One afternoon in August, Jack Capuano watched Bangor High School’s football practice with Bob Corkum, his former University of Maine hockey teammate.

“We said to each other, ‘When we were at Maine, did you ever think we’d be here? Two coaches watching their kids playing football together?’ ” Capuano said.

It was a carefree moment in the last days of summer, typically a busy time for parents preparing to send children back to school and for hockey coaches preparing to return to training camp. Anthony Capuano and Cain Corkum were getting ready for football season, while their fathers prepared for hockey season — Jack Capuano as head coach of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League and Bob Corkum as an assistant with the Black Bears.

But a few months after that conversation, things changed for Capuano. Six weeks into the hockey season, New York Islanders General Manager Garth Snow, himself a former Black Bear, named Capuano his interim coach. Another former Black Bear, Mike Dunham, serves as the Islanders’ goaltending coach.

Capuano is the second former UMaine player to become an NHL head coach, joining current Rangers Coach John Tortorella.

Now in his second month in the NHL, Capuano’s tenure hasn’t been easy. The Islanders are 6-18-6 overall and in fifth place in the NHL’s Atlantic Division, and they’re 2-10-1 since Capuano replaced Scott Gordon on Nov. 15. The Islanders have lost six of those games by a goal, including Saturday’s 4-3 shootout loss at home to Phoenix.

“It’s been a tough situation with our record,” said Capuano, a Rhode Island native who shares Maine’s record for career goals by a defenseman (32) with Andre Aubut.

“It’s tougher mentally than it is physically (on players.) They’re sacrificing their bodies but they’re not getting the bounces.”

Eric Weinrich, Capuano’s teammate at Maine from 1985-87, believes Capuano’s dedication to the sport, preparation and passion for the game — traits he saw in Capuano as a player — translate to coaching professionally.

“Jack’s done really well so far with one of the youngest teams in the league every year,” said Weinrich, an assistant with the Portland Pirates. “He’s been able to influence the guys in the right way, he’s taught them how to play, and whether he’s the right choice or not, I think he’s qualified.

“Probably the hardest thing that I’ve discovered, as a coach, is getting players to believe that this is the right way to do it. His teams are really disciplined teams, and he’s really, in one way or another, gotten players to buy into his beliefs.”

Capuano’s rise through the coaching ranks has not been meteoric. He played in the NHL, AHL and IHL from 1988-92 — including 74 games with the Maine Mariners in 1991-92. He joined the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks of the ECHL as an assistant coach in 1996.

Capuano, 44, spent four seasons in the ECHL as coach of the Knoxville Cherokees in Tennessee and the Pee Dee Pride in South Carolina. He was in his fifth season with Bridgeport (fourth as head coach) when Snow called. In four seasons under Capuano, the Sound Tigers were 133-100-8-14.

“In the minors, you had to do the best job you could do as a coach and hope that someone sees the work you’re doing,” Capuano said. “You feel grateful that you get that opportunity and when it comes about, you make the best of it. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Weinrich admits that he didn’t picture Capuano as a coach during their days as UMaine teammates, and was surprised when he first learned that Capuano had gone into coaching in the mid-1990s.

“I heard that he’d been coaching the Pee Dee Pride, wherever that was,” Weinrich said of Capuano, who was an All-America defenseman at Maine in 1988. “I heard he was there, and the next time I talked to him he sounded more focused. It seemed like his focus had taken a turn to be more business-like in his approach to hockey.

“He had to prove himself as a coach, and he put all his focus into that.”

Capuano’s path to the NHL has also meant making sacrifices. His wife, Donna, and two children, Adriana and Anthony, live in Bangor, a choice the family made four years ago when Capuano took over in Bridgeport. They will join him on Long Island for Christmas.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them,” Capuano said.

Now, at the highest professional level of the game, Capuano’s challenge is to build confidence in a team that not only is struggling in an extended stretch, but has made the playoffs once in the last five seasons.

“It’s about making sure the players stick together,” Capuano said. “The goals and objectives we’ve set, we want to stay together, we want the guys to invest in themselves and we want to get better every day we go to the rink. We have to show that we believe in them.”

 

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be reached at 791-6415 or at: [email protected]