Islanders personify coach Jack Capuano's gritty, profane, never-say-die personality

ByJoe McDonald ESPN logo
Friday, May 13, 2016

SYOSSET, N.Y. -- Instead of the team bus, the New York Islanders should roll up to the rink in a stretched-out Pontiac Firebird.

In the mid-1980s, that car style was synonymous with Cranston, R.I., the hometown of Islanders coach Jack Capuano. He owned one. It was maroon.

When a team takes on the personality of its coach, it's an indication that the lines of communication are open and clear. That's the case for the Islanders. Their gritty, profane, never-say-die, in-your-face mentality is a direct reflection of Capuano. As a player, he toiled in the minors and played only six games in the NHL. He spent plenty of time in the minors as a coach, too, in places like Tallahassee, Fla., Knoxville, Tenn., Florence, S.C., and Bridgeport, Conn.

Now, in his sixth season as coach of the Islanders, Capuano, 49, has his team in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning hold a 2-1 series lead over the Islanders heading into Game 4 on Friday night at 7 p.m. ET at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. If the Islanders did not beat the Florida Panthers in the first round, there was some thought that Capuano would be relieved of his duties. But the players have bought into his message and general manager Garth Snow trusts Capuano.

"John Tavaresis our leader, obviously, but [Capuano] is the voice and we follow his personality and his character," said Islanders forward Matt Martin, who also played for Capuano in the AHL. "The way we watch video every day, the way he talks, the way he carries himself, obviously that's going to bleed into us a little bit. He's a good example of a good coach and someone who not only wants to win, but cares for us as players and individuals off the ice. He's not afraid to sit on the couch with you in the lounge and talk for a while. He's definitely someone who cares for you as people and that's a good thing."

Islanders forward Frans Nielsen, 32, also played for Capuano in the minors.

"He is hard and tough, but at the same time he's a coach who really cares about his players," Nielsen said. "No one wants us to succeed more than he does. He helps us and guides us. He truly cares about his players. You can [call him] a players' coach."

In 1981, Capuano played for a bantam team that won the national championship. He played two seasons of Interscholastic League hockey for Cranston High School East before transferring to the Kent School in Connecticut. He later became an All-American defenseman at the University of Maine and captained the Black Bears to a Hockey East Championship and an NCAA Frozen Four appearance in 1988.

His high school coach, Dick Ernst, remembers Capuano's personality on and off the ice. Ernst wasn't surprised to see Capuano back on the bench after he was drilled in the face with a puck during Game 1.

"Coming up, he would get smashed in the face, or wherever, and he never backed down and always came back," Ernst said. "He had a tenacity and the ability to play through pain. Of course, at this time of the year, these NHLers, that's what they're doing. They're playing through a lot of pain."

It's difficult for any coach with little NHL playing experience to convince today's young players how to succeed at this level. It can sometimes be a situation of, "What does he know?" Some of the best coaches in the game, however, did not play in the NHL, includingthe Toronto Maple Leafs' Mike Babcock, the Washington Capitals' Barry Trotz and theTampa Bay Lightning's Jon Cooper. Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien played only 14 games in the NHL.

"You don't have to be an NHL player to be a great coach," Ernst said. "You have to know the game, and he paid his dues in the minor leagues. He didn't just walk in [and say], 'Here I am, Islanders.' That's a testimony to him. He didn't give up. He stayed with it. He has tenacity and perseverance in setting his goals. Everything I recall of him as a kid is there."

The Islanders players do listen. They see the determination and they feed off that.

"It's because they're invested, that's what it tells me," Capuano said. "We talk about believability and trust and the framework and how we play. As a coach, when the players take that on, and we talk about how hard we play, not that we're a dirty team but we want to play physical, we want to play fast, and they understand that. It's about guys being invested in the message you're trying to send as a coach."

Capuano does a lot for people. He never wants credit for anything. Ask him about his career and he'll credit others. The coaching path to the NHL is different for everyone. When queried about his path, he decided to speak about the 29 other coaches in the NHL and their families.

"Coaches who get here, they'll tell you there's a lot of sacrifice that is involved," Capuano said. "They're proud of the fact that they're here, they've paid their dues. There's limited jobs, 30 jobs, and you have one of them. But at the same time, the most important thing is just the sacrifice that the families make.

"Sometimes it goes unnoticed that a lot of these coaches have families, they have kids, and that's such an important factor because you're spending so much time at the rink, and there's so much travel, especially me early on in the ECHL. You're so dialed in and you're trying to develop and get to the next level, and you don't want to lose focus on your family. The biggest credit [due] to a lot of the coaches, not only in the [NHL] but at all levels, and the sacrifices that they make, because I think that goes unnoticed sometimes."

At practice, Capuano is constantly in motion. He's skating up and down the ice, screaming, yelling, dropping a few choice words and getting his point across.

"When he talks during meetings and stuff, he does get intense like that," Nielsen said with a laugh. "It comes back to, he really wants this and he's excited about hockey. He loves this game and he wants us to have fun and succeed."

Capuano wasn't always this vocal. Earlier in his coaching career, his demeanor was a bit different. When his coaching style finally meshed with his personality, he started to see results from his players.

"Early on in my career, I had to get better at my bench demeanor, there's no question," he said. "I was always a guy who was a rah-rah type of player. When I got behind the bench, there was a lot of that going on, so I had to kind of take a step back, as far as the in-game situations, and let the in-between periods and practices dictate how vocal you want to be and how you want to do it.

"To get your message across, if your voice is loud, you're doing this because you care. You're not directing it at a player, or trying to embarrass a player by any means, whether it's in video sessions or in practice. It's making sure it's constantly about the habits that we need to develop as a team to take us to beyond ordinary. That's why you're vocal; because you're so intense. As coaches, and we have a close-knit staff, we only want what's best for the players. It's not about us. We're in this together and we want to see these guys have success, and that's why sometimes we're a little bit vocal in trying to get our point across."

The Islanders don't want to be known as overachievers. They may use this underdog tag as motivation. No matter the end result, the Islanders won't be pushed around. There's plenty of bite remaining in this dog and Capuano is the one holding the leash.

"Jack has done a fantastic job, no matter what happens," Ernst said.

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