Ribbon, wristband solemn reminders for Penguins coach Bylsma

Kevin Gorman
| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 11:10 p.m.

Dan Bylsma prides himself on keeping his emotions in check, wearing a stoic face as the coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, even though it belies a fun-loving personality.

The pressure to lead the team to a Stanley Cup championship is paramount, to the point that people come up to Bylsma and urge him to enjoy it more.

“What is happening on the inside,” Bylsma responds, “is not what you're going to get from me on the outside.”

While Bylsma, 42, believes that he has a “fairly good perspective,” he needs only to look at the red ribbon on his left lapel or the band on his right wrist for a reminder of what is important.

The ribbon and wristband tell a story that Bylsma has been proud to wear but reluctant to share.

“It tends to be magnified, what we do: The importance of winning hockey games, the pressure of getting up and winning Stanley Cup playoff games and all of that,” Bylsma said. “But I keep wearing it on my lapel. I don't want to say it's a reminder for me. …”

Rather, it's a reminder for everyone that life is precious. It's a lesson Bylsma learned this season through the death of one of his son's travel hockey teammates.

Bylsma wears the red ribbon and wristband in memory of Ryan Heitzenrater, who was 13 when he died on Feb. 28 of a bacterial infection while battling hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, a rare disorder of the immune system.

“We've had so many people ask us about the ribbon — we didn't know if anybody knew,” said Ryan's dad, Doug Heitzenrater of Robinson. “We knew, and the rest of the hockey families knew.”

‘He was so honored'

During the NHL lockout, which delayed the start of the season until mid-January, Bylsma volunteered to coach his son Bryan's Arctic Foxes youth travel team.

“I was one of the few people who was a fan of the lockout because Dan was around a lot, and I took full advantage,” Arctic Foxes coach Joe Sell said. “Dan might be coach of the Penguins, but to everyone on the team, that's Bryan's dad. When he's there, he acts like a normal guy. He took it serious. The kids respected that, to have someone like him around.”

Bylsma and Heitzenrater formed a bond when Ryan crashed into the boards and broke his wrist during a December practice. Bylsma was the first person Ryan asked about whether it was broken. Judging by how Heitzenrater was impervious to the pain, the Penguins coach told him it probably wasn't.

So it was startling when Heitzenrater was hospitalized with flu-like symptoms Jan. 14, just five days before the Penguins' opener at Philadelphia.

Ryan was always last out of the locker room, his parents learned, because his teammates would implore him to flex for them. Tall, lean and muscular, Bylsma said the Foxes players “all wanted to be like Ryan.”

“Dan, in our minds, is a top-notch guy,” Doug Heitzenrater said. “When we think about Dan and the relationship that he developed not only with Ryan but the other kids on the team, as a parent you're like, ‘That's pretty cool.'

“Here he is, coaching the Penguins, and he takes his time to work with all of those kids. They all looked up to him.”

When Ryan learned that Bylsma had his Penguins players “Wear Red For Ryan” practice jerseys on Valentine's Day, Debbie Heitzenrater said, her son's eyes got real big.

“He was just like, ‘Wow. I can't believe they did that for me,' ” Debbie said. “To think about how that brought him that happiness, he was so honored and we were so honored. It meant the world to him and to us.”

When Ryan's condition took a turn for the worse, it made for difficult conversations. Bylsma and his wife, Mary Beth, had to prepare Bryan, now 14, for the inevitable truth about his friend.

“Losing their teammate, losing their friend, losing a 13-year-old boy who, before Jan. 14, was actually the biggest, strongest kid on the team,” Bylsma said, “and six weeks later, they are going to a viewing, a funeral and a wake.”

‘This really means a lot to us'

Bylsma is a big believer that a team is a reflection of its coach, and that the skipper needs to steer the ship.

This was no different with the Penguins, even as he dealt with the death of one of his son's teammates, a boy from a family he had come to know and like.

“Emotionally, the coach has a big responsibility to be a leader, and Dan definitely does that,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “He brings a lot of energy to the rink every day, but he's focused and pretty calm, too. Those are definitely good traits to have as a coach.”

The Penguins lost at Carolina on the night Ryan died. Mary Beth told her husband the bad news by phone after the game. Two days later, the Penguins won, 7-6, in overtime at Montreal. They would win the Atlantic Division by 16 points, clinch the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed and enter the playoffs as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup.

“It was something we talked about in the room,” Penguins forward Craig Adams said. “I'm sure it was difficult, but he didn't bring that to the office.”

But Bylsma does bring it to the bench, where he wears the red ribbon and wristband as a reminder.

“We can't say enough good about that. It just speaks to the type of guy that Dan is, and why he's in the role he's in,” Doug Heitzenrater said. “For the kids to continue to see him support Ryan's passing by wearing the ribbon and wristband, that's huge. This really means a lot to us, with everything that has happened.”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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