How Bruce Cassidy’s failure as Capitals coach made him better for Bruins’ Stanley Cup run

"You learn in 15 years."

Bruce Cassidy speaks to the media after defeating the Carolina Hurricanes in Game Four to win the Eastern Conference Finals.
Bruce Cassidy speaks to the media after defeating the Carolina Hurricanes in Game Four to win the Eastern Conference Finals. –Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

It had been years since that fateful playoff game when Calle Johansson ran into Bruce Cassidy again, any animosity long gone. As coach of the Washington Capitals in 2003, Cassidy had infamously benched Johansson during the postseason, in what was ultimately the popular defenseman’s last game with the team. Johansson was understandably furious at the time, but he didn’t expect that history to come up as the two men started catching up in a press box. It was Cassidy who then wanted to apologize.

“I said, ‘Bruce, you don’t have to do that. I really appreciate you doing it, but you don’t have to because I don’t have a grudge against you or anything,’ ” Johansson recalled. “We talked for about 15 minutes after that, and that was it, it was all forgotten. When we met the next time after that, it was like nothing ever happened.

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“I think it’s a great story, and for him to come up and apologize to me for doing what he did that last game, it’s huge. It’s really big. He had no reason to do it and he didn’t have to do it, but he did, and I think that shows what a class guy he is.”

Fourteen years before Cassidy was promoted to head coach of the Boston Bruins in the wake of Claude Julien’s dismissal in 2017, he was arguably one of the worst coaches in Capitals franchise history. Cassidy’s tenure in Washington lasted just 15 months, fired 28 games into the 2003-04 season with tales of how he mishandled the locker room spilling into the media. But it was that disastrous first stint that made Cassidy better for this successful second one, guiding the Bruins back to the Stanley Cup finals where they’ll host the St. Louis Blues for Game 1 on Monday night.

“I think it’s just the aging process,” Cassidy said. “You learn in 15 years. If you want to get back, you’ve got to do things differently, take what you did well, learn what you didn’t do well. Part of that was how I communicated my message. I’ve learned to be better with it. Players are more receptive to it now than they were then, so shame on me. But that’s the way it goes. Here we are and hopefully I continue where I am.

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“I’m sure I will again next year and the year after that and the year after that. It’s just the way it goes in this business. So, that’s probably the biggest thing. Much more comfortable in my own skin is a term I’d use personally and career-wise and I think it’s made a difference.”

At the time he was hired by the Capitals in 2002, Cassidy was 37, the second-youngest coach in the league, with no prior experience. Johansson was 35 that season, and while he and his new coach didn’t get along, he also said he “felt kind of bad” for Cassidy, handed a veteran team that was at the start of what would become a rebuild. In Cassidy’s first on-ice meeting with players at training camp, he had his practice plan jotted down on a napkin. That story, along with several other instances of unprofessionalism, such as habitual instances of tardiness, were later leaked to The Post by an anonymous former Capitals player.

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Some practices ran more than 90 minutes, which is unheard of by today’s standards, and after one loss, he reportedly made references to players not using pregnant wives and sick children as an excuse for poor play. During that final playoff game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2003, Cassidy told Johansson to fight, which the latter refused because that had never been part of his game, and Cassidy benched Johansson in response. “As a teammate, all of us were like, this is a joke,” former goaltender Olie Kolzig said. Johansson opted against re-signing with the Capitals after the incident, though he said that decision wasn’t related to Cassidy.

“I’m not saying this because I was one of the older players, but I think he should have talked to the players a little more when he came in instead of trying to run the show as much as he did,” Johansson said.

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“The lack of professionalism kind of caught up to him his second year,” Kolzig said. “There was some comments made in team meetings that rubbed some players the wrong way and unfortunately got out to the media. We underachieved as a team that year, but there were some things behind the scenes that I think really ultimately got him fired. But having said all that, I’ve run into him a number of times over the years – I’d always see him up in the press box and we’d talk – and you could see that he’s definitely changed.”

Kolzig said Cassidy’s life off the ice at the time, which included “a messy divorce,” might have contributed to his behavior around the team. Cassidy seemingly alluded to that, too: “Better balance in my life overall makes you a little more patient with players as well,” he said Sunday. Former Capitals players acknowledged it was evident that Cassidy knew the game well, but then he struggled with how to communicate that to the team. He got another head coaching opportunity in 2011, when he was promoted with the Bruins’ American Hockey League affiliate in Providence.

“It’s been seven years ago I played for him in Providence and he was, obviously, not as mature as he is today, but extremely demanding on his players,” Boston defenseman Tory Krug said. “He expects excellence and holds his own team to a higher standard than anyone else around the league.

“I think the way he’s managed the bench, to me, has been the biggest difference. He’s an extremely emotional guy. He can yell and scream quite a bit and sometimes guys turn around and they’re like, ‘What’s going on here?’ Then, he can realize how to put things in perspective and realize what he has to do.”

As unprepared as Cassidy might have been for his first NHL opportunity, he badly wanted a second one and wondered if it would ever come. He’d had 14 years to consider what he’d do differently.

“At the end of the day, the chance came and I wanted to make sure that I took advantage,” Cassidy said. “I think I was ready for it when it happened and off we went.”