On a December day in 1996, Bruce “Butch” Cassidy walked into the Jacksonville Lizard Kings dressing room to meet with his players for the first time. The previous coach had been fired and Cassidy was taking over.
Thirty-one years old at the time, Cassidy had no coaching experience.
He’d started the season by playing 10 games on defense for the Indianapolis Ice of the International Hockey League, but after battling knee injuries for years he’d retired as a player. Ice owner Horn Chen also owned the Lizard Kings of the East Coast Hockey League and he handed the reins to Cassidy.
“I really remember one thing distinctly,’’ said Rick Bennett, a player/assistant coach for the Lizard Kings.
“Butch said, ‘Guys, I’m a players’ coach. I’m really not sure what that means.’ It broke the room up a little bit. And off we went without a hitch,’’ said Bennett, an All-American at Providence College who coached Union College to the NCAA championship in 2014.
“Our record didn’t show it, but with some of the characters on that team, Butch did a great job. He had a lot of respect from the players. He held guys accountable. He was direct. You always knew where you stood. It was a lot of fun playing for him.’’
Cassidy was on his way. He climbed the ladder in a hurry.
During his playing days, Cassidy was smart and had superb offensive skills, which is why he was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Black Hawks in 1983. His mind for the game stood out when he went behind the bench.
“His feel for the game was really high. He just thinks the game on a different level. You could tell he was going to be a guy who worked his way up pretty quick. He’s by far one of the smartest hockey guys I’ve been around,’’ said Northeastern associate head coach Jerry Keefe, who played for Cassidy with the Trenton Titans of the ECHL in 2000.
Cassidy had his first notable success as a coach in Grand Rapids, leading the Griffins to the IHL’s best record in 2000-01. Not everyone who played for him there remembers it fondly.
During Chris Kelly’s time in Boston several years ago, I asked him what it was like to play for Cassidy back then as a first-year pro. “He was a (expletive),’’ Kelly answered. “But I was a better player by the end of it.’’
The American Hockey League Coach of the Year in 2002, Cassidy was named head coach of the Washington Capitals at age 37. But after making the playoffs in his first season, he was fired 25 games into his second year in 2004.
Cassidy’s shortcomings in Washington have been well-chronicled.
“I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin now than I was then. I was young,’’ Cassidy told the media the other day. “I had really no NHL experience – I was up in Chicago (as a player) for bits and pieces. So you walk into an NHL locker room, there was still a little bit of awe – there’s (Jaromir) Jagr, (Sergei) Gonchar, these guys that had been around.’’
After Washington, Cassidy was an NHL assistant coach in Chicago and then was head coach with Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League before being fired early in his second season.
Out of a job in the summer of 2008, he called Boston GM Peter Chiarelli about a job with the Providence Bruins as an assistant under head coach Rob Murray. Considering Cassidy already had been an NHL head coach and a Coach of the Year in the AHL, it couldn’t have been easy to pick up the phone for an AHL assistant job, but he swallowed his pride.
“I just wanted to get back to work,’’ Cassidy told me a few years back.
Providence is where his climb back to an NHL head coaching job gained traction. His career path since then is a profile in perseverance and belief in himself.
As Murray’s assistant for three seasons and then as head coach for five seasons, Cassidy helped the P-Bruins live up to Boston management’s mantra of player development in a winning environment. Players such as Johnny Boychuk and Torey Krug and others moved up to Boston and thrived. Cassidy had some good teams and some average teams, but they always were well prepared and played hard.
Cassidy also found a nice work/life balance in Rhode Island, living on Providence’s East Side, with wife Julie, daughter Shannon and son Cole. He’s said that having children has helped make him a more patient person and coach.
His hard work at the rink paid off. In 2016, Cassidy moved on to bigger things, joining the Boston Bruins as an assistant coach on Claude Julien’s staff. With the team floundering in February 2017, he was promoted to head coach. Since then, the Bruins have put up a glittering 117-52-22 record.
Former Boston College captain David Hymovitz has been a friend of Cassidy since playing with him in Indianapolis and for him in Grand Rapids. He is impressed with the way Cassidy handles his team.
“Twenty years ago he was blunt (with his players). He was young, trying to find his way. ‘What kind of coach am I going to be? How am I going to handle my players? How are they going to view me?’ Now he’s matured as a coach,’’ said Hymovitz, the director of hockey operations for the Boston Junior Eagles.
“When I watch him with the media, he never throws his players under the bus. There’s times when he may call somebody out, but he’s very respectful of his own players and in turn I think the players respect him for that.’’
“When I played for him, he was definitely blunt, but you always knew where you stood. Whether he’s very vocal or it’s your playing time, there was never a question of where you stood with him. I assume it’s the same now.
“Talk about where you stood, he had a guy get undressed after the first period one game, a rookie.’’
That player, Hymovitz said, recently took to Facebook to write that Cassidy was the best coach he’d ever played for.
It’s been a winding and at times bumpy road from that first meeting in Jacksonville 23 years ago, but here Cassidy is, four wins away from the Stanley Cup.
“It’s a testament to his character. He paid his dues and now, hopefully, he’s on top of the world in two weeks,’’ said Hymovitz.