There was a time when Bruce Cassidy balked at being called a
coach. In 1994, near the end of a seven-team, 12-season pro
career--all but 36 games of which were spent in minor and European
leagues--Cassidy, then 29, was named a player assistant with the
Indianapolis Ice, a Chicago Blackhawks affiliate in the
International Hockey League. "I told management, 'Don't put coach
next to my name, or the players will never talk to me,'" says a
chuckling Cassidy, who is now 37 and was named head coach of the
Washington Capitals in June. "Even these days I try not to put
myself above my players. The players and I are more like equals.
I can joke around and be a regular guy. Players like to see the
human side of their coach."
With training camps opening next week, the low-key Cassidy
typifies a trend in the NHL: the hiring of young, first-time head
coaches, many without substantial NHL playing or assistant
coaching experience. One of five rookie bench bosses who will
debut in 2002-03--the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' Mike Babcock, 39, the
Detroit Red Wings' Dave Lewis, 49, the Dallas Stars' Dave
Tippett, 41, and the New York Rangers' Bryan Trottier, 46, are
the others--Cassidy is a communicator and a tactician, thanks in
part to six minor league coaching seasons. But with no NHL
coaching credentials and scant experience as a player in the
league, he'll be challenged to earn the respect of a veteran
team. "When I walk into the dressing room for the first time,
I'll be nervous," concedes Cassidy, who last season led the
Ottawa Senators' Grand Rapids minor league affiliate to a
42-27-11 record. "Bryan Trottier is a Stanley Cup champion and
will gain instant respect. I have to earn it by showing knowledge
of the game, by meshing the team together."
As a junior player Cassidy was a well-regarded puck-moving
defenseman whom the Blackhawks selected in the first round (18th
overall) in the 1983 draft. In 1983-84 he won the Memorial Cup
with the Ottawa '67s of the Ontario Hockey League, but that
summer he tore his left ACL in a ball-hockey game, essentially
ending his NHL prospects. Cassidy kicked around the North
American minor leagues and played three seasons with clubs in
Europe before shifting to the coaching track.
When he joined Washington in June, Cassidy became the newest
member of the league's rookie fraternity. Of the 30 NHL coaches,
18 are in their first head coaching assignments; six of them,
including Babcock, were never NHL assistants and did not have
significant playing careers. The success of coaches in this
mold--Colorado's Marc Crawford won the Cup in his second season;
successor Bob Hartley did so in his third--has furthered the
trend. "Our organization's success is probably a factor," says
Avalanche G.M. Pierre Lacroix. "We're pretty proud of both
decisions." What's more, many teams would rather take a flier on
a highly regarded, inexpensive coach than on a retread who may
command a larger salary. "If you have a veteran coach and you get
rid of him, it may cost you a lot of money, and there's a lot of
turnover," says Capitals general manager George McPhee.
Going green is a risky proposition, however, despite the
performance in recent years of coaches like Hartley, the Carolina
Hurricanes' Paul Maurice, who in his seventh season produced the
franchise's first Stanley Cup finals berth, and the New York
Islanders' Peter Laviolette, who as a 37-year-old rookie last
season led the team to its first playoff appearance since 1994.
In 3,138 games over the past 10 seasons, first-year, first-time
NHL coaches had a .481 winning percentage. Still, the
down-to-earth, player-friendly demeanor of Babcock and Cassidy
(who admits not only to watching the teen comedy American Pie on
bus rides with his minor league players, but also to liking it)
can provide a franchise with a breath of fresh air. "Sure, change
makes you uneasy," says Babcock, "but a little fear of the
unknown can be exhilarating."
COLOR PHOTO: MITCHELL LAYTON MAJOR LEAP The Caps tabbed Cassidy despite an NHL resume of just 36 games played.
COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE BENNETT STUDIOS (INSET)
COLOR PHOTO: HECTOR ACEVEDO/AP (BOTTOM)
Hartley (right) went 44-28-10 as a rookie coach in Colorado in
1998-99; two years later he hoisted the Cup. Here are the records
for first-year coaches over the last five seasons.
SEASON COACHES RECORD WINNING PCT.
2001-02 3 83-86-23 .492
2000-01 7 184-188-50 .495
1999-00 6 143-218-53 .409
1998-99 5 116-136-36 .465
1997-98 4 105-89-39 .534