Down 2-0 in Cup Final, Predators relying on amiable assistant to help steer the ship

Friday June 2nd, 2017

The game is called basketball. Not the sport lorded over by LeBron and Steph, mind you, but a bastardized version built for ice. The setup: Scooch both hockey nets closer together and overturn them, so the openings face down and the tops point toward the red line. The goal: Shoot the puck into the small, semicircle-shaped area above the crossbar—nothing but net.

Wednesday morning in Pittsburgh, eight hours before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final, a spirited session gets underway at PPG Paints Arena. The rest of the rink is empty and quiet, save for the occasional PING! of pucks hitting iron, and the shrieks of "F---!" that invariably follow. The most ebullient hooper also happens to be the oldest. At 59 years old, Nashville assistant Kevin McCarthy can still hang just fine, thank you very much, zipping around with his younger colleagues on the coaching staff and the Predators' much-younger extra skaters.

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"If he wins, he's joking and laughing," says Jeff Daniels, who worked with McCarthy in Carolina from 2003-08. "If they lost, you can definitely tell, because he won't be happy." 

This is rare to see and not just because the former defenseman maintained some of the puck-moving skills from his playing career, which on this day helps the team of Nashville coaches beat the extras, 3-2. "When the head coach might be pouty and grumpy, never Cato," explains NBC Sports analyst and retired goalie Brian Boucher. "Never. Always happy." After all, McCarthy's ubiquitous nickname—Cato—was born out of an attempt to startle a teammate by leaping from a hotel closet, a la Inspector Clouseau's sneaky sidekick from The Pink Panther.

Which explains precisely why, after 14 seasons spanning three cities, McCarthy continues to serve as the amiable sidekick and emotional counterweight of Nashville's fiery, fist-pumping bench boss, Peter Laviolette. They won the 2006 Stanley Cup in Carolina. They reached the 2010 Final with Philadelphia. Now, together still, they face the challenge of pulling Nashville back from a 2-0 series deficit entering Saturday's Game 3. "Kevin is probably the person that I've learned the most from through the course of the years," Laviolette says. "He's good for me. He's calm sometimes when I'm not, a voice of reason sometimes when I'm not."

On a tactical level, McCarthy is responsible for directing the Predators' penalty kill and forwards, even though he spent 537 regular-season NHL games manning the blue line. But he also serves as the steadily smiling face greeting players with a cheery "good morning" at the practice rink, the encouraging shoulder on which anyone can lean. "When you have a coach who can be hard on you sometimes, who can be positive and negative, you need a guy to balance that out," says Zolnierczyk. "I think Cato does a great job of that and he's a big reason why he and Lavi have stuck together all those years.

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"They're never on different pages. That goes a long way. If you see a disconnect between coaches, that can throw things off, but you never see that between those two. They're always on the same page with respect to their meetings and messages they're delivering that day. I've never seen them out of sync. I think that's what makes them so effective."

At first, it was an arranged marriage. McCarthy had already been in Carolina for three-plus years, reaching the ‘02 Final on Paul Maurice's bench, when the Hurricanes canned Maurice and hired Laviolette in December 2003. "When we got put together originally, it wasn't by my choice," Laviolette says. "I didn't even know him." Only on the recommendation of GM Jim Rutherford—who now occupies the same job in Pittsburgh—did Laviolette keep McCarthy around. If Laviolette wanted a change, Rutherford requested, it could be done at the end of the season.

Their paths had briefly crossed before in the late '90s, while McCarthy coached the AHL's Beast of New Haven and Laviolette helmed the Providence Bruins. "Didn't know him personally," McCarthy says, "but once you get to meet him, you're a friend for life. I think that's just the way he is. Doesn't matter if you're an assistant or whoever. He treats everyone the same. He gives you a lot of responsibility and the leeway to do your thing and asks your opinion all the time, so you feel invested in the coaching side of things."

As McCarthy's playing career wound down, he began plotting the next move. One close friend owned a company selling windows and doors, so McCarthy saw himself transitioning from whacking slapshots to making calls in lumber yards. That changed when McCarthy, then with the Flyers' farm team in Hershey, Pa., got approached by GM Bobby Clarke, who asked if McCarthy had ever considered coaching. "I hadn't really thought about it," McCarthy replied, "but I'd certainly like to." And so McCarthy served as a player-assistant for his final season, joined the Bears' staff the following fall, and hasn't left the business since. "Here I am today," he says in the PPG Paints Arena hallway, "20 years later, still doing what I love to do."

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Returning to Pittsburgh, where he spent bits of two seasons, hasn't quite caused the memories to flood back. "Different practice rink, different game rink," McCarthy says. "It's been quite a while." But one sticks out. In 1984-85, the Penguins welcomed an 18-year-old rookie from Quebec named Mario Lemieux. At the time McCarthy was just a fourth-line right winger, but received an unexpected promotion after Lemieux's usual flank, Warren Young, got injured. With conviction that belied his age, Lemieux instructed McCarthy: "If I have to control the puck when I get over the blue line, I want you to take off to the far post and keep your stick on the ice." 

"So we're playing Vancouver, my former team," McCarthy remembers. "I see Mario carrying the puck over the blue line with control, so I take off to the far post and keep my stick on the ice and I had two goals that night. Just six-inch tap-ins. That's my favorite Mario story. Here's a kid, 18 years old, and he's got that kind of vision, knows exactly how the game should be played. I kid with my buddies, what I should've done is when Warren Young got healthy, I should've broken his ankle in practice and stayed there."

He laughs. This happens often behind the scenes, where McCarthy can diffuse even the tensest moments by delivering some snippy one-liner. "Just the ability to break the ice, let's take a deep breath, everything's going to be okay," Daniels says. Particularly alongside Laviolette, this is a gift.

"There are going to be times the head coach is pissed off, or not looking to be super social, or you can tell the air is just pretty dry in the room," says Zolnierczyk, who also played under Laviolette and McCarthy in Philadelphia. "But Cato has a good approach at realizing there's always a new day."

And today in Pittsburgh, that means basketball. The game ends with some animated disagreement over a questionable line change by the coaches' team—"A little snap show," says Zolnierczyk, who slams his stick in anger while storming off—but, as usual, McCarthy plays the role of peacemaker. As everyone else cools down by stretching, he circles the ice to clean up pucks, doing the dirty work, though he could just as easily pull rank and skip out early. 

But that wouldn't be Cato. Much has changed since he and Laviolette first linked up. He's a proud grandfather now. Owns a Stanley Cup ring, too. And yet, he says, "you always think, I'll be back again, and then it's 2006 and 2010 and now 2017, and you realize that this might be the last one—you never know. You have to appreciate where you are in the moment."

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