By Doug Reese
FLORENCE, S.C. – Jack Capuano saw plenty of rivalry the past eight hockey seasons.Every time his Pee Dee Pride took the ice against the South Carolina Stingrays, there was a little extra excitement, a little more at stake.
But, until October, he’d never seen anything quite like an Islanders-Rangers game – the NHL’s only cross-town rivalry in the largest city in the U.S., New York.
Capuano, who took a job as an Islanders assistant coach after the Pride suspended operations last spring, has seen the match-up five times now, and he said it takes rivalry to another level.
“Now that I’m an Islander and know what the rivalry’s like, it’s unbelievable. The stars are out and it’s 60 minutes of one hell of a battle,” Capuano said last week, when he returned to the Pee Dee during the NHL’s Olympic break. “It’s a great atmosphere.”
Less than a year since leaving Florence, Capuano’s already had plenty of highs and lows.
The highs include those Isles-Rangers games – whether they’re at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum or NYC’s Madison Square Garden – and trips to the NHL’s other storied cities like Toronto and Montreal.
Capuano’s gotten to see hockey’s next-generation players, No. 1 overall picks like Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby (2005) Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (2004) and Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk (2001). And, despite the increase in size, skill and pay-scale, Capuano said there’s really no difference in dealing with NHL talent.
“Players are players,” said the former defenseman who played in six NHL games. “It’s amazing. At times you pinch yourself, seeing the Ovechkins and the young kids like Crosby and Kovalchuk on the ice.”
The Islanders’ stars, however, haven’t performed quite so impressively.
New York (25-27-4) is 12th in the Eastern Conference standings, six points behind the eighth and final playoff spot. The team is last in attendance among the 30 NHL teams at 12,667 fans per game.
After dropping eight of nine games, the Islanders shook up the front office as Mike Milbury resigned as general manager and fired coach Steve Stirling – the man who hired Capuano, Brad Shaw and Dan Bylsma in the offseason.
Shaw took over as head coach for the rest of the season Jan. 12 with Capuano and Bylsma staying on as his assistants.
“Everybody goes through changes,” Capuano said. “Steve brought us in there and we wish him the best. He’ll land on his feet. It’s just unfortunate. He went through a tough time with injuries. That’s the nature of the business. That’s what we signed up for.
“We weren’t winning games. Somebody had to take the brunt of it, and unfortunately it had to be Steve. We’ve just got to move forward and concentrate.”The Isles showed signs of turning their season around before the break. They’ve gone 7-5-2 with Shaw at the helm, including 5-2-1 in their last eight.
New York gets back to work today, when practice resumes from the two-and-a-half-week break for the Winter Games.
During the time off, Capuano returned to Florence, where he served as Pride coach for two seasons before moving over to the front office for six years – briefly retaking the bench in 2000 on an interim basis. He stayed with old neighbors and took in the Pride’s replacements, the SPHL’s Pee Dee Cyclones, for two home games last weekend.
In the bowels of a mostly-empty Florence Civic Center on Thursday – the Cyclones are last in the league at 1,467 fans per game, fighting the attendance problems that led the Pride to leave town – Capuano asked the once-rabid Pee Dee fans to support their team.
“Hockey’s hockey. It’s a great sport,” he said. “No matter what level it is, if you’re a hockey fan, you’re gonna enjoy it. And I can’t stress enough to the people in this community to come out and support these guys.
“Even though people think it’s not ECHL hockey, it’s (SPHL) an opportunity for these kids to continue their playing career. I see guys out there giving everything they’ve got tonight, and that’s what the game is all about.”
Before taking a major step forward in his professional coaching career, Capuano got the chance to see some of the world’s rising stars play for national pride.The 39-year-old coached the U.S. Under-18 Select Team at the Junior World Cup in Slovakia. The Americans went 3-1-1 and finished fifth at the international tournament – another 2005 highlight for Capuano.
“Anytime you’re standing there listening to your anthem before the game and dealing with guys playing for their country, it’s great,” he said. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime. I thank USA Hockey for doing that, and I’d like to get the opportunity to do that again for sure.”
Capuano would also like the chance to advance his NHL coaching career. The Islanders’ future remains in flux with Milbury helping the organization find a new GM and a permanent coach.
Capuano said he doesn’t know how this situation will shake out, but he definitely wants to stay behind the bench.
“Obviously, when you get to the NHL level, you want to stay there,” he said. “None of us on the Islander coaching staff know what the future holds for us. But I love to coach; I want to coach; and we’ll just see what happens at the end of the year. I’ll keep all my options open.”