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Fresh Hires
Daniel G. Habib
September 09, 2002
More and more NHL teams are bringing in head coaches with little experience in the league
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September 09, 2002

Fresh Hires

More and more NHL teams are bringing in head coaches with little experience in the league

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Rookie Numbers

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.

























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."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]