Doubling Down

Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan Looks To Keep Winning Ways Going In Pittsburgh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stats from his playing days say he shoots left, but people in Pittsburgh love Mike Sullivan because he's a straight shooter.

It doesn't hurt that the Pittsburgh Penguins have won back-to-back Stanley Cups in his first two seasons as head coach. But you get the sense that Pittsburgh fans and players would like him even if he and the team didn't do the nearly impossible.

As always seems to be the case, the coach has a knack to tell it like it is, straight up, with no excuses.

"Just play," he says. And he means it.

 

'Big Kids Play'

Preparing for the new season, he sits in his spare office at the Pens' practice home at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex just north of the city. Staffers lean into his open door to say hi to "Sully" or "Sul," and he warmly greets them back. Most of the team is on the main rink, doing an optional, pre-training camp skate that is as smiley as it is sweaty. One of the learn-to-skate moms who's looking on tells her toddler, "Watch the big kids play!"

Sullivan grins at the quip. He likes it when his players approach parts of practice like "kids on a pond." That's why he continues to be a big proponent of small-area games, even for these big guys. He and his coaching staff work hard to cook up games that "pique their curiosity and appeal to their competitiveness," then "just step back and let the guys play," while they're actually working on skills, including recognition and anticipation.

"It's experiential learning," he says, adding, "The players love it." 

Even the best players in the world, such as Sidney Crosby, who's out on that ice, leading by hard-working example. His coach loves the passion. 

"I don't think we ever arrive - as players or as coaches, for that matter," Sullivan says. "We're always striving to get better."

 

Home Grown

The 49-year-old Marshfield, Mass., native has had many leadership roles in hockey, going back to the days when he coached his own two daughters and son at The Bog Ice Arena near where he grew up. That's where he took the Cup this summer and shared it with his family, friends and the locals, including the youngsters who still play there. He still plays there, when he can, for the local "Town Cup." As he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that day, "Hockey players never forget where they came from." 

Michael Barry Sullivan, his wife, Kate, and his father, George - his onetime coach - still live in the off-season near Duxbury, where Sullivan enjoys golf and playing piano, sometimes accompanied by a cigar and a pint of Guinness drawn from his own Penguins-themed tap. He retains his Boston accent and the humility of someone who has lost games and jobs as well has won them at what he frequently refers to as the sport's highest level. 

As he told the Quincy, Mass., Patriot Ledger, "You learn from your successes, but you might learn more from your failures. I've had my fair share of both."

He played collegiate hockey, and was captain, at Boston University (1986-'90), and played 709 games over parts of 12 NHL seasons with the San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins and Phoenix Coyotes. He spent two seasons (2003-'06) head coaching the Bruins. He was an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning (2007-'09), New York Rangers (2009-'13) and the Vancouver Canucks (2013-'14). He was the Chicago Blackhawks player development coach when the Penguins hired him to coach their American Hockey League affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

 

Steel City Success

A month later, with the Pens struggling in December 2015, the organization named Sullivan the Pens head coach and he turned the team around, leading them to a 33-16-5 regular season finish and then 16 more wins to earn Stanley Cup. He was just the sixth American coach to win it.

Last year's NHL preview issue of this magazine noted, "Fans in the Steel City can't wait to see what he does over the course of a full season." And they were not disappointed, as he took a team crushed by injuries to a 50-win regular season and then became the only American coach to win the Cup twice.

Sullivan will tell you these past two seasons have been the most fulfilling of his career (so he was happy to sign, at the end of last year, a three-year contract extension that runs through 2019-'20). 

He'll also tell you how different the seasons were. In the first, the Penguins rolled into and through the playoffs as the dominant team. In the second, they had to overcome a lot of adversity. 

"As much as that first year was exciting, this one was hard," he admits.

 

 

 

 

   

American Made

In both of those seasons, the Penguins won the Cup using a record-tying 15 American-born players.

That's only partially why USA Hockey also likes Sullivan. He's twice played for U.S. National Teams and helped coach several, including as assistant coach to Team USA in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He was on the short list to coach the team in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games before the NHL decided to not participate. 

He's also generous in his support of the organization, whether speaking to coaches about player development or weighing in on the new rule, such as eliminating the ability to ice the puck when shorthanded at the 14U and younger age classifications. Sullivan is all for that and excited to talk about why: "Over the course of time, that's going to help a generation of players develop puck possession skills." 

Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations, praises him for being open to new ideas and approachable, describing him as the guy who, after speaking to 500 coaches, sits down to listen to the next one speak. 

"He's interested in how it affects coaching as a whole," Johannson says.

Sullivan is happy if his success and that of the other Americans on his team rubs off on American hockey's reputation around the world.

"I have a great amount of respect for how hard the coaching fraternity in this country works," he says.

 

Emotion And Instinct

His players and colleagues, his old friends and even opposing coaches, laud his competitiveness, his consistency, his communication and his caring. Though former Penguins and Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Byslma told the Post-Gazette that he didn't much care for one aspect of bunking with him at National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid: "He snores the leaves right off the trees."

He can be loud in other ways, too. The times he's seen yelling at players add to his rep as being intimidating and intense. But he lets them play with emotion.

"For me, the game is rooted in emotion and instinct," he told the Boston Globe this summer in a story.

In short, he expects a lot from his players, and himself.

"You catch him in his voice. His voice is demanding," says playoff scoring leader Jake Guentzel.

The 22-year-old Minnesotan certainly feels blessed that Sullivan took a chance on him last season, and says he's learned so much from him.

"He sees many things that a lot of players don't even think about," the Omaha, Neb., native says.

Stylewise, "He gets straight to the point and he's honest with you" - an approach Guentzel says players appreciate.  

Veteran center Matt Cullen, 40, agrees.

"My experience with Sully has been unbelievable," from Day 1, when he was impressed with "the command he had of the room," to the first weeks of that first season, when he quickly implemented his vision of how the team needed to play. That continued to Cullen's last days, when he had to tell him he was moving this season to the Minnesota Wild. Sullivan was as gracious as can be. 

"That's another side of him that people don't understand," Cullen says. He chalks it up to Sullivan's deep hockey experience. "He has an appreciation of what you're going through as a player because he's been through it." 

Sullivan says his role is to try to put players in a position to be successful. That's why he and the other coaches try to focus on what each player can do, not so much on what he can't. 

"We all have our strengths and weaknesses," he says. 

He's big on getting the team on the same page in terms of attitude and will to win, things that are in their control. Adversity will come; what matters is, how you deal with it. "I think that's a critical part of having success in pro sports." 

 

Challenges Ahead

Looking forward to defending back-to-back Cups and trying to win a third, he's also thinking, 'How do we deal with success?'   

In addition to Cullen, whom Sullivan warmly wished the best for his move, the Penguins have lost several key players to other teams - "victims of our own success," Sullivan says - but he still has his core group and says he knows them very well. He expects challenges, foreseen and not, and expects the coaches and team to "figure it out as it goes. 

"It's a new challenge," he says. "We're going to approach it as such." 

Like everybody else, he doesn't know how it's going to go ("That's why everyone watches") but he knows how he wants it to. He often says what a "privilege" it is for him to have this role in a story as it continues to unfold. So far, some of his favorite parts of the journey have been lifting the Stanley Cup and taking it back to where he came from. 

"For me, it just lights the fire to want to do it again." 

 

Bob Batz Jr. is a writer and editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and an assistant coach on his son's 10U Mt. Lebanon Hornets team.

 

Issue: 
2017-10

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