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The book on Penguins coach Bylsma

Penguins/NHL Videos

Sunday, April 12, 2009
 

Going back to his formative days in the Soviet Union, Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar has experienced coaches of every kind: the novice and the know-it-all; the curmudgeon and the coddler.

Surely, then, someone from Gonchar's past must remind him of his newest boss, Dan Bylsma.

Right?

Gonchar ponders the question, then seems to surprise himself with his answer.

"No," he says. "I don't think I had a guy like this before."

He wasn't the only one Bylsma surprised. The Penguins have posted an 18-3-4 record in Bylsma's first 25 games as "interim" coach, good for 40 points.

That represents one of the best coaching starts in NHL history.

Only three coaches, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, had posted as many as 40 points in their first 25 games: Todd McLellan had 43 with San Jose this season; Bep Guidolin had 40 with the 1972-73 Boston Bruins; and Pete Green had 40 with the original Ottawa Senators 90 years ago. Guidolin, like Bylsma, was hired during the season.

Bylsma, 38, owned a little less than four months professional head coaching experience when general manager Ray Shero summoned him Feb. 15 from the team's Wilkes-Barre farm club. Michel Therrien had been fired. The Penguins were five points out of playoff position.

Bylsma is the youngest coach in the NHL, just a month-and-a-half older than Penguins right winger Bill Guerin. Yet, from his first moments on the job, he was a veritable Cool Dan Luke, behaving as if he were born for the role.

Those closest to him will tell you he was.

What follows is an attempt to answer perhaps the most popular question from the day the Penguins changed coaches:

Who is Dan Bylsma?

He is the feisty little brother

By dad's orders, the Bylsma boys were forbidden to play tackle football at their home in Grand Haven, Mich.

Sure enough, when the boys violated orders one afternoon, something bad happened. Seven-year-old Dan, youngest of the four, snapped his collarbone. But instead of yelling for help when his father came home from work, he tried to hide the injury.

"He wouldn't let on, because he didn't want anybody to get in trouble," recalled oldest brother Scott. "The bone was sticking out against the skin, and he didn't say anything."

Make no mistake: The fire that burns inside of Daniel Brian Bylsma was built and stoked by his position in a family that includes a younger sister, Laurie, and three successful older brothers — Scott, Greg and Jon.

Scott works at Merrill Lynch in Grand Rapids, near Grand Haven. Jon is a corporate litigation attorney in Grand Rapids. Greg is the chief financial officer at Herman Miller, an office-furniture manufacturing company in Holland, Mich.

Dan was included in all their activities from the time he could walk.

OK, from the time he could crawl — and he never backed down from a challenge.

"If they wanted me to be all-time catcher, I was all-time catcher," Dan said. "They give the dirty work to the kid. That was me. I developed a work ethic and a tenacity because I was always trying to make up for a lack of size and skill. They were always better than me."

Not always. After each of the brothers either won a state golf championship or finished as runner-up at Western Michigan Christian High, Dan did them better: He won it as a freshman. He'll never forget jumping into Jon's arms after his winning putt.

That was part of a decorated, multi-sport athletic career that eventually would point Dan toward the NHL. Not that anything came easy. He planned on becoming an accountant even into his senior year at Bowling Green State University.

The Winnipeg Jets had drafted Dan in the sixth round when he was a college freshman, prompted his dad to wonder, "What were they thinking?"

Dan interviewed with some top-six accounting firms his senior year, but the fire inside led him to try pro hockey. He began at the bottom — the East Coast League in 1992 — and clawed his way to the top, eventually becoming an alternate captain for the Western Conference champion Anaheim Ducks in 2003.

Here is a glimpse of Dan's singular focus, culled from a journal entry on Jan. 13, 1994, when he was playing for Moncton of the American Hockey League. He later published the entry in a book he co-wrote with father called, "So Your Son Wants to Play in the NHL."

Well, I finally signed the contract I've been waiting for: $35,000 Canadian. I'm waiting for next year's deal to come. ... Now my goals are reset for a new level, to the top, to the NHL. I know I can get there. It will happen. It is at the tip of my tongue, and it's so close I can almost taste it. And I will!

By the way, when a brotherly battle breaks out nowadays, it's little Dan who has the mental edge.

"He just has this confidence about him that he's going to win," Scott said. "He'll be losing, but he just knows. And you know, too. I've seen his body change when we're playing golf. One time I drubbed him on the front nine, and Dan just looked at me, and I knew I was going to lose.

"He won't tell you he's going to do it. But he's going to do it."

He is a hockey lover

Baseball was Dan's best high-school sport — he played outfield on an all-state team that featured future Atlanta Braves pitcher Steve Avery — but hockey never strayed far from his heart.

He formed his gritty game on the backyard rink the Bylsma boys built every winter.

Jay, a certified public accountant who later managed companies and is a teacher at Grand Rapids Community College, grew up rooting for the Detroit Red Wings of Gordie Howe and Sid Abel. He converted his basement into a "dressing room" for the boys, complete with locker stalls and an exterior wooden staircase that led to the ice surface. That way, his wife, Nancy, didn't have to deal with the daily mess.

The boys compared climbing those stairs to what players did at old Chicago Stadium. They'd yell, "Here come the Hawks!" as they emerged from the basement.

The pick-up games, of course, were ferocious. Often, it was just the four of them and their father battling under the floodlights until 11 p.m.

Jay was not an overbearing parent. Dan remembers coming home with a report card and his father simply asking, "Did you do your best?" When Dan said yes (good answer), his father congratulated him and left the manila envelope shut.

As detailed in, "So You Son Wants to Play in the NHL," the first of four books Jay and Dan co-authored, Jay did not believe in focusing his children on a single sport, despite outside pressures. Dan did not join a competitive travel team until he was 15. His father favored a varied experience, as does Dan with his son, 10-year-old Bryan.

Dan speaks to such issues — and many more involving youth sports — in various articles and question-and-answer sessions on his website, danbylsma.com.

The trick question for many parents, Dan believes, is when they hear a coach or other athletic authority figure ask, "Don't you want your child to have the best opportunity?"

"When I hear someone say that," Dan said, "my answer is, 'Absolutely. That's why he's going to play the guitar. That's why he's going to physics camp. That's why we're going to travel and see our family and do a lot of different things, because I know my priorities, and I know hockey's not the only damn thing in the world."

Jay did, however, encourage hard work and competition.

"We ate competitively," Jay said. "But after we'd play (on the outdoor rink), there was no talk of who'd won or who'd lost. We would just sit there in the basement, steam coming off our bodies, nobody saying a word. Just absorbing the moment."

He is the veteran of 429 NHL games

Matt Cooke is one of several Penguins who played against Bylsma.

Ever run into him?

"That's why I still wear this brace on my right knee," Cooke said, pulling up his pant leg after a recent practice. "He got me."

Apparently, as Cooke went to retrieve a puck, one of his defensemen failed to shield him from the raging bull that was the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Bylsma.

"I say it was a late hit," Cooke said, laughing. "(Bylsma) just says, 'It might have been a little late.' "

The book on Bylsma was that he wasn't ultra-talented (19 career goals) but would sacrifice a body part to win a game. He almost did on several occasions, too, including the time a shot crushed his orbital bone like an egg shell during a 1999 International League playoff game in Houston.

Playing for the Long Beach Ice Dogs, Bylsma went to one knee to block the shot. A decade later, he still has not regained his original smile. Nerve damage did that. His face was broken in 11 places and required 115 stitches and 13 pieces of metal to mend.

Bylsma still has two metal plates and six screws in his face.

"I wasn't there, but I saw the pictures," his father recalled. "You couldn't identify him. Several people called, including someone who was sitting by the glass. He told me, 'I thought he was going to die.' "

Early in Bylsma's Bowling Green career, he was demoted to the third line. That became his ticket to the NHL, as it forced him to learn the defensive side of the game. He became a master penalty killer. One of his future coaches, Larry Robinson, said Bylsma might have been the best penalty killing shot blocker in the league.

The proof is in the stitching. Ask Bylsma how many stitches and broken bones he sustained, and he will tell you he lost count at 550 and 26, respectively.

He is a devoted father

Bylsma is living out of a hotel while his wife, Mary Beth, and Bryan finish the school year in Wilkes-Barre. His office is decorated with Bryan's art work and notes of encouragement.

One crayon drawing simply says, "Olive Juice." Bylsma said if you look in the mirror and say, "Olive Juice," it looks like, "I love you." Being that it's not always cool for sons to use that expression with fathers, the two have their code phrase ready.

Bryan was a precious gift to Dan and Mary Beth, coming, as he did, shortly after the stillborn birth of their daughter. Bylsma was playing for the Los Angeles Kings at the time — Jan. 13, 1998. It had been a smooth pregnancy, so he was excited when he was summoned from the practice rink to take a call from his wife, who was 39-weeks pregnant.

Instead, it was the worst moment of his life. Their daughter had inexplicably passed away.

"I look back at that, and I don't know if I can say anything in words that will make sense to the average person," Bylsma said. "I just know my family and friends and upbringing were a huge part of getting through it."

Dan and his father were about to have their first book published. They decided to include the story of Dan's daughter as a way of demonstrating how one survives difficult times through perseverance, faith and a solid support system.

"Mary Beth and I and the nurse and doctor were the only four people who saw our child," Bylsma told the Citizen's Voice of Wilkes-Barre. "My dad didn't. My brothers didn't. My friends didn't. But to us, she's real.

"We wanted to share our experience."

He is different kind of coach

Does Bylsma believe he was meant to be a coach, meant to be here• He isn't inclined to answer the question at the moment.

But, he says, "If you ask me that when my coaching career is done, I'll definitely tell you yes."

Older brother Scott could see a budding coach decades ago. Penguins winger Petr Skyora saw it during his time as a teammate of Bylsma's in Anaheim. Sykora remembers a guy who wasn't afraid to stand up and address the team in an honest and direct fashion.

"Every coach is different," Sykora said. "I had a coach I didn't talk to for two years. Then you have others who are very open - Larry Robinson, Slava Fetisov, Danny. There's nothing really hidden there. I think that's the right way to do it."

Rarely does Bylsma feel compelled to raise his voice. He is more focused, he said, on teaching and creating an environment in which players are challenged daily.

Players seem to appreciate Bylsma's positive and creative approach. He dishes a healthy dose of sarcasm and is known to dedicate a practice to specific skills such as saucer passes and shot-blocking technique (rule No. 1: don't lead with your face).

"When you walk by his office, he'll say, 'Good morning,' " said defenseman Hal Gill. "He's a normal guy. There's no barrier at all."

A compulsive note taker in the mold of the late "Badger" Bob Johnson, Bylsma has books filled with his learnings. Jay Bylsma remembers his son returning home from Bowling Green after his freshman year hauling a stack of papers (papers he saved to this day).

"These are drills," Dan told him. "I'd like to be a coach someday."

Bylsma's major influences include Robinson, current St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray, Blues assistant Brad Shaw, San Jose Sharks assistant coach Todd Richards and Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who coached Bylsma in Anaheim and has exchanged a few texts with him since Bylsma got the Penguins job.

It was then-Wilkes-Barre coach Richards who brought Bylsma into the Penguins organization as an assistant three years ago.

Bylsma, who began his coaching career with the AHL's Cincinnati Ducks in 2004, had spent the previous season as an assistant with the New York Islanders. Richards chose him from among several candidates, based on a phone interview and a recommendation from Penguins assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher.

That is looking like a brilliant move at the moment, though Bylsma has not yet been tested in the crucible of playoff hockey. He hasn't been given the job yet, either, as the Penguins plan to wait until after the playoffs to evaluate the situation.

Might be the easiest decision they'll ever make.

TOPPING THE LIST

Dan Bylsma is off to the best start of any coach in Penguins history. Here are the best and worst 25-game starts in franchise history:

BEST THREE

Coach: Year — Record

Dan Bylsma: 2009 — 18-3-4 (40 pts)

Gene Ubriaco: 1988 — 15-10-0 (30 pts)

Scotty Bowman: 1991 — 13-8-4 (30 pts)

WORST THREE

Coach Year Record

Lou Angotti: 1983 — 4-16-5 (13 pts)

Michel Therrien: 2005-06 — 4-15-6 (14 pts)

Eddie Olczyk: 2003 — 6-15-4 (16 pts)

HISTORY MAKERS

Dan Bylsma tied the second-best 25-game start in NHL history. The top four:

Coach: Team, Season, Record

Todd McLellan: San Jose Sharks, 2008-09, 21-3-1 (43 pts)

Bep Guidolin: Boston Bruins, 1972-73, 20-5-0 (40 pts)

Pete Green: Ottawa Senators, 1919-20-21, 20-5-0 (40 pts)

Dan Bylsma: Penguins, 2008-09, 18-3-4 (40 pts)

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

FIVE QUICK QUESTIONS FOR BYLSMA

1. You get two tickets to a concert; any performer who ever lived. Who do you see?

"Ever lived• Wow. That's a tough question. I think the Beatles and their phenomenon and what they did to the music industry is something I would like to have seen. Elvis goes into that category, too, but I'll go with the Beatles."

2. You can have dinner with anyone on earth. Who?

"I think a day in the life of President Obama would be fascinating. I don't want to sit down and have dinner with him; I'd rather be on his shoulder and in his brain while he goes through his day, his week. If you're going to make me go to dinner, let's go play golf — a foursome with Tiger, Jack (Nicklaus) and Arnold Palmer. That would be a better thing: a round of golf and dinner."

3. What is your favorite movie?

"The 'Shawshank Redemption,' without question. I loved 'Braveheart' and 'Gladiator,' too. Those are my top three."

4. What is your favorite book?

"It changes pretty much every time I read one. I try to read a lot. I think I read 10 books in the past year. That's the one thing I do where I can continually educate my brain. (Bylsma goes to the bookshelf in his Mellon Arena office and pulls down Malcolm Gladwell's 'Outliers: The Story of Success.'). This is the same guy who wrote 'The Tipping Point' and 'Blink.' 'Blink' is about making split decisions and gut reactions and those types of things, what goes into that, why you do it. For a long time, my favorite book was 'The Bourne Identity,' along with 'The Bourne Supremacy' and 'The Bourne Ultimatum.' "

5. Growing up, who was your favorite athlete?

"My favorite hockey player was Wayne Gretzky, but my favorite athlete was (Detroit Tigers outfielder) Kirk Gibson. For a long time I kept a picture of him in my wallet. When I was playing high school baseball, I hung a poster of him in our dugout. It was him hitting a (World Series-clinching) home run in 1985, a laminated front page of the (Detroit) Free Press."

Additional Information:

So Your Son Wants to Play in the NHL

 

 

 
 


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