NHL Playoffs: Bylsma's success reads like fish story
April 14, 2009 8:00 AM
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Will the Penguins remove the interim title for coach Dan Bylsma next season?
Dan Bylsma -- Led the Penguins from 10th in the Eastern Conference to fourth
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after."
-- Henry David Thoreau
It is the contemplative aspect of angling that appeals to Dan Bylsma, so it doesn't bother him that no one can corroborate his definitive fish story.
"A couple years ago I was by myself, caught the two biggest brown trout of my life, and I caught a salmon on the same day," Bylsma recalled during a recent respite from the breakneck pace he keeps as Penguins interim coach.
"I'm a catch-and-release guy, and there was nobody around to take a picture."
The memory prompted Bylsma to cite the above quote. OK, so maybe the bookworm thought the author was Ralph Waldo Emerson, but the ideals still come shining through.
Intelligent and well-rounded, Bylsma, 38, enjoys life's journey, whether it's the solitude of fishing or the craziness of hockey, but he is hardly the type to cast about without a well-planned purpose.
• Game: Penguins vs. Flyers, 7 p.m.
• Where: Mellon Arena.
• TV: FSN Pittsburgh.
Still, what he terms his "quick rise" has all the earmarks of being a whopper of a tale -- starting this season as a first-time head coach with the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton; getting promoted Feb. 15 after the firing of Michel Therrien; leading a star-studded NHL team whose oldest player, veteran winger Bill Guerin, is the same age out of an acute case of midseason doldrums to climb from 10th in the Eastern Conference to fourth heading into the playoffs this week against Philadelphia.
"I would use the term 'wild.' It's wild to see," said close friend Davis Payne, coach of Peoria of the AHL who played and roomed with Bylsma at Greensboro of the ECHL in the early 1990s when they were fresh out of college.
"He's coaching world-class talent. The Yankees know that sometimes that doesn't work. It's awesome for me to see it work with him."
Bylsma's well-chronicled tweaks to the Penguins' existing system -- adding an aggressive edge and tapping into the squad's speed and drive -- have been well received. That's in large part due to the people skills of a man who, with his father, Jay, has written four books aimed at children and families and heavy on values, sports and his experiences.
"He communicates well with everybody whether it be a serious matter or a joking matter," team captain Sidney Crosby said. "In meetings, he keeps everyone on their toes and gets people involved through questions or hearing other guys' thoughts."
Bylsma was the kind of blue-collar, penalty-killing, shot-blocking winger who would have been loved in Pittsburgh, but he spent his 429 NHL games in the Western Conference.
After making an extremely compelling case for having the "interim" removed from his title, perhaps the man who for years has been taking notes about drills and other aspects of coaching will win local fans' hearts from behind the bench.
This is a guy who, each practice, bolts down the runway and leaps onto the ice. Who will stop by a player's locker to demonstrate a way to take or make a pass.
An early recipient of Bylsma's tutelage was Todd Reirden, who was promoted to Wilkes-Barre head coach when Bylsma joined the Penguins.
Reirden was a freshman at Bowling Green State University in Ohio when Bylsma was a junior.
"It was tough love," Reirden said. "In the beginning, he latched on to me for the purposes of making sure I understood what being a freshman was all about. But I think he saw someone back then with potential who needed a little bit of direction. No one told him to help me out on the ice and in class.
"He challenges players in a unique way. It's not abrasive. It is a way where they are evaluating themselves on a day-to-day basis and they don't want to let him down."
Many teachers, even those disguised as coaches, come by their calling naturally. Others have to toil at it. Bylsma seems to straddle both categories.
Although he got help in constructing an 18-3-4 record down the stretch with the Penguins -- top defenseman Sergei Gonchar returned from shoulder surgery, and the team added Guerin, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams -- Bylsma's input is no fluke.
"I worked for this day. I planned for this day. I prepared," Bylsma said. "I was expecting this day to come at some point in my life. I know I'm going to be better five years from now. I expect that from myself. I expect myself to be better a month from now.
"I feel like I did everything possible I could. I learned from a lot of good coaches."
Those mentors include Mike Babcock, coach of defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit; St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray; St. Louis assistant Brad Shaw; and Anaheim assistant Todd Richards. .
"He's pretty serious about what he's doing, but he approaches it in kind of a relaxed way, tries to have it loose," said Penguins winger Petr Sykora, who played with Bylsma earlier this decade in Anaheim. "There is a good balance. We get the hard work done but with a smile on our faces."
Bylsma hasn't lost that player's sense of humor. He had no qualms during daily interview scrums about calling Crosby "Juice Boy" after the star had to deliver sports drinks to the team for losing a shootout drill, or poking fun at defenseman Mark Eaton's injured, swollen nose.
As a player and alternate captain, Bylsma had all sorts of routines, including moving to the music, which led to his nickname, "Disco Dan."
It used to be "Bylsie," but during an NHL work stoppage in 1994-95, he and veteran goaltender Byron Dafoe ended up on the same minor league team in Phoenix, and Dafoe claimed that nickname.
It became a game for teammates to find Bylsma a new one. They tacked on a string of monikers based on his antics. "Disco" stuck.
"Yeah, I've seen him do a lot of off-the-wall things," Payne said.
Bylsma could have chosen many sports growing up in the town of Grand Haven, Mich., across Lake Michigan from Milwaukee. He was an individual state champion in golf and a starting outfielder on a West Michigan Christian High School state title team.
"He's a darned good golfer," Payne said. "I don't think I've ever beat him in golf, which is one of the things that still bothers me. I spent some time in Alaska [coaching the Aces to an ECHL title], so I maybe have an edge over him in the fishing department."
It didn't even have to be sports. Bylsma took piano lessons, played drums in the school band and sang in the church choir.
And there were the academics.
For most of his college days, Bylsma figured his hockey scholarship to Bowling Green was a means to a degree in accounting and a path to the workaday business world, not a door to becoming a pro athlete.
"I'm proud of my degree," he said. "It's got a lot of dust on it, that degree."
Hockey replaced accounting, but he never fell out of love with Grand Haven, where he and his family still spend their summers and he can chase serenity and lunkers.
"I love fishing, and I love being outdoors," Bylsma said. "On the salmon runs, if there are people all over, I'm not that interested, but I love catching salmon on the river.
"Now with my son [Bryan] getting of age, 10 years old, now he can fish without dad having to do everything. We can go fish and be side by side and go on the river and he can do his thing. That's what fishing has become for me."
That could be on hold for a while, if Bylsma's success continues in the postseason.