After paying his dues in minors, Jack Capuano a major factor behind Isles' bench

Islanders head coach Jack Capuano makes a point Islanders head coach Jack Capuano makes a point during training camp at IceWorks in Syosset. (Sept. 14, 2013) Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

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Something historic will happen Fridaynight, when the puck drops on the 2013-14 Islanders season: For the first time, an Islanders coach not named Al Arbour will begin his fourth season behind the bench.

If Jack Capuano's name didn't readily come to mind as that coach, no worries. The unassuming, unnoticed Isles coach is accustomed to being overlooked. But it's worth remembering that, for all the growth of John Tavares and his fellow young Isles, for all the burgeoning success of general manager Garth Snow's patient approach to building a team, someone has been making the right moves from behind the bench.

"Sometimes I get mistaken, people really don't know who I am," Capuano said. "Honestly, that's a good thing."

When Capuano was called up, in essence, from Bridgeport to replace Scott Gordon on Nov. 15, 2010, hardly anyone around the NHL believed that the Islanders had finally found their coach.

Capuano's experience had been three-plus seasons as coach of the Sound Tigers, one season as an Isles assistant and a decade spent in the hockey wilderness known as the East Coast Hockey League -- from Tallahassee to Knoxville and finally Florence, S.C., where Capuano coached and managed the Pee Dee Pride for nine years, until the franchise relocated.

But during the time Capuano was molding the young Sound Tigers, a shift occurred at the NHL level: Coaches from the minor-league pipeline were succeeding at the NHL level. Bruce Boudreau was the first, for the Caps, and NHL teams began looking to their farm systems not just for players but coaches.

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"It's a little bit cyclical, and it depends on who's winning," said Peter DeBoer, who jumped from junior hockey to the Florida Panthers and now coaches the New Jersey Devils. DeBoer and Capuano were teammates on the Milwaukee Admirals for two seasons in the early 1990s, just before both retired and went into coaching.

"It's a very small circle, too," DeBoer said. "When you're in the game for a couple decades playing and coaching, like Jack has been, you get to know people and they get to know you. It helps when the time comes to make a decision at this level."

Capuano the player was a little less unassuming than Capuano the coach, but no less dedicated. He and his younger brother Dave played youth hockey under the watchful coaching eye of their father in Rhode Island; Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was a young teammate. The brothers went to the University of Maine in the late 1980s, when the hockey program there was just getting going.

"They could have gone a lot of other places," said Jay Leach, the assistant coach who recruited the Capuano brothers to Maine and is now back there, 25 years later, as associate head coach. "But they came to Maine and helped build the program. Our kids were hockey people."

Among them were Dave Nonis, now the Leafs GM, and Eric Weinrich, longtime NHL defenseman. Snow arrived at Maine the year after Jack Capuano left for his brief pro playing career -- six NHL games with three different teams, a few different minor-league stops and that was that.

Within a few years he was in Tallahassee, Fla., learning the coaching ropes.

"As a player, I always looked at my stats," Capuano said. "There's some habits as a coach you have to learn, and I really have never looked at anything other than preparing my team to win and preparing to play against a certain opponent."

Nothing gives Capuano greater satisfaction than seeing players make it from up through the minors. Andrew MacDonald was one. In the 2007-08 season, Capuano's first as Bridgeport head coach, MacDonald went from the Sound Tigers to Utah of the ECHL to work on his skills. He's played almost exclusively for Capuano since, and now the defenseman will wear an 'A' as an Isles alternate captain this season.

"He has a great work ethic, he studies the game so much and it's paid off for us with our improvements," MacDonald said. "It's hard as a player to understand the way it works for a coach, but you can see he doesn't take it for granted, coming from where he did."

Next weekend in Nashville, Capuano will coach his 200th game with the Islanders, only the second man to do so with this franchise. He would need a mere 16 more seasons to catch Arbour, so No. 2 will do for now.

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But as Capuano says, "I haven't changed since I started doing this." He's still an obsessive, late-night, game video-watcher, though it's accompanied by fewer pizzas these days -- Capuano shed 22 pounds during last season's lockout.

He considers his style fair but firm. A player's coach, in the general sense; his blowups are well-remembered, like the postgame after a 6-0 shelling by the Bruins two seasons ago when he ordered his team to remain in the locker room, left the remote in Tavares' hands and had them watch their brutal performance into the late night.

Or his rare public outburst after Game 1 of the playoff series against the Penguins last spring, when he threatened to bench regulars who had coasted through that opener.

"When things are going well, he's a little bit harder on you," Matt Martin said. "When it's going bad, he's a little lighter. He's going to hold you accountable, show you video, but it's very rare he's going to call you out in front of everybody."

That may change as the expectations for this team have changed heading into this season. But to be sure, Capuano will continue to be the relatively unnoticed man behind the bench, letting his young players police their own locker room and get the accolades.

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"For all the years I've known him as a coach, I know this: It's not about Jack. Ever," Leach said. "He's there for his team."

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