By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — More than 20 years ago Bruce Cassidy was in his 11th professional season and still trying to keep his playing career going while serving as a captain for the Indianapolis Ice, a Chicago Blackhawks affiliate in the International Hockey League.
But he was already informally coaching, too, as his Indianapolis coach Bob Ferguson recently told CBSBoston.com. Ferguson was a rookie coach in the pros and the 30-year-old Cassidy lent an early hand to a guy who would go on to coach more than 800 pro games and is now the general manager of the San Diego Gulls in the American Hockey League.
“The first thing that always jumps out at me, is something that I’ll always feel I owe to Bruce, that was my first year in the ‘I’ … and maybe three, four weeks into the season we were a .500 hockey team. Bruce and I went to lunch and we sat down and we just had a really good talk,” Ferguson recalled. “We just talked about some things and some of the advice that he gave me, one of the things that I’ll always remember he said, was ‘don’t overcoach.’
“He felt at that time, it was my first year at the professional level after being junior hockey forever, and part of the advice he gave me was don’t overcoach, let things happen, these guys are smart hockey players. I’ll always remember that he said that and it was something that throughout the rest of my coaching career in the minor leagues I always remembered. He gave that little bit of advice and it obviously worked.”
“And someone that at that point was able to give me that type of advice, right there you could tell he had a future in the game.”
Cassidy’s future took twists and turns on his way to Boston’s bench, but in his first full Bruins season he led them to a 50-20-12 record in the regular season and their first Stanley Cup playoffs series win in four years before they lost to Tampa Bay in the second round.
Cassidy was rewarded for his efforts with a spot among three finalists for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. Although he’s a heavy underdog going up against Vegas’ Gerard Gallant, who led an expansion team to a Pacific Division title and then the Stanley Cup Final (voting is completed before the postseason), Cassidy is being recognized as one of the elite coaches in the game Wednesday in Las Vegas.
Cassidy began his coaching career the season after his heart-to-heart with Ferguson. Cassidy quit playing and took over the Jacksonville Lizard Kings during the 1996-97 season. Mike Pomichter, a former Boston University standout, was a few seasons into his pro career when he recommended his former Indianapolis teammate for the Lizard Kings position. Pomichter played with Cassidy as his captain in Indianapolis, and the younger player recalled a leader that spoke up when necessary but mostly led by example. It was a fine example to follow even though the 1983 first-round draft pick had changed his game to adjust after knee injuries.
When he got to Jacksonville, Cassidy was already showing signs of the coach he would become two decades later in Boston. And he had obviously already taken his own advice about not micromanaging his players.
“In my eyes … the biggest thing was knowing guys knew how to play the game and had a job, he wouldn’t try to change you,” Pomichter said. “You’re a young guy coming out of junior, coming out college, you’re not a mucker, you don’t go in the corners, they try to change you. And that doesn’t work for a lot of guys.”
After a couple of seasons in Jacksonville, Cassidy was back in Indianapolis as head coach for the 1998-99 season. Looking for veterans to supplement a young roster, Cassidy called his former teammate and close friend Brian Noonan, a Boston native and member of the 1994 New York Rangers Stanley Cup championship team.
Noonan admits it was somewhat awkward playing for his friend, although Cassidy was able to work around that and lead the Ice to the second round of the playoffs.
“He was young and just learning the ropes,” Noonan said. “I think he was more of a yeller and a screamer his first go-around so to speak, and I guess like anything else you kind of learn as you go along, learn what you can get away with, need to work on to become a better coach. He’s obviously done that.”
Cassidy didn’t make it through two full seasons as Washington’s head coach in his first NHL shot. He coached a few different places after that before landing with the Bruins’ Providence AHL team as an assistant in 2008. There he honed his abilities as a developer of young players in addition to his strategic skills.
He still occasionally does some yelling and screaming (mostly at officials), but most often when he works with his players, young and old, he does it with a sternness that gets the point across but doesn’t ridicule. And once he relays information to the players, he trusts them the way he told Ferguson to trust his players back in Jacksonville.
The experience and knowledge combined to make Cassidy a coach of the year candidate and someone who has an opportunity to accomplish even more in the years ahead with an improving Bruins teams.
His success hasn’t surprised his first would-be pupil.
“Just seeing the improvement every year in the Providence teams, from start to finish every year with their young players, you could tell that he was going to get back to the NHL someday and obviously it’s worked out for him,” said Ferguson. “I think the timing’s right, the way he likes to play the game, the way he likes his teams to play, has fit in very well with today’s NHL. It’s obviously translated into success.
“And I guess the best way to put it is Bruce, and I say this as a compliment, is an overachiever, and he finds his way and he finds a way to get his teams to overachieve.”
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.