by Justin Ritzel | AHL On The Beat Archive
It is a small hockey world, and there is no one who knows that better than Rochester Americans defenseman Jake McCabe and his head coach, Chadd Cassidy.
The relationship between the pair extends long before McCabe ever laced up the skates for the Amerks. Prior to his career at the collegiate level with the University of Wisconsin, McCabe played two seasons with the United States National Development Team and one of his coaches was none other than Cassidy.
Cassidy was a member of former Amerk head coach Ron Rolston’s staff, and was mainly responsible for coaching the defense. It was then and there that McCabe and Cassidy began a player-coach relationship that would eventually continue into the professional level.
Even back then, Cassidy could see that there was not only plenty to like about McCabe as a player, but as a person as well.
“Jake is an extremely honest player,” Cassidy said. “He plays hard every night, gives you everything he’s got, he’s a team-first guy, and a guy that others around trust because they know he’s going to put it all on the line for them.”
“He’s also real genuine kid,” Cassidy added. “He comes from a good blue-collar background, great family, and he’s earned everything he’s got. You can see that from his upbringing and he takes a lot of pride in that.”
McCabe, like any other teenager that has dreamt of playing professional hockey, had to make plenty of sacrifices along the way. Now 21 years old, McCabe recollects being a young kid and having to choose whether he wanted to seriously pursue a future in hockey or live the everyday life of a high-school student.
“It was a tough decision, but at the same time it was an easy one,” McCabe said. “It was tough leaving at 15, giving up my normal high-school experience, and leaving my family to go to Ann Arbor to start my hockey career. That was really when things started getting real.”
McCabe ended up playing two seasons in the program, committed to the University of Wisconsin to play hockey and was eventually drafted by the Buffalo Sabres 44th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft. Now with the Amerks, McCabe is trying to make the transition from college to the pros, and so far the familiarity with his head coach has been invaluable.
“It’s a very lucky situation,” McCabe said. “He’s [Cassidy] known me for however many years now and it’s kind of cool how it’s my first year in the AHL and he is my coach. [Amerks assistant coach John] Wroblewski was in the age group ahead of me, so I was familiar with him as well. It’s an odd coincidence, but it’s nice to see familiar faces and it definitely helps the transition.”
Knowing McCabe prior to his time with the Amerks wasn’t only beneficial for the rookie defenseman, but for the coach as well. According to Cassidy, communication with his players is one of the most important aspects of coaching hockey and his past experience with McCabe has only helped in that facet.
“That’s the key with all the players coming in here is figuring out the way to teach them and to get them playing in a way to be successful for our team and for themselves,” Cassidy said. “For the couple of years that we had him down in Ann Arbor, he was hurt a lot of the time he was out there. It was a lot of adversity he had to deal with, battling through injuries, and to know what he’s been through to get here certainly helped me as a coach working with him.”
Now 18 games into his professional career, McCabe has two goals and seven points while playing plenty of important minutes for the Amerks. There have been some shaky moments, but Cassidy is already noting the great deal of improvement in McCabe’s game, particularly over the past few weeks.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of progress in his game, and I thought he had a couple of his best games last Friday and Saturday,” Cassidy said. “If he continues to improve, he’s going to have a big impact on our organization.”
Naturally, all of that potential impact can be traced back to a tournament played oddly enough in Rochester, where Cassidy first saw McCabe take the ice. The then-teenage defenseman showed enough to impress his future head coach, and as they say, the rest is history.
“The irony is that we saw him here in Rochester when we first saw him play,” Cassidy said. “We had a couple of spots left on our defense for the 1993 team at the time and we ended up offering a spot to him. It kind of comes full circle.”
From one team of Americans to another, for McCabe and Cassidy it really is a small world, after all.