• What Bylsma leaned about coaching while still a player
• How being a journeyman helped him become a good coach
• Why Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were easy to coach
Coaches are involved in every facet of the game, from drawing up a last-second play to making sure the healthy scratch works harder instead of losing hope. They don’t often have time to talk at length, but when they do, you’d better listen. And learn.
In partnership with ProSmart, Sportsnet will publish a number of coaching-related pieces over the next couple of months. Dan Bylsma talked to senior writer Ryan Dixon a couple of years back about how he became a coach and what it’s like working with superstars.
Dan Bylsma grew up in Michigan, played NCAA hockey at Bowling Green and couldn’t believe it when his first NHL coaching gig had him standing behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He’s still wrapping his head around being the guy in the suit calling the shots. Having worked his way up through minor-pro outposts like Greensboro and Long Beach, Bylsma soaked in a lot from the people he played for and with. The only reason he saw nearly 500 games in the NHL was because he learned exactly what coaches expected from him; now he’s trying to coax the most out of fringe players and superstars alike.
“The first time I thought about coaching was around my fifth year of playing. I was going through the East Coast League and the American Hockey League and the International Hockey League, so I had a handful of different coaches. When I got to the NHL, I thought about the dynamic of the coach, how coaches had treated the players at all those different levels. I started thinking about what I would do and analyzing different situations. I’m not sure I thought, OK, I’m going to be a coach, but I know that’s when I started thinking about it. Very shortly after that, I started keeping track of various aspects of coaching: relationships, practices, drills, what coaches did, what I would do, what I thought was good, what I would do differently.
In order to go from the ECL and end up in the NHL, I had to figure out what the coach was saying. I had to figure out what was needed and I had to work what I did into that the best I could. With my skill level, I had to be on a different thinking level than players who were very good. So I think I had that different [hockey intelligence] level when I was playing.
Without question, there’s still the competitiveness—you get that from coaching in a similar way to playing. You don’t get the on-ice, in-the-heat-of-the-moment stuff, but there’s a lot of the same energy level and competitive mojo. But it’s also different being a coach than a player in that you have 23 personalities you’re coaching. There’s development of those individuals—and development of those individuals as a team—that you don’t really get as a player.
It’s a great team sport, maybe the best, but you still have an individual focus, and even though we have great team players, I don’t think they fully understand the 23-man personality aspect of it. You have five or six players doing well and five or six players not doing well at any given moment, and as a coach you’re always dealing with that. You’re always going to have someone who’s not doing well, who’s not happy. It’s a different dynamic when you’re dealing with that. The best thing as a coach is that you get a great sense of satisfaction in getting the team to take the next step and come together. The players have it in a different way; when they win as a group, they have that bond they’ll always have. But as a coach, you’re trying to get them where they haven’t gone, maybe as an individual and as a team, and that’s the most satisfying thing in coaching.
You’re not going to be a very good coach if you’re not in tune with the individual and the team dynamic. Pushing the individual, providing the atmosphere to get the most out of him and the team is really essential to being a good coach. The X’s and O’s—I don’t think there are a lot of secrets. There’s nothing I know about the game that other coaches aren’t privy to. It’s not like I can say, ‘Guys, if we do this and this and this, we have the secret and they don’t.’ There aren’t many secrets in life or hockey, so the systems are important, but I think the team aspect is more important. You need a combination of both to be a good coach.
[pullquote]”You walk in the room and you look at Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and you think, ‘They’re the best players in the world’ and ‘I’m going to coach them?”[/pullquote]
If you want to hear stuff about what’s going on with your players, it comes from all over the place. You don’t need to put a bug in the dressing room to get the pulse of your team. I don’t think you need your equipment staff being a pipeline to the coaches—it’s not a fruitful situation if you do. You hear things from other teams, other coaches, other players, media outlets—how tough your team is to play against, you pick up those bits and pieces and you certainly pay attention to that. There are times we ask our players, ‘What do teams think when they play [us]?’ Sometimes we ask the question, ‘What do the fans think when they come and watch us play?’
It was a unique experience—very early in my head coaching career—getting the opportunity to come to Pittsburgh late in the 2008–09 season at a difficult time and entering the playoffs, winning games, moving on. I distinctly remember feeling over and over again that I was two people. There was Dan Bylsma who grew up in Grand Haven, Mich., and went to Bowling Green, played hockey—that’s who I viewed myself as. Then you’re talking about a guy who is coaching Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL. I remember walking to the rink every day across the street from the hotel and having a hard time equating those two people as being the same person. You see yourself on video after the game on the bench wearing a suit and you think, That guy looks a lot like me.
We went to the final [and won the Cup], and that makes it all the more difficult to equate the two guys. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over that feeling of being two different guys. I was a Michigan and (Wolverines football coach) Bo Schembechler fan growing up, a Tigers fan with Sparky Anderson and those guys, and I have a hard time thinking of myself as being in the same situation now. No matter what happens, no matter what I do, I’m never really going to see myself as being in the same position as Bo Schembechler or Sparky Anderson. Even though I know my job is the same as theirs, those guys were bigger than life.
Somebody I played with told me, ‘You’ve got to take something from everyone you play with or meet,’ and I think that’s even more important with what I do now, learning from other people in every profession. You’re busy coaching your team for what seems like the whole year, so you don’t have a lot of time to learn and grow, but whether it’s through books or contact with other coaches—doesn’t matter if it’s baseball, basketball, football, whatever—I like to sit down with them and learn their players, their teams, and apply it to us.
I think the toughest thing about [going to] any place that has a star player, is that you walk in the room and you look at Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and you think, ‘They’re the best players in the world’ and ‘I’m going to coach them?’ You have to fight the urge to think, ‘He knows more about the game than me, how am I going to coach Sidney Crosby?!’ That was probably the biggest thing to get over when you get in the door in the NHL. Sidney Crosby is not a lot different than a lot of the other players in terms of how he’s coached, what he’s doing on the ice and what he thinks. He’s actually pretty easy to sit down with and say, ‘What about improving here? This is where you made a mistake.’ He was receptive to that, that’s one of his strengths. If there’s a tough thing to coaching stars, it’s your own personal issues, it’s not dealing with them.”