the Blues placed him on waivers. With Tom Wilson still awaiting word on how long his suspension would be for his hit to Oskar Sundqvist in the preseason, Washington claimed Jaskin off waivers for more forward depth.

Though Jaskin was an established NHL player with over 250 games of experience and 25 goals, he was used sparingly by Reirden. Jaskin seemed to play well when given the opportunity, but showed a lack of finish offensively that earned him the ire of the coaches. Any mistakes would see him taken out of the lineup completely.

“Obviously it was disappointing,” Jaskin said of his season. “I thought it would be better, but you always gain some experience from another season. It's over with and there's nothing I can do about it, just can get ready for next season and look forward to it.”

Though his individual situation was challenging, Jaskin looked like he was in a much better position for a deep playoff run than his former squad. The Caps were the defending Stanley Cup champions and would go on to win the Metropolitan Division while the Blues were in last place in the entire NHL as late in the season as Jan. 3. The two teams suffered a reversal in fortune in the postseason as Washington was bounced out of the first round by the Carolina Hurricanes. St. Louis eliminated the Winnipeg Jets in six games, won a Game 7 thriller in double overtime against the Dallas Stars and closed out the San Jose Sharks with three straight wins in the conference finals.

“I wish them all the best,” Jaskin said following the first round. “I think it's pretty impressive that they won against Winnipeg. Now, as you see, everybody's got the same chances. A lot of upsets this year and I think they have a pretty good chance to go far.”

Luckily for Jaskin, he did manage to find some playing time this summer in the World Championship tournament playing with the Czech Republic.  He has scored two goals and two assists in nine games and will play for the bronze medal on Sunday.

After that, his future remains unclear. Jaskin is a restricted free agent meaning the Caps will have a chance to retain his rights and his playing in Worlds seems to indicate he is secure in his position. At the same time, he was used sparingly enough throughout the season that whether the team will offer him a qualifying offer remains a question.

“I'll love to stay,” Jaskin said. “I love it here, guys are great and the organization and the city, everything's good. I would like to stay, but we'll see.”

For now, however, Jaskin will have to sit and watch to see whether his old team, the team he requested a trade from, will hoist the Stanley Cup.

“Obviously it's frustrating to not keep on playing and watch them play,” Jaskin said, “But as I said I wish them all the best and I think they have a pretty good chance.”

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