Brian Kilrea didn’t see a future Jack Adams Award winner when Bruce Cassidy was helping the Ottawa 67’s to their first Memorial Cup.
What the legendary junior coach believed he had was a star Ontario Hockey League defenceman primed for success at the next level.
“I was thinking Bruce was going to have a great career in the NHL,” Kilrea recalled Thursday in an interview from his Ottawa home. “He reminded me a little bit of Wayne Gretzky with how he anticipated the play.
“Bruce Cassidy did the same thing. He anticipated.”
What no one anticipated, however, was Cassidy’s career being cut short by a series of knee injuries. The Ottawa native and 18th overall pick by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1983 draft made his NHL debut at 19, but played just 36 regular-season games and one playoff contest over five seasons before heading to Europe.
Cassidy eventually found his way behind the bench with the Jacksonville Lizard Kings of the International Hockey League in 1996. The Washington Capitals gave him his first NHL shot ahead of the 2002-03 season, but he was fired at age 38 after just 110 games and one post-season series.
“Certain fellas might have looked back and went, ‘I guess my coaching career is over,”‘ Kilrea said.
But Cassidy dusted himself off and, some 17 years later, won the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year Wednesday after leading the Boston Bruins to the league’s best record prior to the 2019-20 season being suspended in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He started off as an assistant with the organization’s American Hockey League affiliate in 2008, graduated to head coach in 2011, was promoted to the Bruins’ NHL staff in 2016 and then took over the top job the following year after Claude Julien was fired.
After leading Boston to Game 7 of last year’s Stanley Cup final, Cassidy had Boston six points clear in the overall standings when the novel coronavirus brought the NHL to a screeching halt six months ago.
But the Bruins never really got going in the summer restart and then lost starting goalie and Vezina Trophy finalist Tuukka Rask when he abruptly left the bubble for family reasons before bowing out to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the playoffs.
“I give Boston credit for taking a chance on Bruce and putting him in their farm system,” Kilrea said. “And then for Bruce to go down there with determination and, never mind what happened somewhere else, keep coaching his way.”
Set to turn 86 next month, Kilrea added he sees a lot of Bruce Cassidy the player in Bruce Cassidy the coach.
“He worked hard and got nothing handed to him,” said the Canadian Hockey League’s all-time wins leader. “All his players play the same way. It didn’t work out in Washington, but he learned from it.”
In a Zoom conference call with reporters Wednesday night, Cassidy credited Kilrea for always putting people like himself in a position to succeed.
“When you win with a coach, you feel a lot of what he’s preaching and teaching has paid off,” said Cassidy, who hoisted the Memorial Cup with Kilrea in 1984. “When you win, you understand a little more of what they’re getting at.”
Now 55, he recalled going to 67’s games as a kid and idolizing the players. Next thing he knew, Kilrea was calling his number.
“A real good influence,” Cassidy said of the Hockey Hall of Famer. “Brian’s the type of guy … you go in, you’re a little bit scared because he’s such a legend, and you leave like you can talk about anything.
“I can’t thank him enough.”
Cassidy’s Jack Adams win is actually the second time in three months Kilrea has had the chance to celebrate an achievement for one of his former 67’s.
San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson — another Ottawa-bred defenceman Cassidy watched from the stands and then suited up alongside in Chicago — was voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a member of the 2020 class back in June.
“I’m proud of Dougie Wilson,” Kilrea said. “And I’m equally as proud of Bruce Cassidy.”