Red Wings, Penguins assistants took interesting roads to finals
Brad McCrimmon and Tom Fitzgerald are in their first finals as assistants
McCrimmon joined the Wings after four seasons as a Thrashers assistant
Fitzgerald became a Pens assistant after they change coaches in February
When the Stanley Cup commences Saturday night all eyes will be on Marian Hossa, Henrik Zetterberg, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Much will be made of Red Wings Captain Nicklas Lidstrom's return to action after missing the last two games of the Western Conference finals with a suspected groin injury and rookie defenseman Jonathan Ericsson's ability to play three days after having his appendix removed.
All with good reason. This is a series bursting with storylines. This is the biggest stage in hockey, a time for the players. Still, there are plenty of interesting stories away from the ice as well. In the Red Wings vs. the Penguins II, consider Wings assistant coach Brad McCrimmon and Pens director of player development-turned-assistant Tom Fitzgerald.
In McCrimmon's case, he was looking for a place to land after four seasons as an assistant with the Thrashers. After winning the Stanley Cup last spring, Wings assistant coach Todd McLellan got the call to become the head coach of the Sharks -- something that didn't happen for McCrimmon in Atlanta -- opening up a spot on Mike Babcock's staff.
McCrimmon was a perfect fit in the insular world of Red Wings hockey. He played for the organization for three seasons from 1990-93. The connections for McCrimmon and the Red Wings run even deeper when you factor in that from 1982 to 1987 his partner on the Flyers' blueline was Mark Howe, a mainstay in the Red Wings' management structure who is now serving as director of pro scouting.
In McCrimmon's second season with the Wings, the venerable veteran played alongside a rookie named Nicklas Lidstrom. The pair even roomed together on the road to ensure the first-year Swede learned the NHL ropes. Those ties made him a natural choice to fill the vacancy, not to mention his 26 years of NHL experience overall, including eight as an assistant in Atlanta, Long Island and Calgary and as a Stanley Cup winner in 1989 as a member of the Flames.
The Red Wings are back in the finals for the sixth time in 14 seasons and McCrimmon returns 20 years later in his first behind the bench in Detroit. So far, it has worked out nicely for McCrimmon and the Wings.
Meanwhile, the Penguins have a behind-the-bench story of their own in Tom Fitzgerald. When GM Ray Shero opted to replace head coach Michel Therrien with first-year AHL coach Dan Bylsma in mid-February, he also approached Fitzgerald to gauge his interest in joining the staff as one of Bylsma's bench assistants along with incumbent Mike Yeo. Bylsma was all for it, according to Shero, as he had formed a strong relationship with Fitzgerald at the AHL level.
In his role as director of player development, Fitzgerald spent a lot of time in Wilkes-Barre, working with the Penguins' AHL affiliate. Shero commented that Fitzgerald had even spent some time behind the bench with Bylsma at the coach's suggestion. That bond, however, is nothing like the one between Fitzgerald and Shero. "I trust him completely," Shero said. "I asked him what he thought of the idea and after thinking about it for five minutes, he was all for it. It was a big decision for him, with his family back in Boston. But he sacrificed for us last year, coming in for the two-month playoff run with Michel's staff. Fitz has been a very important part of our success. A lot of what you see on the ice now, he was a part of."
Fitzgerald and Shero overlapped in Nashville where Shero served as the assistant GM and Fitzgerald was an expansion pick of the Predators. He played in over 1,000 NHL games and went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996 as a part of the surprising Panthers team that lost that year to the Avalanche.
Now, in a season in which Fitzgerald started out evaluating the Penguins' drafted players, he finds himself behind the bench with a chance to be part of the finals again. As he told me in March, "I just do what they ask, you know?" He said it with a twinkle in his eye and a wry smile. It was the look of a guy enjoying what he's doing.
Yes, once they drop the puck, it is all about the players. But, there are plenty of stories like McCrimmon's and Fitzgerald's along the road to the Stanley Cup.
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