The former forward — who played for five NHL teams during his 13-year career — had spent a year as an assistant coach for the Buffalo Sabres, and he wasn’t actively job-hunting, but when Geoff Ward announced that he was departing his assistant coaching job in Boston for the opportunity to be a head coach in Mannheim, Sacco saw the opportunity.
So he gave Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien a call and told him he was interested in Boston’s coaching vacancy, and about a month later, the club announced that he had been hired as Ward's replacement and Julien’s newest assistant.
“I reached out to Claude, and we connected at some point later in the month of June and sat down,” Sacco said during a conference call on Thursday. “I had the opportunity to talk with him and just really get to know each other a little bit. Obviously I knew of him, but didn’t know him that well personally, and I thought that the time that we spent together that first meeting went very well.”
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, the two stayed in touch. The Bruins continued to vet other candidates — including Providence Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy — but in the end, Sacco emerged as the standout.
“He’s got some great experience, not only as a hockey player but also as an assistant coach, whether it’s been in the American League or NHL,” Julien said. “He’s also been a head coach in both leagues as well, so I think just the fact that we’ve been able to have a guy who has that much experience coming into our group [is important]. Also the fact that he’s been a player for such a long time — we all know that he’ll have instant respect from our players.
“For me, it was important to get one of those kind of coaches because of the fact that I give them a lot of responsibilities, as you guys all know, and it was important to have somebody that I felt real comfortable [with] and that I could trust. So Joe was that guy.”
During his playing career, Sacco — a native of Medford, Mass., who played his college hockey at Boston University — skated in 738 games with Toronto, Anaheim, the New York Islanders (where he played with Zdeno Chara), Washington and Philadelphia (where he played with Dennis Seidenberg). He served as an assistant in the AHL for two years with the Lowell Lock Monsters and the Albany River Rats before moving on to become the head coach of the Lake Erie Monsters in 2007 — where, incidentally, he coached current Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk.
In 2009, the Colorado Avalanche hired Sacco as head coach. Over four seasons, he compiled a 130-134-40 record and was named a Jack Adams Award finalist in 2010.
This summer, when the opportunity to return to Boston presented itself, Sacco jumped on it.
“There were a couple of other opportunities, but they weren’t as intriguing as being with the Boston organization,” Sacco said. “I think the opportunity here — being able to work with Claude, a guy that has a lot of experience and has done a solid job here with the Bruins, and being a part of an organization that, again, has had the success that they’ve had… To me, it was an opportunity to just come in and work with good people and work with a good organization.
“I kind of made a decision back when Buffalo was moving in a different direction with their coaching staff that it would have to be the perfect fit. It would have to make sense not only for myself but for my family as well, and then Boston was obviously a great choice and I’m glad that it worked out on both sides.”
Julien acknowledged that Providence’s Cassidy was a strong candidate for the position — and Cassidy himself expressed his desire to coach in the NHL during Boston’s Development Camp earlier this month — but in the end, Julien said that Sacco was the right fit for a host of reasons. Chief among them was the fact that Cassidy has been instrumental in preparing Boston’s young prospects — including the likes of Torey Krug, Kevan Miller and Matt Bartkowski — to play critical roles in the NHL.
“Bruce has done an unbelievable job of developing players,” Julien said. “And to me, he’s still a fairly young coach. He’s coached in the NHL, and I think he’s one of those guys who should certainly be considered to be a coach in the NHL again, too.”
Julien said that the fact that Sacco was a forward during his playing days, while Cassidy was a defenseman, played into the ultimate decision as well. Julien and current assistant coach Doug Houda were blueliners during their own playing days, and Julien said it was important to maintain a balance on the coaching staff.
“We kind of wanted to lean a little bit toward a forward at this time,” Julien said. “So [Cassidy] was certainly a strong candidate and certainly a very capable one, but again, we sat down with Bruce, Peter [Chiarelli] and I, and had a real good chat. We talked it all out, and he’s certainly happy in Providence. He mentioned that he’s certainly not unhappy there, but I think the decision was a decision we made for all the right reasons.”
One of Ward’s primary responsibilities on the Bruins’ coaching staff was commandeering the power play, which showed dramatic improvement during the 2013-14 season, when it was the third-most proficient unit in the league. Julien hasn’t yet decided whether those responsibilities will be transferred to Sacco, but he has the luxury of time to figure it out.
“I think a lot of those things will be resolved in the next little while here,” Julien said. “I haven’t really decided exactly what Joe is going to do versus what some of those guys — Jarvy [Doug Jarvis] or Doug Houda — are going to have different responsibilities. Those are things that I’ve got a couple of different options that I’m going to kind of contemplate and make that decision.
“But as I told Joe when I spoke to him, every one of my assistant coaches has just as much responsibility as the other. So everyone has a fair amount of that responsibility that will keep them busy and give them some work to do as far as being accountable for, and that’s the way I like to do my work and, at the same time, validate these guys. They’re good people. They’re good coaches, and you give them some responsibilities and you make sure they take advantage of it.”
Sacco, for his part, is ready. Though the teams he coached in Buffalo and Colorado were notably younger and more inexperienced than the Bruins, he is confident that he will be able to make any necessary adjustments in order to thrive as a coach in his home city.
“The mindset of the team is probably a little bit different, as far as being able to handle some adversity and handle some of the obstacles that you face during the course of the season — the ups and downs — and it seems like they have obviously a strong veteran presence,” Sacco said. “They have, from what I’ve seen and talking with Claude, great internal leadership inside the dressing room, so they’re able to manage the highs and lows of the season very well.
“There’s so many things that are attractive about coming back [to Boston]. Like I mentioned before, with the organization and the structure that they have in place, and with the current team and the success, so I don’t want to repeat myself there. But coming back to this part where it all kind of started, it’s just an added bonus for myself and my family.”