One step closer

LAKE PLACID – Chadd Cassidy said he was “floored” upon receiving the word that he was the new head coach of the Rochester Americans. But, then again, the Lake Placid native knows that in the world of professional sports, changes at the top are always a possibility.

After spending a season-and-a-half behind the bench as assistant coach of the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans (or Amerks), Cassidy was named the team’s head coach on Feb. 20. He took over the job when Ron Rolston was named the interim head coach of the Amerks’ parent NHL club, the Buffalo Sabres, following the firing of Lindy Ruff.

“It was a crazy day, obviously, with Lindy getting released,” Cassidy said from his office Thursday. “I was just getting my day going, and we had a game that night. I saw that I had a missed call from Darcey (Regier, the Sabres’ general manager) and a second one from Ron. I knew something was up.

“I called Ron back, and I asked him what was going on, and he said, ‘I’m the new coach of the Buffalo Sabres and you are the new coach of the Rochester Americans.’ I was shocked. Lindy was the longest-tenured coach in the NHL. He’s a great guy, a funny guy, and he’s well loved. He was a pillar of the Sabres as a player and a coach. I wasn’t expecting that at all, but that kind of thing happens all the time in pro sports.”

Rolston’s departure to Buffalo marked – at least for the near future – the end of a seven-and-half-year run that saw the two coaches work side by side behind the hockey bench. Cassidy was Rolston’s assistant in Rochester during the entire 2011-12 season, and served in the same role during the five years before that when they ran a very successful USA Hockey National Team Development Program that earned numerous international titles.

“We were together for a long time,” Cassidy said. “Not only is he my boss, but he is my best friend. We still talk to each other pretty much every day – you know, pick each other’s brains. Our families are close; his kids were over yesterday. Ron still lives in Rochester. It’s a long commute. I expect he will get an apartment there (in Buffalo) until the end of the season, but right now, Ron just goes everywhere the Sabres go.”

Prior to joining Rolston in the coaching ranks, Cassidy spent four seasons leading the National Sports Academy boys program in Lake Placid. Before that, he had NCAA Division III coaching stints at SUNY schools in Cortland and Potsdam.

Three games into his new job, Rolston got his first NHL head coaching victory when the struggling Sabres edged Tampa Bay 2-1 on the road on Wednesday. The Sabres then completed a two-game sweep on their Florida trip, topping the Panthers 4-3 in a shootout Thursday to post back-to-back wins for just the third time this season.

Meanwhile, Cassidy is still looking for his first win as an AHL head coach after Rochester has dropped four straight since he took the helm. Cassidy and his team will get their next chance to end that four-game skid when they take on the Syracuse Crunch tonight on the road.

Despite the four losses in a row, Cassidy is optimistic about his team’s chance to earn a Calder Cup playoff berth. After their most recent setback, a 2-1 loss to the Toronto Marlies on Wednesday, the Amerks have a 27-22-2-1 mark and are just two points out of eighth place in the Western Conference. Eight teams from each of the Eastern and Western conferences will reach the postseason, and the Amerks are only six points or less behind the four conference rivals directly ahead of them in the standings.

“We are in a good spot in terms of the playoff race,” Cassidy said. “We’re playing pretty good hockey, and we have four games at hand over some of the other teams. When Ron left, he took our captain and leading scorer (Kevin Porter) with him, we’ve had some other guys in and out of the lineup, so we’re adjusting to the situations we face. That’s how it goes in the AHL.

“Our goaltending is good, and our defense is solid right now. We just have to put more pucks in the net,” Cassidy continued. “We have struggled at finishing off recently, and that goes back to when Ron was with us. We’re just telling the guys to keep working and be patient. Their competitive level is there.”

As an assistant, Cassidy said he was fortunate to be given important responsibilities by Rolston, and that’s helped ease his transition into the head coaching job, which is also an interim position. Cassidy, however, said being head coach enters a “whole different realm.”

“I’ve been coaching the last 15 years, and I’m comfortable with that side of things,” Cassidy said. “The big thing is the time you put in as a head coach. As the assistant, my biggest concerns were our defense and penalty kill. Now I have more responsibilities in terms of the media, talking to the Sabres, keeping track of our players. As the head coach, you have to look at all the things it takes to run the team.”

Cassidy is the 30th head coach in the history of the Americans and is joined behind the team’s bench by Chris Taylor, who also came on as an assistant when Rolston and Cassidy arrived in Rochester at the start of last season.

Although Cassidy has never played in hockey’s pro ranks, he is continuing a rapid climb in the sport’s coaching level and is another step closer toward his dream of a future career behind the bench in the NHL.

Back in Lake Placid, his father Rik, the rest of his family and friends are excited to see this coach from their hometown closing in on that dream as well.

“Rochester has made some big improvements, especially on defense, and Ron credited Chadd with a lot of that,” Rik Cassidy said. “The guys are blocking pucks; they’re laying themselves on the line. It’s pretty exciting to have a son who is a head coach in the AHL. Chadd always said coaching can take strange directions.

“My dad’s words of advice were just relax, keep coaching the way you coach, and you’ll be fine,” Cassidy said. “The day I got the job, the response from back home that night was overwhelming. My phone was literally lighting up nonstop with texts and messages saying ‘Congratulations.’ It was awesome.”