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Penguins

Mike Sullivan back at Penguins practice, grateful for late father's support

Jonathan Bombulie
| Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, 1:45 p.m.

In Mike Sullivan’s line of work, compartmentalizing the personal and professional aspects of his life is difficult, if not impossible.

Sullivan returned to Pittsburgh Penguins practice Friday morning after spending the first part of the week at home in Massachusetts after the death of his father last Saturday.

When Sullivan was home, celebrating the life of his father and saying his final goodbyes, it was impossible to leave hockey out of it. How many conversations between father and son over the past three years began or ended with George giving Mike his take on how the team was playing?

“He was never short of an opinion about our team, but he was a huge Penguins fan,” Sullivan said Friday. “He loved the Penguins.”

When Sullivan returned to work, it was impossible to forget about the impact his father had on his life and his career. When he addressed the team before Friday morning’s practice, it was the first thing on his mind.

“As I said to our players this morning, none of us get here alone,” Sullivan said. “It takes a lot of support and people that love you along the way that make sacrifices to help you achieve success. I’m no different. I obviously had a very good relationship with my father. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to experience the Stanley Cups with him. I think that was the thrill of his life, and it was certainly the thrill of my life to be able to share it with him.”

As he diagrammed plays on a dry-erase board, as he stood at center ice and sounded his whistle, Sullivan wasn’t a son grieving for the loss of his father or a hockey coach trying to get his team ready for its season opener, which is 13 days away. He was both at the same time.

As difficult as that complicated emotional maze can be, Sullivan has a few things going for him now that he’s back with the team.

For one, he has the support of a few dozen players in the locker room.

Coaches and players are known to butt heads at times in the NHL, and Sullivan isn’t the type to avoid confrontation. Under circumstances such as these, however, any and all professional friction is pushed far aside.

“It’s a couple of sad days for us, for sure,” Evgeni Malkin said. “We try to focus and be together and support our coaches. He’s an unbelievable guy. It’s a tough time for him. We’re always here. We always support him.”

Sullivan also has the benefit of routine.

Being away from the club while assistant coach Jacques Martin ran the bench for a pair of exhibition games felt strange. Presiding over Friday’s practice felt normal.

“It was a little awkward. Obviously it’s a unique circumstance,” Sullivan said. “I’m excited to get back on the ice with the team and thought we had a great practice today. I’m looking forward to the next couple of games and seeing what we have.”

Keep up with the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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