ET SPORTS RERUN: When Cassidy was a coaching neophyte

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Jun. 7—(Editor's note: The Boston Bruins fired head coach Bruce Cassidy earlier today. Here is a column by Bill Burt on Cassidy's early years in coaching through the eyes of a former player who played for Cassidy in minors after attending Salem St.)

Kurt Mallett remembers details of his first meeting with current Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, from early December of 1996, as if it were yesterday.

Mallett, a Salem State University All-American, was in his third professional season, playing forward for the Jacksonville Lizard Kings of the ECHL, when his coach was fired only 20 games into the season and he met the then-31-year-old rookie Coach Cassidy in his new office.

"I had a sinus infection or something and my face was a little swollen with my right eye was practically closed," recalled Mallett, a Saugus native. "We don't even say 'hi' to each other before he says, 'What the (bleep) is wrong with you?' That really was our first introduction."

It gets better.

The duo chatted for a bit before Cassidy referred back to Mallett's "blind" eye.

"He said, 'I'll move you to left wing then,' " said Mallett. "I said,'I can't see!' He said, 'You'll be OK on the left side.' Two days later, he made me play."

Despite the fact that it seemed a little odd that his new coach was so young — "He even looked younger than he really was," said Mallett — the duo hit it off.

Mallett, the second all-time leading scorer at Salem State (217 points in 117 games), had the best two years of his career under Cassidy's watch in Jacksonville — 73 points in 61 games and 62 points in 60 games.

"He was obviously learning on the job," said Mallett. "He had just retired (while in International Hockey League) and a week or two later was coaching us. You could see he knew the game. The hockey knowledge was there."

The team wasn't great the rest of that 1996-97 season, finishing 15-25-10, but a year later Cassidy led the Lizard Kings and Mallett to a much-improved 35-29-6 record.

"Butch [Cassidy's nickname] was a very smart guy," said Mallett. "He was always playing crossword puzzles. His mind was sharp and quick. He'd be a good guy on Jeopardy. He's knows a little bit about a lot of things."

Mallett recalled one funny "Cassidy" story on a bus ride back to Jacksonville from Birmingham.

"It was about three in the morning and apparently the equipment manager didn't completely shut the door of the bus. All of a sudden, the door opens and a couple of bags and the skate sharpener [machine] go flying outside. They ended up going out to get the bags and one of them had Bruce's skates in them. They were all beat up.

"Sometimes when we'd lose a game, we would skate when we got back," said Mallett. "Thankfully, we didn't have to skate the day."

They parted ways after that season with Cassidy moving on to the IHL's Indianapolis Ice and then back to the ECHL for the Trenton Titans. Mallett did a stint with two IHL teams and three ECHL teams before Cassidy made a deal to get Mallett in Trenton, where he played 13 games before retiring.

"We became friends, carefully straddling the line of management and player," said Mallett, who is manager of hockey operations for Seacoast Spartans of Exeter, N.H. "We'd go to concerts, holiday dinners, etc. My wife and his wife were friends."

Since their careers paths changed, Mallett says they still stay in contact.

"We text each other from time to time," said Mallett. "I didn't text him before a game and they lost. So now I text him before every game. He usually comes back with wisecrack answers."

In terms of Cassidy's success, count Mallett as one who is not surprised one bit.

"He's really matured as coach," said Mallett. "He's learned from his earlier experiences. And right now, he's as good of a coach as there in the NHL. He deserves a lot of credit for what the Bruins are doing."

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.