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Olympic Ice Hockey

Uncommonly introspective, Bylsma leads USA hockey into the spotlight

Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Dan Bylsma rose quickly from an unpaid minor-league assistant to Team USA's coach at the Sochi Olympics.

SOCHI -- This is America’s Coach.

The stoic man behind the Team USA bench -- dark-framed glasses, arms folded across his chest, tight expression -- used to run naked around NHL dressing rooms banging on a Gatorade tub with a hockey stick to get his teammates pumped for the game.

He has co-authored four books, more than some hockey coaches have read.

He buried the Red Wings in the 2009 Stanley Cup finals months after landing his first -- and five years later -- only NHL head coaching job.

Eleven years earlier, he had buried a daughter he would never know.

These seemingly disparate threads weave into a rich tapestry of a man who deked coming out of college -- he interviewed with top-six accounting firms out of college and ended up a bottom-six forward -- and went top shelf in life. Dan Bylsma is not a Renaissance Man. Expertise in hockey (429 NHL games), golf (state champion) and baseball (all-state in Michigan) does not a well-rounded fellow make. But he has seen enough and lived enough and can scribble enough X’s-and-O’s that when he leads the U.S. into the Olympic quarterfinals, there will be no question that he is the adult in the room -- even if he once was the biggest kid.

On a late morning when the Sochi sky was the color of dirty dishwater and the hockey tournament was asleep, Bylsma plopped himself into a low chair in a hotel lobby and deconstructed his week and, as much as anyone can in an hour, his coaching life. He wore a blue USA fleece. He had a half-dozen Olympic pins stuck in the lanyard of his accreditation, one of those small pleasures of the Olympic experience. Perhaps this is Bylsma’s greatest gift, an ability to extract every conceivable ounce of joy from any circumstance. He used to be stopped in the streets of Pittsburgh by strangers who, having seen the blank face behind the Penguins bench, would tell him he should enjoy himself more. Bylsma would say thanks, walk away and think, “You don’t have a clue.”

Consider the Olympics. Before the opening game against Slovakia in the small Shayba rink, Bylsma gazed around the arena prior to warm-ups to appreciate the Olympic grandeur, to try to divine the meaning of a movement that is larger than 60 minutes. During the shootout against Russia, when the whole country, including America’s Coach, was having its 1980 Lake Placid acid flashback, he looked practically giddy as he marveled at the sheer spectacle and, to a small degree, his own audacity in sending T.J. Oshie out time and again. Like Scotty Bowman’s jutting chin and Roger Neilson’s psychedelic tie, Bylsma’s crossed arms are his calling card. “What I’m doing there,” Bylsma said, “is squeezing the stuffing out of my arms. I think I might have bruised myself in that Russia game.”

The Olympics can be a pinch-me and a bruise-me moment.

Bylsma is diligent. He had a 3.3 GPA at Bowling Green, where his he swears that his plan was to become an accountant. (When Bylsma starts ticking off all the members of his family who became accountants, he sounds like Marisa Tomei’s character on the witness stand in My Cousin Vinny when she lists all the mechanics in her family). As befits a four-year member of the CCHA all-academic hockey team, Bylsma always speaks in complete sentences, and sometimes in complete paragraphs. He also speaks gibe. Teasing is the lingua franca of the dressing room; Bylsma is fluent. Not long after he began as the Penguins coach, he dubbed Sidney Crosby “juice boy” because his star had lost a shootout competition in practice and had been obliged to pass out sports drinks to teammates. In Sochi, Bylsma immediately took aim at the retreating hairline of 25-year-old defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, and he tweaked Dustin Brown’s hard hands by suggesting that on a faceoff play in the offensive zone Brown just ignore the puck and head straight to the net for a redirection.

 “He’s very personable,” Oshie said. “He’s always chatting with guys. In meetings, he knows how to get guys' attention. The way he speaks to the players, you can tell he’s a players’ coach. You’ll go over systems on video and if maybe somebody’s got his head down, he’ll say, like, ‘Got that, Osh?’ He’s light about it. And when somebody’s light, you don’t want to let him down even more.”

Bylsma does not seem wildly impressed with himself. Maybe his self-deprecating nature arises from his role as a shot-blocking fourth-liner, one who still has two plates and six screws in his face and a wire around the orbital bone in his left cheek because that is what can happen when you stick your nose in front of a 90-mile-per-hour shot. Bylsma can count all his NHL goals on his fingers and toes and still have one left over. Nineteen. His broken bone to goal ratio is at least 1.37-to-1.

Nor does he claim to have written the book on coaching. He has, however, co-written, with his father Jay, four others. The first was, So Your Son Wants to Play in the NHL, which arose from a talk his father would deliver to parents on Thursday nights at the hockey school the family ran. Bylsma was in the NHL then, in and out of the lineup with the Kings. (“I had 20 games with Wayne Gretzky,” Bylsma said. “Some journalists would say I kicked him out of town.”) On team charters Bylsma would grab his laptop and type away.

The book essentially was completed during his second season with L.A., around the holidays in 1997. It was ready for the publisher, but then life got in the way. In January, Mary Beth and Dan Bylsma’s first child was stillborn. They had not known the sex but had chosen a name for a boy and another for a girl. The baby was a girl. The couple chose to withhold the name they had selected. On her death certificate, she was Angel Bylsma.

 “My wife and I originally didn’t want to include this in the book, but then part of the message of the book is preparation for life, not just the National Hockey League," Bylsma said. “And this is a part of life.” He and Mary Beth have a son, Bryan, now 15.

Bylsma made a habit of writing things down. There would be three more books -- So You Want to Play in the NHL, Pitcher’s Hand is Out, No Slam Dunks Allowed -- but he had no pretensions of being Stephen King. He was barely a Los Angeles King. But he kept taking notes, like in college. For the final six years of his playing career, he was prepping for his final exam.

 “He had the character and charisma to be a head coach,” said Team Finland’s Teemu Selanne, a Ducks teammate of Bylsma from 2000 to '03. “He was very good at what he was doing. He did the right things. That’s how he earned respect in this league. If you asked me then which of my teammates could have become a coach, he would have been at the top of the list.”

Photo: Julio Cortez/AP

Bylsma has earned praise from players, who enjoy his loose leadership style.

By the time Bylsma retired after the pre-lockout 2003-04 season, he had the equivalent of five school projects finished, a down payment on an uncertain future. Because he had not been a defenseman -- and many general managers hire assistant coaches to run the defense -- Bylsma interviewed five defensemen and two coaches who ran a blue line about the intricacies of the position. He developed a personality and role assessment of teams. He did a two-part paper on team structure and another on special teams. This was a stretch. Although he had been a master penalty-killer, the power play was as foreign to him as Mandarin.

Bylsma's diligence failed to impress hockey men. Not even an East Coast Hockey League team was interested. There was nothing in the American Hockey League or the NHL. The door slammed like in a penalty box, where he had spent roughly three hours of his NHL life.

Finally his old club, Anaheim, showed a modicum of interest. Ducks assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher had an assistant’s job in AHL Cincinnati for him as long as Bylsma was willing to accept a salary that, in that lockout year, was commensurate with his coaching experience: zero.

“I told them I don’t need any money,” Bylsma said. “I’ll take the opportunity.”

And so he started a career that was less climbing the ladder than a game of snakes-and-ladders. Up to the NHL as an assistant with the Islanders. Back to the AHL as an assistant with Pittsburgh’s team in Wilkes-Barre. He has never asked Todd Richards -- the Wilkes-Barre coach (and now the Blue Jackets coach) -- if he was the first choice as an assistant, but he doubts it. (He could easily ask Richards, who stands next to him on the Team USA bench.) In the summer of 2008, after Richards bolted for an NHL assistant's job with the Sharks, Bylsma was promoted to coach. Penguins GM Ray Shero, following a dispiriting road loss to the Maple Leafs on Valentine’s Day in 2009, fired Michel Therrien and called on Bylsma, a man who had been a coach for the equivalent of 20 minutes – 54 minor-league games.

“I know some people think where I am now is dumb-ass luck,” said Bylsma, now 43. “Talking to past coaches, present coaches … they say something like ‘I don’t want to start all over again with a team. I’d like to inherit what Bylsma got in Pittsburgh.’ If they were doing a lottery pick of all the coaches, would I have been the first one Ray Shero would have picked on Feb. 15? The answer, clearly, is no. That’s not the way the coaching business works. It’s not the way life works.”

“When we made the coaching change back in that February, one of the things we kicked around -- Chuck Fletcher was with me at the time -- was Dan had coached only half a season in Wilkes-Barre,” Shero said. “But he also had played in the NHL, 400 games as a fourth-liner, and he had played with Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne and Wayne Gretzky. He had played with star players. The first one before him to come from the minors and have success was [then Capitals coach] Bruce Boudreau, and that seemed to be the way things were going, so we took a chance.”

Bylsma’s Penguins -- well Crosby’s and Evgeni Malkin’s and Marc-André Fleury’s Penguins -- also took the Cup, a stepping stone to where Bylsma is now. When USA Hockey’s committee of NHL GMs first met after the 2010 Olympics, it discussed what kind of coach it wanted for Sochi. Many names were mentioned, but the talk always circled back to the guy from Grand Haven, Mich., with the folded arms. Shero maintains that he never said a word. “[Team USA GM] David Poile came back to me and said ‘Now Ray, you also have a vote,’” said Shero, the acting U.S. GM in Sochi. “I wasn’t a tiebreaker, put it that way. Dan had unanimous support.”

Following the shootout mania and a round-robin game for the ages, a nation also has the back of America’s Coach.

If form holds, Team USA will reprise the Vancouver 2010 gold-medal game in the semifinals on Friday against Canada. Mike Babcock coaches the Canadians. He also coached Bylsma for two years in Anaheim and worked with him in spurts in Cincinnati during the 2004-05 lockout. When asked to characterize his relationship with Babcock, Bylsma paused, seemingly parsing his thoughts, rolling the words in his brain the way he rolls lines on the big ice in Sochi.

 “Our relationship … he’s a matter-of-fact, very forward, there’s a little bit of abrasiveness in his demeanor as a coach,” Bylsma said finally. For the next few minutes, he spoke slowly, in ellipses, softly and sometimes inaudibly because he did not want the words recorded.

“So I know him as a coach for two years.” Pause. “I had a number of coaches. Maybe 12 coaches I had for any period of time. And I would label Mike and Andy Murray as the top two. So there are things that I picked up on, learned from him as a coach … he built a foundation of how your team plays and is expected to play in practice and in his meetings with his team that I had not seen from any other coach. There’s a lot of that in what I do as a person and as a [coach]. I took some of his drills. I took some expressions … There’s a fair amount of verbiage that I use that if you knew both of us, you’d say, ‘Ah, they’re acquaintances.’”

Did you like playing for him?

Silence.

Did he pick on you?

Pause. “That would not be an exclusive group. Not one or two guys. It’s an inclusive group.” Pause. “He’s abrasive. There’s some abrasiveness there. I also learned some of that. It’s helped me develop as a coach, and I understand some of it more. There are times when I say ‘OK, [time to] go all Mike Babcock.’

“Now my relationship with Mike …  you know, we talk once or twice a year. We talked in postseason two years ago. We lost to the Flyers. [Babcock’s Red Wings] lost to Nashville. And I think he picked up the phone this time. We had a two hour-plus conversation about this and that, and why and what happened, and was it because the game had changed. We whipped noodles at the wall to see what stuck. We tried to make some sense of things. It was an exhaustive talk. I think I needed a nap afterwards.”

The Olympic hockey tournament wakes up from its slumber on Wednesday for America’s Team and America’s Coach, who, in retrospect, was prepared to be the luckiest man on the earth. He goes on his morning jogs in the village and marvels in as much of a metaphysical way as a physical one. He recalls walking out to coach against Team Russia, seeing the Russian flags and the American banners behind the goal and having “a kinda surreal crowd shot of Lake Placid in my mind,” a Herb Brooks moment.

Bylsma is perfectly comfortable using a word like “surreal.”

“Dan,” said Kariya, who witnessed Bylsma unplugged (and undressed), “is a beauty.”

An American beauty.