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You Don't Know Jack

by Cory Wright / New York Islanders

Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano reached a milestone Friday in Washington, coaching his 300th NHL game. Capuano’s been a fixture on the Islanders bench for the past four years, taking the reins on November 15, 2010. Under his watch, the Islanders have gone 134-127-39, giving him the second-most games coached and wins in franchise history, trailing only the legendary Al Arbour in both categories.

Most fans’ relationships with Capuano are limited to sound bites from post-game interviews or quick camera pans of the bench, but those only reveal so much about “Cappy.” He is known by the players and management as one of the hardest workers behind the scenes. Capuano is a tireless student of the game who is always looking for new ways to give his team an advantage, implementing his vision of Islanders hockey. If your relationship with Capuano doesn’t extend further than the calm, calculated figure that appears on camera, then you don’t know Jack.

“It’s something he’s mastered, channeling his energy into his various coaching methods,” said Assistant Coach Doug Weight, who has spent three seasons with Capuano behind the bench. “Certainly he gets upset at times on the bench, but as a head coach he has composure that the players read off and use to move past a tough shift and concentrate on winning their next shift.”

If there’s one thing the Islanders coach shields from the cameras, it’s his intensity. He is as passionate as they come, but behind the bench, Capuano keeps himself in check. His stoic and focused nature during games and in front of the podium is well thought out. He’ll ask the officials the proverbial “FOR WHAT?!” on calls he doesn’t like, but he’s not going to wind up on Sportscenter’s "Not Top 10" for losing control because he has too much respect for the tough job they have to do each night.

Instead, Capuano's intensity and passion come on when the cameras are off. At practice, he is the most animated skater on the ice, hollering and pushing the pace. It’s a part of the job that most fans don’t see, but leaves an impact on his players and his voice, which he often loses throughout the season after high paced practices.

There's no phoniness with me. I believe I’m firm and fair. For me it's about honesty, trust, integrity and I've never changed who I am.Jack Capuano

“I was joking with him how he was going to break three or four sticks a practice with how hard he's banging it out there,” Islanders captain John Tavares said. “He expects a lot from us, he pushes us and he's intense. I would say he's a really intense guy and he cares. That's what means a lot to us."

Seven players, Tavares, Josh Bailey, Michael Grabner, Travis Hamonic, Matt Martin, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen have been with Capuano since he joined the Islanders in 2010. They echo Tavares’ sentiment that Capuano cares about his players. Building those relationships and open communication channels are qualities that Capuano says are key to being an affective coach.

“It's a cliché, but players need to know how much you care about them,” Capuano said. “I've always tried to maximize a player’s potential as a person and a player. I like to get to know everything about them because at the end of the day, it's my responsibility to get the best out of them. Believability and trust go a long way.”

The player-oriented attitude hasn’t inhibited his ability to discipline them, or to work them through rigorous training camps and practices. Capuano hasn’t been afraid to sit players who stray from the defense-first mentality or don’t battle on a nightly basis. With such a deep roster this season, Capuano has made it known that spots in the lineup are not guaranteed.

“There's no phoniness with me,” he said. “I believe I’m firm and fair. For me it's about honesty, trust, integrity and I've never changed who I am.”

Capuano demands a lot from his players, but holds himself to the same standard, never wanting to be outworked. It’s a lesson he learned from Shawn Walsh, his coach during his playing days at the University of Maine. It’s why he sometimes arrives at the rink as early as 5 a.m. (or earlier) to watch video and prepare for meetings with his players. Some nights – especially late travel nights – the glow of Capuano’s computer is the only light in the front of the plane.

“First and foremost, with X’s and O’s and video, our team is prepared better than I’ve ever seen a team,” Weight said. “A lot of that is through his mind. He goes in and speaks from the heart. I know for a fact he has the respect of those guys and does plenty to get them going.”

Capuano was asked how many hours he puts in per week. Too many to count.

Capuano is the longest tenured coach in the Metropolitan Division. He’s seen the Islanders through the rough patches of a rebuild and those experiences have taught the coach a lot.

“It’s tough when you’re first starting with a team,” Weight said. “But the point is he’s real comfortable in his own skin. Whether it’s a game plan, or if a guy’s legs just don’t have it, he’s quicker to pull the trigger on switching lines or switching how we’re playing. He has that faith in himself now that he knows it’s the right thing to do and he’ll pull the trigger much quicker on certain decisions.

“He just does a good job of recognizing, whether it's in-game adjustments or seeing the teams we're playing against and understanding the way they like to play and things that we need to do to make adjustments,” Tavares said.

Capuano’s bench demeanor has been refined, but his defense-first approach has stayed the same throughout his tenure.

“He’s always tried to teach us to play the same way, manage the puck, play a simple game,” Martin said. “This year, it’s evident that the entire team has bought into that and you can see the success we’re having because we’re playing that way.”

The Islanders are trying to establish continuity throughout the organization, playing similar systems on Long Island and in Bridgeport with their American Hockey League club. Part of that continuity has remained with Capuano, who served five years as a coach with the Sound Tigers before taking his current post.

“As a coach, you have to believe in your system,” Capuano said. “We went through some rebuilding years and we went through some tough times, but they're starting to finally see maturity level and how these guys have grown within the organization.”

Capuano’s coaching path took him from Tallahassee, Knoxville and Florence, SC in the ECHL, to joining the Islanders as an Assistant in 2005-06 and Bridgeport the year after.

“It's been an interesting journey for me. Everybody thought I was crazy,” Capuano said of taking the Tallahassee job. “You just hope that at some point you pay your dues and you're going to get an opportunity to coach at the highest level.”

The hours, travel and constant moving require great sacrifice for both the coach and his family, who he credits for getting him to this point. He said it’s what he remembers about coaching his first game for the Islanders.

“When you get to this level, it's not about you,” Capuano said. “It's going back and thinking about my family, of my wife, my kids and all the sacrifices that they made.

Capuano says coaching 300 games isn’t the most meaningful milestone to him personally. Getting up every morning and having a chance to lead the Islanders means much more. It’s what drives him and what makes him tick.

“This milestone is something that the media builds up,” Capuano said. “For me it's always making sure I come to the rink every morning to get better like the players. I'm fortunate, I understand that, but 300 games is not something that I think about.”

But 300 games is a milestone. It’s validation that all his patience and hard work, whether in the coach’s office at the Coliseum or at cruising altitude, is paying off. His players are buying into his system and his vision for Islanders hockey is being realized up and down the organization.

Capuano’s been the foreman during the Islanders rebuild. Things haven’t always been easy, but through it all the Islanders coach has stayed true to his system and himself.

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