Starkey: Seriously, Sullivan on a mission with Penguins

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan talks to referee Brian Pochmara next to goaltender Matt Murray during overtime against the Maple Leafs Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan talks to referee Brian Pochmara next to goaltender Matt Murray during overtime against the Maple Leafs Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
Photo by Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Joe Starkey
| Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, 9:30 p.m.

So far, so good with the Penguins' new coach. The stars are performing. The team is winning.

But who is this guy, anyway?

Who is the man behind the thick Boston accent, the slight Ben Stiller resemblance and the Robert Barone baritone from “Everybody Loves Raymond”?

To some, Mike Sullivan probably comes off as an early Tom Coughlin type. A drill sergeant who insists you're late if you're not five minutes early. A frighteningly intense hockey zealot who rarely smiles, never laughs, barely sleeps and has no interests outside of running the next practice or winning the next game.

A portion of that is true, actually, and it's pretty much the only portion the 47-year-old Sullivan has served his players in 47 days on the job.

I asked defenseman Ben Lovejoy if the boys have seen a softer side. Maybe a fun or humorous side?

“No,” he said. “He's been all business at all points. In the locker room. Before practice. After practice. On the ice. Before a game. After a game. He's all about winning and consistency.”

Not than anyone's complaining. Quite the opposite.

“A lot of people in here feel he's a pretty sharp guy,” Lovejoy said.

Penguins veterans seem to believe Sullivan's straightforward style, combined with a newly aggressive approach all over the ice, is precisely what this team needed.

“I like him,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “He's intense. He's got some emotions. He's upbeat. He's honest and straight to the point. He's been good for us.”

Early returns suggest the Penguins might have stumbled into the ideal coach for this mercurial group. Credit the team's Boston connection, (ex-assistant GM) Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Guerin, with an assist from Rick Tocchet, in identifying Sullivan as the man to replace John Hynes in Wilkes-Barre this season.

After an 0-4 start upon his promotion to Pittsburgh, Sullivan is 9-3-4. That is a 113-point pace over a full season.

Sullivan smiled (I swear he did!) when I mentioned that his players said they have only seen his ultra-serious side.

“Really?” he said, feigning surprise.

Then he got serious.

“I don't look at myself as this hard coach,” he said. “I think I'm an honest coach. I think I'm a matter-of-fact coach. I told these guys at our first meeting: ‘We have some great players in the room. Our challenge is to become a great team. It's my responsibility to try to facilitate that process.'

“I like to have as much fun as the next guy, and I think in time our players will see it. But, you know, we're in a circumstance here that I think has called for a serious approach. The conversation I have with them all the time is, how do we have to play in order to win, and what is your contribution?

“We need to have a clear understanding.”

Former NHL player Matt Herr, executive director and general manager of UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, played for Sullivan in the minors more than a decade ago. He remembers a man who delivered easily digestible messages, taught the game thoroughly and engendered trust.

“At times, he'll chew you a new (rear end), but he was never intimidating to talk to,” Herr said. “He coaches the person, not just the player. Guys respect him because he's a former player and has incredible intensity. When he was talking about Sid's passion (after the Devils game), it gave me chills.

“I'd play for this guy again in a second.”

All of that being said, it's not like hockey pucks would fly out if you ripped open Sullivan's chest. He is an actual person. He has a family that includes wife Kate and three grown children: Kaitlin, Kiley and Matt, who plays hockey at Bowdoin College. Penguins staffers will tell you Sullivan owns an excellent sense of humor. He isn't afraid to bust chops. He loved it when PR man Jason Seidling showed up during the holidays wearing an indescribable suit and tie that made him look like a walking red-white-and-blue Christmas tree.

Other personal tidbits gleaned from a post-practice chat:

• Sullivan's favorite musical act is Billy Joel.

• He has seen “Jersey Boys” four times. “It's my favorite Broadway musical,” he said.

• He doesn't overexert himself in gelling up the hair before games. “I don't even use a comb or brush, just my hands,” he said, smiling (I swear he did!). “Low maintenance.”

Sullivan considers himself more well-rounded than when he took over his hometown Bruins 13 years ago. He's been fired four times since then (three as an assistant) and says he relates to players differently these days.

He spent last season working for the Chicago Blackhawks in various capacities. Those included mentoring the organization's 11 drafted forwards and doing advance scouting in the playoffs. He celebrated the team's Stanley Cup victory at center ice at United Center.

One last note: Sullivan recently read a popular Daniel Coyle book, the title of which fairly describes his initial mission here: “The Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill.”

Consider it unlocked. The Penguins are scoring again. They are winning games. But they have a long way to go. Don't expect Sully to loosen up anytime soon.

“I've seen him laugh,” Herr insisted. “When he makes the playoffs, you'll see him laugh.”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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