By Mike Fornabaio
There’s the Jack Capuano story about Bernie Cassell’s cell phone. Cassell — he’s now Capuano’s assistant coach with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers — had an old cell phone this past season, huge and heavy, like a brick. “He used to call me Zack Morris from ‘Saved by the Bell,’ ” Cassell said. “He met my good buddy from back home, and it didn’t take long for that story to come up.”
Team president Howard Saffan had to laugh about some of the surnames that came out of Capuano’s mouth. “Jack is famous throughout the locker room for butchering last names,” Saffan said. “He couldn’t tell you somebody’s last name if it could save his life. (Kyle) Okposo to him is Accaposo. It goes on and on.”
But all those Cappy stories come coupled with admiration for the coach, for the personality, for the man, who on April 30 became Bridgeport’s fifth coach. He worked for a chance with the New York Islanders. He accepted another challenge in the organization. Now he’s the Islanders’ top development coach. “I had a great opportunity to work with him as my coach,” Islanders general manager and former goaltender Garth Snow said. “His communication skills and his knowledge of the game are probably the two biggest pluses he has going.”
Capuano, 40, will set out his goals and requirements at the start of the new season. He’ll stick with them. But his personality won’t change a bit. “He knows the game, no question about that,” said former Sound Tigers goalie Wade Dubielewicz, now signed as the Islanders’ backup. “What sticks out is he’s a really happy, positive person.”
A coach wants to be firm. A coach wants to be fair. A coach wants his team to have fun. Capuano believes you can have all three.
He has to win
Donna Capuano met her husband at the University of Maine in the late 1980s, when Jack was in the middle of an All-America career as an offensive defenseman. What caught her eye? “He’s outgoing. He’s friendly,” Donna Capuano said. “It seems so long ago, but probably that he was funny.”
Spend enough time around Capuano and you’ll discover that sense of humor. You might even pick up a nickname along the way. “He’s a real quality guy,” said former Sound Tigers coach Steve Stirling, who hired Capuano as a New York Islanders assistant coach two years ago. “He relates well with everyone, and not just players. He relates with fans, coaches, management.”
Capuano said he honed that when he added the general manager’s title to his coaching duties with the Pee Dee Pride of the ECHL. He held the GM’s job for six seasons there in South Carolina.
The family moved back north after their stint in Pee Dee; Donna is from Bangor, Maine, and that’s where they live now in the off-season. Donna calls Jack a great dad to daughter Adriana, 14, and son Anthony, 12. He takes them hunting and fishing, like Jack loved as a kid; he takes an interest as Adriana plays tennis and soccer and as Anthony plays hockey and baseball.
Jack played those two sports and football growing up at Kent School — a boarding school in northwest Connecticut — loving the competition.
“His competitiveness in practice — he has to win in the shootout. He has to win in hit-the-post,” Cassell said. “What I love about him is he’s got a ton of energy. He obviously loves the game, lives and dies the game.”
After a couple of years in supporting roles, Capuano is back in charge of a club. He has to develop talent for the Islanders, but he has to balance that against the drive to win. “Let’s face it: Myself and a lot of other coaches are very competitive. If they didn’t tell you that, they’d probably be lying,” Capuano said. “I do want to win hockey games, yes, but I do understand, first and foremost, our goal is to develop.”
He has seen what the Islanders will need.
Capuano became an assistant coach with the Islanders in 2005-06 after the NHL lockout. That was actually his second stint with the team, since he was traded to the Islanders in his cup-of-coffee NHL career as a player, but never played a game there.
“He was comfortable, clearly, with who he is. That’s probably what impressed me the most,” Stirling said. “I thought he had a lot to offer (as a coach) and just needed the opportunity.”
That got him in the door, and Capuano is still effusive in his thanks to Stirling, to then-GM Mike Milbury, to owner Charles Wang. Among the players on that team was a veteran goalie named Garth Snow. “He’s a good man,” Snow said of Capuano, who had a four-year pro career, which included time in the AHL and IHL. “He’s got a great family. He’s a great coach. It was nice to learn that firsthand as a player.”
There was an adjustment period — Stirling remembered telling Capuano to “turn it loose” at one point, to let the personality shine — but Capuano made an impression. “The big difference at that level is the professionalism of the guys,” Capuano said, “the way they handle themselves on and off the ice. It’s something we want to create in the culture here, to make sure guys are prepared as better players, better people, to develop those guys to become future Islanders.”
In some superficial ways, Capuano may seem a bit like another Sound Tigers and former ECHL coach, Dave Baseggio: quick-witted former college and pro defensemen, bright, young coaches, whose amiable natures belie their drive. Baseggio served four years as an assistant and one year as head coach before being inexplicably let go in 2006, replaced by Dan Marshall. That move, though, opened the door to Bridgeport for Capuano. “Most coaches would have looked down at the opportunity,” said Saffan, who was one of the people pushing for Capuano to be Bridgeport’s associate coach. “Cappy looked at it the other way. It was an incredible opportunity to teach the players and help develop for the organization.”
Capuano’s penalty kill led the league in the early going. But with the team floundering at New Year’s, Snow shifted around the coaching responsibilities. “I didn’t like the way our team was playing,” Snow said. “I’m not going to get into depth about it, but from that point on, the team really changed its direction.”
None of the titles changed, and some people still imply that Capuano had less power vested in him than some others insist he had.
Two things were clear: Capuano was running the bench during games, and the atmosphere turned around. The team went 15-5-0-1 in the next 21 games. “The attitude of the team changed,” Dubielewicz said. “Somewhat, we were playing in different directions the first part of the year. The organization decided to make some changes, and the whole team’s direction kind of came into focus.”
With many Sound Tigers expected back, at least they have that experience with Capuano. “I see he’s got a great rapport with players,” Snow said. “That being said, he’s got the ability to hold players accountable when they need to be. “When I’ve talked to players, my former teammates, players that were in Bridgeport this year,” Snow added, “they thought it was a great decision to have Jack be coach of the Sound Tigers, just because there’s a lot of young prospects there we want to get here, and we want to win.”
Capuano will be firm but fair, but there’s no changing that personality. So there will be many more Cappy stories to come around this team. “Cappy will be all over the community, whether he knows it or not,” Saffan said. “I can say, let me introduce you to our head coach. I can sit down and not say another word.”