To the very end and to the surprise of absolutely nobody, 57-year-old Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy remained a class act.
On the week he was summarily fired and utilized as a scapegoat by a Boston Bruins front office dealing with a hockey team at the end of their Stanley Cup window with an aging core group of hockey players, Cassidy stuck to the high road and took to defending a record that saw him lead all six of his Boston Bruins teams into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The details were equal parts interesting and infuriating, of course.
Cassidy revealed that the Boston Bruins told him a few weeks ago that he’d be coaching into the final year of his contract, and that was the initial plan as he’d already fired assistant coach Kevin Dean. Obviously, NHL head coaches are always “on the clock” as Cassidy said on Thursday, but the message he’d received is that he wouldn’t be moving his family for next season.
Instead, Sweeney paid a visit to Cassidy’s Winchester home on Monday afternoon and informed the head coach that there’d been a sea change and he’d been fired. Needless to say, Cassidy was upset and understandably so feeling like he did his job as a head coach accumulating 245 in five full seasons and one partial one campaign along with guiding the team to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
Did Cassidy feel like he got a raw deal?
“I wanted to come back and coach and the Bruins,” said Cassidy. “It’s been a privilege and an honor. You know, the 14 years here, in different capacities in the organization, and the Bruin is basically tattooed to me. So, that’s the difficult part: the friendships you make, business relationships with people, the personal relationships.
“‘Raw deal?’ I don’t know about that. I feel I did my job. We can always get better. We can always be better. Every coach, player, management, anybody walks away from the game at the end of the year [asking], ‘Where could I have done better to be the last team standing?’ It’s not that easy. We were close, obviously, in 2019. Still bothers me to this day. We could have done better. But at the end of the day, I understand the business part of it, I really do that coaches come and go. I got an opportunity because a very good coach got let go who won a Stanley Cup here. So, I get it.”
Bruce Cassidy still showing support for the Boston sports scene with a Boston Celtics shirt at his farewell zoom with the Boston Bruins media pic.twitter.com/wBV3txa78D
— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) June 9, 2022
Cassidy was referencing him replacing Claude Julien during the 2016-17 NHL season when Julien, at the time, was painted as a coach unable to develop young players and perhaps a little too conservative in his approach. By the end, Cassidy was painted with a similar brush as a coach whose message wasn’t getting through to his players, and who hadn’t been able to help develop young players like Jack Studnicka, Urho Vaakanainen and others on the Boston Bruins prospect list.
It’s difficult to put that on the head coach, however, when the Boston Bruins went out and spent dollars last summer for five free agent acquisitions that didn’t leave much room for developing young players to claim NHL roster spots.
“I think what happens is when you’re a team that’s contending for a Stanley Cup, there’s just not as much room on the roster to put those guys in on a regular basis,” said Cassidy. “We want guys to learn from their mistakes. It’s going to happen. No one’s perfect and we’re okay with that. But at the end of the day, when you’re vying for a championship, the closer you get to that, any player young or old has to make sure that their game’s buttoned up.
“That’s our job as a staff to make them better. Head coach and assistant coaches. Honestly, I can’t say enough about [Jay Pandolfo], Joe Sacco, Kevin [Dean], now Chris Kelly. Like they poured their heart and soul into making these guys better and I hope at some point they appreciate that down the road that they cared about the player and cared about him as a person. And I think I fit into that category.”
There were some charges that Boston Bruins players chafed under Cassidy holding those players accountable, and that the healthy scratches and postgame critiques were a message delivery system that had worn out its welcome in the B’s dressing room. But a dressing room full of hockey players that can’t handle accountability is a hockey team that isn’t going to be very good.
“Cam [Neely] had come to me once and said, ‘Listen, just be careful because it can be construed the wrong way with players.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ And I said, ‘Cam, everything I’ve said out here is said to the player as well, but I understand what you’re saying,’” said Cassidy. “Sometimes, I think a narrative gets created in the media that maybe wasn’t meant. I’ve been often asked, for example, ‘What’d you think of [goaltender Jeremy] Swayman’s play tonight?’ ‘Yeah, I thought he was OK, but their guy made a save or two at the key time.’ And then it’s like, ‘Well now you’re throwing Swayman [under the bus] … you know what I mean? And it gets – it creates a bit of – maybe not the message that I was trying to say was, ‘Hey, he’s been better, he was OK,’ but I should have said, ‘Hey, that’s not the reason we lost,’ expand on it. And sometimes when you’re honest, it could get you in trouble here and there. But as I said, I think I’ve always tried to make sure the player understands what exactly is expected and where we’re going and what we’re going to do moving forward.
“Over the course of my time here, I went to our leadership group a lot. ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Hey, this player here, I don’t think he’s receiving your delivery as well as the player beside him.’ ‘OK, thank you.’ And then it’s you bring the player in, we talk, and that becomes a little more of an interpersonal back-and-forth, as opposed to less, direct on the bench, ‘Hey this is what we need’ and move on. And that’s what I wanted out of those guys. You want to correct and get to the perfect way to communicate to players as quickly as possible, and that’s easier said than done.”
Interestingly enough, Cassidy said multiple times in his nearly hour-long zoom call with reporters that he still held Don Sweeney in high regard and respected what he had to say from a hockey perspective. The ex-Boston Bruins head coach wasn’t quite as effusive in describing his relationship with Boston Bruins President Cam Neely, who had been very critical of Cassidy’s need to change his style last month while addressing the media.
Without any inside info to confirm it, this felt like a move spurred on by Neely and perhaps Boston Bruins ownership that Sweeney needed to be leveraged into before ultimately being the message-sender to Cassidy on Monday. Let’s not forget that at this point Sweeney is still working without an executed contract to be the Boston Bruins general manager for next season and beyond.
Cassidy was asked if he thought he was being scapegoated and essentially answered the question by not answering it.
“I don’t know,” said Cassidy. “You guys will have to determine that.
“At the end of the day, did I still want to be here? Absolutely. Do I want to coach in this league? Yes, as soon as possible, because it’s what I do. I coach and I love to do it. So that’s how I’ll answer that. Like I said, I have a lot of respect for Donnie and how we’ve built our relationship over the years. He’s got a job to do. He made a decision. That falls under his purview, to decide who the next coach is. He made a decision. So now I’m on to the next challenge.”
The bottom line for Cassidy in his “exit meeting” with the Boston Bruins media?
Cassidy is leaving Boston certainly disappointed that it’s now over and he may have to uproot his young family (wife Julie and kids Cole and Shannon) after 13 years working for the Boston Bruins organization. But Cassidy was also appreciative that the Black and Gold helped him get his pro hockey coaching career back on track after he was fired by the Washington Capitals from his first NHL gig while in his 30’s, and now he enters this summer as a head coaching free agent in demand with “a number of NHL teams” interested in hiring him.
“Absolutely,” said Cassidy of coaching an NHL team in 2022-23. “This is what I do. Obviously, I have a family [and] you have to make sure it’s the right opportunity for myself and my family. And they’re the right fit and I’m the right fit for them.”
The big winner in all of this is Cassidy.
He’s got Boston Bruins fans on his side in a mostly unjustified firing, he’s getting out of Boston while the getting was still good as things look like they may be taking an ugly turn at the start of the 2022-23 NHL season, and he’s still being paid by the Bruins whether or not he coaches next season. Teams like the Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers will be knocking on Cassidy’s door and there’s every chance he could be tormenting this aging, declining Boston Bruins team for years to come from behind another Eastern Conference bench.
Cassidy certainly deserved better than a dysfunctional Boston Bruins organization firing him weeks after telling him he was safe to return for next season, but he’ll undoubtedly find that better treatment somewhere else. And Neely and Sweeney are now out of “fall guys” after pinning things on the head coach with a Boston Bruins team steering into rough waters ahead that is no longer Cassidy’s problem to solve.