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For many, Bylsma served as more than just Penguins' coach

| Saturday, June 14, 2014, 9:20 p.m.
Courtesy of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh
Then-Penguins coach Dan Bylsma instructs youth hockey players during the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation's inaugural Team Children’s Sports Fest: Champions at Play in June 2012 at Robert Morris University's Island Sports Center.
Courtesy of Pittsburgh Penguins
Dan Bylsma instructs a group of youth hockey players who attended the Pittsburgh Penguins Training Camp on July 9, 2012, at Consol Energy Center.

Joseph Wilk won't bash Dan Bylsma.

Wilk, 31, of North Point Breeze instead plans to write a letter to the former Penguins coach, who was fired earlier this month, to thank him for his contributions.

“He was one of the generals on the front lines of the Penguins' effort to build a hockey tradition in Western Pennsylvania,” Wilk said. “I wanted to write him a letter to let him know to not pay attention to people calling in angrily to radio talk shows calling for his head. I thought it would be a nice gesture.”

Ten men have won world championships with Pittsburgh's three major professional sports teams, but it's unlikely any of them had a journey similar to Bylsma's.

Four months after taking over for Michel Therrien in 2009, Bylsma helped the Penguins win a third Stanley Cup title as a first-time NHL head coach.

Off the ice, Bylsma was a hockey dad and the Penguins' hook into the local youth ranks. Only later, after postseasons that fell short of the Cup Final, did he become a lightning rod for criticism.

Bylsma's firing set off celebrations for some. Others are sad to see him go, especially those who got to know him personally.

Wilk met Bylsma while volunteering at a 2012 youth sports camp held by the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation. He remembers watching in awe as Bylsma worked with groups of kids, certain that every word bouncing off the walls at RMU's Island Sports Center was genuine.

“The second you stepped onto the ice rink, you saw something special was going on,” Wilk said.

Bylsma's tenure ended amid frustration: a heartbreaking loss in Game 7 to the New York Rangers that completed a blown 3-1 series lead in the second round of the playoffs. Falling to lower-seeded teams five years in a row. The perception that he had lost control of the locker room and that his message had soured on franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Say what you want about Bylsma's coaching — his perceived inability to adjust on the fly came about as new general manager Jim Rutherford ticked off qualifications he wants in a coach — but it's nearly impossible to deny that Bylsma carved out a legacy here.

Like Bill Cowher's patterned sweaters or Jim Leyland sneaking a cigarette in the dugout, Bylsma and his humble, occasionally goofy personality fit. He danced. He joked with, and sometimes punched, Root Sports reporter Dan Potash.

When reporters crammed into Party Room No. 1 at Southpointe for Bylsma's news conferences, the coach laughed at their insistence of passing around a microphone.

“I think we're close enough that I can hear you,” Bylsma cracked.

Though Bylsma was born in Grand Haven, Mich., he became a yinzer, the cousin you'd see twice a year and would toss horseshoes with for hours.

“He took his job seriously, but he didn't seem to take himself too seriously, much like people in this region,” Wilk said. “You could see that in his (occasional) mustache, to the fedora hat or whatever it was that he was wearing for a while.

“He caught fire during the resurgence of the spirit of Pittsburgh. His personality kind of resonated with that.”

Hello, neighbor

Brad Zimmerly, 50, has been a neighbor of Bylsma's since Bylsma and his wife, Mary Beth, bought their Ohio Township home in 2009.

Zimmerly has seen the Bylsmas attend Avonworth football games on Friday nights, shop at Ross Park Mall — around Christmas, no less — and hang out in Avonworth Community Park.

“You'd see Dan out there cutting his grass before a game,” Zimmerly said. “Who else does that? I'd see him cutting the grass, then I would turn on the TV and see him coaching. That impressed me. Most people in his position would hire a lawn service or something.”

Zimmerly said it was not uncommon to see Bylsma and his son, Bryan, playing hockey or shooting hoops in the backyard.

Zimmerly and Bylsma have discussed another of Bylsma's hobbies: quad riding.

“I never saw him as the hockey coach,” Zimmerly said. “I know he's outside a lot with his son. He does a lot of family things. I saw him as a great neighbor.”

Many saw Bylsma as selfless.

During a Dec. 16, 2012 visit to Children's Hospital, Bylsma didn't just swoop in, take a few pictures and leave.

He played air hockey — and lost. He watched “Elf.” He played pool and even talked with Santa Claus via Skype.

Along with Mary Beth, Bylsma also donated $19,000 — the proceeds from his annual youth hockey camp — to Children's Hospital.

“On a personal level, Dan's a great guy,” said Joe Sell, coach of the Arctic Foxes youth hockey team, which Bryan Bylsma played on for three years. “I have a lot of respect for (Dan). Wherever he ends up, I'll be a fan of that team and root for him. He's just a good guy. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.”

‘A normal guy'

Jim Seelman saw Bylsma as an extraordinary host.

Seelman is an assistant coach with the Arctic Foxes, a travel hockey team that Bryan Bylsma played on for three years.

Reached by phone the night Bylsma was relieved of his duties, Seelman recalled a cookout Bylsma hosted for the team, coaches and parents in spring 2013.

It wasn't catered; Bylsma worked the grill.

Seelman, a Bowling Green graduate like Bylsma, remembers marveling at the aluminum fire barrel Bylsma had with the school logo carved out of one side.

“He tried very hard to not be Dan Bylsma the Penguins coach,” said Seelman, 38 of Ross. “He tried very hard to be Dan Bylsma Bryan's dad. He was just one of the parents. We would have team functions, and he was just like any other parent.”

After dinner, Seelman remembered the dads shooting pool in Bylsma's basement and the talk turning to hockey. Bylsma didn't scoff at talking shop.

“We're going over game strategies and X's and O's using pool balls on the pool table, going over different breakouts using stripes and solids,” Seelman said. “We were discussing the ins and outs of beating the trap with the stretch pass.

“He's just a normal guy. He's a guy like you and I. He likes to do the same things we do. He just happened to have a job that everybody knew about.”

‘It will be felt'

Bylsma's likable personality is why it upset Sell when he saw the Penguins keep Bylsma in limbo for three weeks, then hire a general manager and fire him that morning.

“People can say, ‘Oh, he's still getting paid,' ” said Sell, 37 of Moon. “But you know what? You have a wife, a kid. It's not as black and white as the fans think once you get to know them a little bit.”

Even the Penguins acknowledged Bylsma was “a good man and a good coach” in the news release announcing his firing.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle talked regularly with Bylsma, and the two became friends. Hurdle declined comment for this story, as did Bylsma.

Bylsma's humility was on display daily as he spoke — and often spoke and spoke and spoke — in his daily dealings with the media, always intent on providing a thoughtful response to a question, save for anything about lineups or injuries.

His persona, one visible through HBO's “24/7 Road to the Winter Classic,” was one of a Regular Joe, a guy perfectly content to have a glass of wine at home with his wife.

And while it may have been one that made him easier to criticize, it's also one that will be missed among the fraternity of men coaching sports in this city.

“He really put forth an effort to be a leader of leaders,” Wilk said. “I think it's going to have an impact. I think it's going to have a negative impact. I don't know if it will set things back really dramatically, but it will be felt.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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