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Golden Knights coach Cassidy talks about new team, lessons learned from Sutter and more

Bruce Cassidy Vegas Golden Knights Bruce Cassidy - Getty Images

One of the biggest shocks in the 2022 NHL off-season happened in June when the Boston Bruins fired head coach Bruce Cassidy after parts of six seasons in Beantown.

In his tenure, Cassidy led the Bruins to the playoffs six times, including the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, and is third all-time in franchise history in victories with a 245-108-46 regular-season record. 

The 57-year-old Ottawa product was quickly brought on by the Vegas Golden Knights to lead a team that many expect to be a force in the Pacific Division this season.

Cassidy chatted with TSN on Monday after a Golden Knights practice – his new team faces the Flames in Calgary on Tuesday night – about what he learned this summer, how coaches develop their craft and make on-ice improvements, and the lessons current Flames bench boss Darryl Sutter imparted on him more than 30 years ago.

TSN: Early on, you’re with a new team and perhaps trying to build a new culture and identity. How have you found Vegas so far?

Cassidy: Well, I mean the city’s different. I’ve never lived out west before. We’re East Coast people. I’m originally from Ottawa, wife’s from New Jersey, kids born in New England. That lifestyle change is different right away. The weather coming up, we’ll see. [I] won’t be shoveling any snow so that part will be a change. 

As for the team? Still getting to know them. They’re still getting to know me. Some of our staff, we’re still getting to know each other, so there’s a lot of newness going on right now. I think we’ve attacked it well during training camp. We had a plan in place how we want to play, how we want to teach, and so far I think we’ve hit a lot of those boxes and there’s gonna obviously be more learning curves as we go, but I think we’re on schedule of how the guys are responding to it.

TSN: With this franchise, early on it was [called] the Golden Misfits. That was their identity. It’s evolved a little bit. What’s the process like for a coach to implement a culture? How do you approach that?

Cassidy: Well, I think we just wanted this year … Vegas has been a very successful franchise in a short period of time. There’s certainly a lot of things we’re leaving in place. What I’m looking for out of the team, whether it was new or old to be honest with you, is [to be] hard to play against. We want to have an identity every night of how we’re going to play the game. We’re trying to build on that. We’re trying to be a solid, 200-foot team and be good in every area of the ice. We want to be entertaining and score goals. I think we have the talent to do that. We want to work hard to keep it out of our net. I’m not sure what, culture wise, I guess it would be to be professional and be hard to play against and show up to battle every night and that’s what we’re after.

TSN: And the process going this summer from Boston to Vegas. What did you learn over the summer during all of that?

Cassidy: Well, there’s time to reflect and I still think a lot of that is going to go on going forward. When we hit some adversity, how do you handle it. What did you take from your previous job? Well, I like the way we played in Boston, I really do. I’m trying to implement some of that here, but use the talent here to our advantage. I think our D core here is probably a little more offensive-oriented than we had in Boston as a group, not as individuals, but as a group, so let’s take advantage of that. I think we did in preseason. Our D were heavily involved. They’re getting good looks here. I think we’ve only gotten one goal out of them, but they’re getting points. They’re getting up in the play. That part’s been good. Just reflecting on how you message your group. I think you always do that every year, whether you’re in the same job or not, to be honest with you, because you’re going to have some new faces. A little bit of that as well.

TSN: I think it was [Boston Celtics Hall of Famer and former NBA head coach] Larry Bird who had the theory that a coach generally has a shelf life of three years. Had you heard of that theory and how does a coach manage that?

Cassidy: No, what I’ve heard is that sometimes if you don’t win in your first three years a championship, it’s tough, but I don’t know. I guess I’d have to look all that up and see if that’s accurate. I think I was five-and-a-half, six [seasons] almost in Boston and we had success in terms of winning hockey games. We just didn’t win the Cup unfortunately. Now the focus is on Vegas. I’d like to stay in Vegas as long as I can, to be honest with you [laughs]. I’ve got a family there and I don’t want to pick up and move every few years. But I understand it’s a business and the reason I got a job is that someone else got let go. So there’s part of that, but it’s certainly not in the back of my mind that three-year window. I like Larry Bird. I think he’s a smart guy, a great basketball player. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong. I don’t know. 

TSN: In the off-season, players work out at the gym or rink to get better at their craft. How does a coach in the off-season get better at their craft?

Cassidy: I read a lot, in-season, off-season, and it’s not always hockey-related books. It’s a little about sometimes how the mind works, behaviours, etc. I typically will watch all of the presentations that, whether it’s the NHL Coaches’ Association or something in Europe. There’s different organizations that do those. I always found that as a way to almost interview a guy. You’re listening to his philosophy, how he speaks, how he presents. It’s a good way to get to know people, if you’re ever in that position to interview for a job, to get to know them a bit, or if you’re interviewing that person for a job, you’ve got a little head’s up on what they’re talking about. I like it just to get to know the people. I do a lot of that. Sometimes, the presentations are excellent. You take a lot from them. You usually find something in there. Everybody does things differently. I enjoy those.

TSN: You have any book recommendations for people?

Cassidy: Oh boy. What did I just finish? It’s funny, I just finished, because Bill Foley, our owner, recommended Lonesome Dove. It’s about 30 years old but it’s a bit of his roots, family history from Texas to Montana. Getting to know the west a little bit geographically and historically would be good for me. That was an interesting read and had nothing to do with sports or psychology or anything. It was just a [good] book [the Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction in 1986, written by American writer Larry McMurtry]. I think it was a TV series years ago, but I was too young to remember it and watch.

There was a really good book I read before that. I’m reading a book now called Ahab: A Hockey Story [written by Brad Huestis]. It’s a guy out of Boston who was a wounded warrior. He was a hockey player and he played hockey after. It’s very interesting. He was stationed over in Germany when he got injured and how he’s continued to play hockey, even though he’s missing the lower half of his leg. I think it’s a good book. It’s inspiring a little bit. Those are the ones I’ve read recently. I would recommend Legacy. I love that book. It’s the [New Zealand rugby] All-Blacks. It’s really good and you don’t have to know anything about rugby. It’s just about building a culture, team, and organization. There’s a lot of those books out there, I just thought that one had some real powerful stuff. Some of it we were implementing in Boston without knowing it and some of it that I took and tried to implement. That’s one I would definitely recommend.

TSN: Going back to on the ice. You’ve been around for a long time. How has the sport evolved? It looks like it’s all speed and offence. But how has it changed?

Cassidy: Well, I still think sound defence wins you hockey games. If you can check well, you’ll get the puck back a lot and you’ll have it a lot. I think the teams that have learned to do that and are good offensive engines, like Tampa. I watched them. I watched them evolve because they kept beating us, so I saw how they went from an offensive-minded team that then bought in later. Coop [Lightning head coach Jon Cooper] did a great job at getting them to buy in away from the puck and all of a sudden, they were comfortable winning a 2-1 hockey game. Pittsburgh, when they won the Cup. Everyone thinks with Sully [Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan]. They beat, I think it was Nashville, the last two games were 2-0. You have to be comfortable in that. I still think that’s a big part of the game. I watched it with Colorado over the years how last year. They were able to tighten it up when they had to, but still be exciting, still generate offence, still have a ton of speed, but they learned to value the details of the game. 

I still think that’s a big part of hockey and you’ll see it with a lot of teams. I think Florida’s going through that transformation right now or trying to value that part, too. For me, I still think that’s how I coach or try to coach. That is a non-negotiable, that you’re going to be able to check well and check with structure with the offence and speed part of it. That’s the beauty of the game, right, that people like to watch and I don’t blame them. So do I. To get to that, you have to get the puck back and you have to have a plan to do that. 

TSN: What’d you learn from Darryl Sutter in your year with him in the late 1980s in Indianapolis with the Ice of the [now defunct] IHL [International Hockey League]?

Cassidy: Just what I just talked to you about, honestly. He taught me how to win. We were in Indianapolis and Saginaw together. I was an offensive defenceman under Darryl, but he did teach me to value the part about checking and to be hard to play against as a team. I saw it with my own eyes with our team. We started the year off, we’re losing some games 2-1 because we weren’t scoring much, and all of a sudden it’s 2-2, now we’re winning games 3-1, and then it became 4- and 5-1 because teams didn’t want to play against us. All of a sudden, they start cheating. He taught me about the details of winning and building a team. He did a really good job with all four lines, all six D. It was five some nights, it seemed. That part of the game, I really appreciated from Darryl. And to be demanding. How you be demanding is different from coach to coach, and everyone takes their own path in that, but he taught me that that is part of it. You have to be demanding in certain areas of the game and I agree with him.

TSN: Finally - you mentioned the NHL Coaches’ Association. What’s the biggest challenge or concern you have regarding NHL coaches in general?

Cassidy: I would say, they get hired and fired quickly, maybe quicker than before. So the longevity or tenure in one spot. But it’s the owner’s right to do that. I’ve gotten other jobs, like I said, because someone got let go. That’s just something that we signed up for. I’d like to see guys get a little longer leash, but that’s part of the business side of it.

Other than that, I think coaches are doing much better than they were over the years. They’ve progressed well in terms of how many people they can have on their staff, financially they’re doing well. I think there’s a lot of good that came from the coaches’ association and guys getting together. I think Mike Babcock was a driver behind the more recent [association]. Before that, George Kingston did a really good job trying to get the guys together. Now we’re sharing information and we’re doing these talks and it’s helping each other. We’re trying to get guys speaking engagements that are unemployed so they get back in front of people. I think they’ve done a lot of good things to try to help each other, as much for the guys that are out of a job that have a job. When you have a job, things are good, right? When you don’t and you want to get back in, it can be difficult. I’ve been there, where you’ve got to knock on doors, so any resources are provided to you that can help you with that, I think, is one of the first things I always recommend we put our money towards, is to help the guys that are looking [for work].