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From Assistant in Limbo to Cup-Winning Coach, in 3 Years

Sep 7, 2009 – 9:00 PM
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Christopher Botta

Christopher Botta %BloggerTitle%


Just a little over three years ago, Dan Bylsma -- today the head coach of the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins -- was an assistant coach without a job and with little idea where his next one might be.

In the summer of 2006 Bylsma was coming off his first season as an NHL assistant with the New York Islanders. The man who hired him, head coach Steve Stirling, was fired in January that year. Bylsma's fellow assistant, Brad Shaw, finished the 2005-06 season as interim head coach. In the offseason, the Islanders were in search of a new general manager and head coach.

(Let's cut the pretense and take down the fourth wall. I was the team's PR VP at the time.)

Bylsma, just two years removed from a journeyman playing career as the ultimate overachiever for 429 NHL games, was in limbo. The Islanders eventually hired Neil Smith as GM and Ted Nolan as coach in June, but the assistant coaches still did not learn their fate. Bylsma and his wife registered their son for the following school year in New York and back home in Michigan. During my lunch break, I would jump on a treadmill in the Islanders locker room for a while. Bylsma would take the one next to me and ask with the utmost sincerity, "Have you heard anything about what they're gonna do with us?"

The champion head coach laughed with recognition about those days in the summer of 2006 when I called him in his Penguins office the other day.

"It's all good. I'm on the other side now, so I understand what was going on with the Islanders," Bylsma said, time and experience leaving him with not even the slightest of hard feelings. "When you're in the position I was in, you always want the news more quickly. You're thinking, 'I want to know on my time, not their time.' You want to know if you're okay or if you should pack up and move your family again.

"I'm not going to lie to you; I spent hours thinking about what I was going to say in my first meeting with Sidney. ... I decided I was just going to stop thinking about it and tell him everything that was on my mind." "But now I'm that head coach and others are waiting for me to make a decision on their careers. I look back on that summer and I trust the Islanders were doing their due diligence. I look back and I thank the Islanders for giving me my first coaching job in the NHL. Without that experience, I'm not fully ready when the Penguins called in February."

On a Sunday afternoon, February 15 of this year, the 38-year-old Byslma was preparing his Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League for a 5:00 pm home game. A short while before warmup, he received a text from Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero: "Call me from ur office in 5 mins."

Bylsma's heart started pounding. He knew something big was up. Most of his dealings as a Baby Pens assistant for one season and then head coach for 51 games had been with assistant GM Chuck Fletcher. This time Shero needed him promptly. The AHL coach started thinking about what he was going to say. "I figured it had to be about the Penguins job," said Bylsma, "because my body wouldn't have reacted that way." Before the five minutes were up, he had calmed down. "I didn't need to call anyone for help," he said. "I was confident that I was prepared for the opportunity. Everything came into focus."

The next morning he was in the Garden City Hotel -- ironically, about five minutes from where he once lived on Long Island -- getting organized for his first meeting with the Penguins. At 2:00 p.m., his new team was playing the Islanders.

"I was ready. I had 51 games as a head coach in Wilkes Barre plus my season in the NHL with the Islanders to draw from," he said. "I don't want to be cavalier about it, but those two experiences were all I needed. On the Island, I learned from the adversity. There were problems. We had injuries, we had people coming and going. It was a difficult situation. As a staff, we did everything we could to keep it together. I worked with Steve Stirling and Brad Shaw and Jack Capuano and took a great deal from their knowledge. I learned a lot from Sudarshan Maharaj on how to handle goaltenders. In the AHL, I learned about the responsibility of making the final decision..."

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But Coach, we're talking about going into a locker room with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, about taking over a team expected to contend for the Stanley Cup.

"Look, I know what you're saying, but it is still hockey," said the Penguins head coach. "I'm not going to lie to you; I spent hours thinking about what I was going to say in my first meeting with Sidney. Do I tip-toe in with him? Do I pace myself, figuring I'll get to work with him a while? I decided I was just going to stop thinking about it and tell him everything that was on my mind. I remember seeing Chuck Fletcher and informing him how I'd handle my first meeting with Sid. He was very supportive, then as he walked away he said, 'Hey Dan, good luck with that.'"

Four months later, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.

Before he embarked on his coaching journey in 2004, Bylsma told his wife Mary Beth that his goal was to be an NHL head coach and someday win the Stanley Cup. Along with their son Brian, they spent a year in Cincinnati (AHL assistant) and Long Island plus the two years in Pennsylvania. When Dan, cradling the Cup, saw his wife after the Penguins defeated Detroit in Game 7, Mary Beth said, "So do you have any other goals you'd like to tell me about?"

After Dan left for Pittsburgh in February, Mary Beth and 10-year-old Brian spent the rest of the school year in Wilkes Barre. "You hear from guys all the time in sports saying they couldn't do it without the support of their family, but this is the perfect illustration" said Bylsma. "Knowing Mary Beth had everything under control allowed me to focus on being the head coach of the Penguins.

"Here's what you need to know about Mary Beth as a mother: Brian can walk into any school, anywhere, and be comfortable. To say I'm fortunate to have both of them in my life is an understatement. Handing the Stanley Cup to them was something I'll never forget. Everything we hoped for together had come true."

And with that, he said he had to finish the phone call. His assistant coaches -- including a new one, Tony Granato -- were waiting for him. Dan Bylsma's first full season as an NHL head coach is about to begin.
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