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Capitals Gave Bruce Cassidy, Golden Knights’ Steward, His First NHL Coach Job



Vegas Golden Knights head coach Bruce Cassidy.
Years before guiding the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final, Bruce Cassidy got his start as an NHL head coach with the Washington Capitals.

Bruce Cassidy is knocking on the door of 60-years old and, with that, his hair is thinning out. 

At one point during his playing career, Cassidy’s jet black locks were nearly Jagr-esque. His mane, now with subtleties of gray, is much tighter to the head these days, a sign of the changing times.

At 58, Cassidy is the elder statesman in this year’s Stanley Cup Finals. His Vegas Golden Knights are one win away from clinching the organization’s first-ever championship, a threshold Cassidy has yet to cross in nearly 30 years behind the bench across five different leagues.

But long before Cassidy left his mark on Sin City, the Washington Capitals made him a 37-year-old rookie NHL head coach.

Cassidy was the second-youngest coach in the league when Capitals general manager George McPhee hired him to replace Ron Wilson, whose teams failed to make much noise in the playoffs for most of his five-year stint.

“[McPhee] has shown confidence and faith in me to lead his team, and I’m looking forward to it,” Cassidy said at his introductory press conference in the summer of 2002. “I’m 37 years old and I never coached a day in the NHL, but I don’t think that’s going to stop what I’m going to try to do, and that’s go out and win and make our players better players and better people.”

“I’m thankful, I’m grateful, I’m nervous — I’m a lot of different things today,” Cassidy added. “It’s a great opportunity for me, and I certainly didn’t see it coming this year, but I’m very pleased it did. Now I owe something to George McPhee to prove that he made the right choice.”

Cassidy, who was fresh off two seasons leading the minor-league Grand Rapids Griffins, had no NHL coaching experience while his injury-riddled playing career included a mere 37 big-league games. Yet he was tasked right away with overseeing one of the league’s most top-heavy rooms, one that included skilled defenseman Sergei Gonchar and top scorer Peter Bondra, as well Jaromir Jagr, the league’s highest-paid player.

With the presence of the three, as well as free agent signee Robert Lang, Cassidy guided the Capitals to 92 regular season points, good enough for the sixth-seed in the Eastern Conference. But the three-seed Tampa Bay Lightning — led by Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and others — bested Washington in the first round.

“We had a new coach and a lot of new players last year, and it took us some time to get going,” McPhee said before the start of the 2003-04 season, according to Washington Post archives. “The first 25 games we probably gave some points away, and in the second half I thought we played much better — the chemistry seemed to improve and the lines seemed to work — and now the coaches have a season under their belt.”

Despite that experience, things quickly turned south for Cassidy as the Capitals opened the season with losses in seven of their first eight games. By December, with the team holding a 8-18-1-1 record, Cassidy was fired.

“It was bad right from the start,” an unnamed Capital told the Washington Post’s Jason La Canfora, recalling the early days of Cassidy’s tenure. “He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and started writing stuff on the blackboard. Everyone was just kind of looking at each other. We didn’t know what was going on. It looked like he was winging it. He had all summer to prepare for this day and it looked like he didn’t know what he was doing. Guys started to worry right away.”

In hindsight, Cassidy’s time in Washington was far from disaster. The Capitals ended the 2003-04 season with the third-worst record, won the draft lottery, and selected an 18-year-old Russian forward named Alex Ovechkin.

Cassidy returned to the sidelines after the 2004-05 season was canceled due to the lockout, resurfacing as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks. That was followed by two seasons coaching in the OHL before he joined the Providence Bruins as an AHL assistant. 

In 2016, Cassidy returned to an NHL bench as a Boston Bruins assistant before being promoted to the head job the following season. He was the team’s bench boss in 2019, guiding the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final, before being fired last summer.

Now in his first season in Vegas, Cassidy’s Golden Knights hold a 3-1 lead over the Florida Panthers. Game 5 is scheduled for Tuesday night.

Jared Serre covers the Washington Capitals for Washington Hockey Now. He is a graduate of West Virginia University.