Olympic challenge daunting, exciting for Penguins coach Bylsma

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ARLINGTON, Va. -- Before players arrived Sunday at the USA Hockey Olympic orientation camp, coach Dan Bylsma had divided them into two teams of 24, each named after a year in which Team USA won the gold medal.

Tuesday afternoon, at a public unveiling of the new jerseys that the Americans will wear in February's Sochi Games, the "1960" and "1980" squads stood on either side of Bylsma, stretched across the ice at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex.

A spirited group of fans had congregated during lunch breaks, taking in the ceremony. In the middle of it all was Bylsma, sporting a dark blue Team USA jumpsuit and a near-constant smile -- a noticeable departure from the usual stoicism he exhibits on a daily basis as coach of the Penguins.

This is Bylsma's time, and the Olympic fates of these 48 players are in his hands, from proven stars like Patrick Kane and Zach Parise to younger players like Pittsburghers Brandon Saad and John Gibson. Bylsma and the USA Hockey staff will narrow the list to 25 in January, and the team will leave for Sochi having only spent these three days together -- a period in which insurance concerns prevented them from even lacing up their skates.

When they take the ice against Slovakia in their Feb. 13 opener, they will have practiced once or twice. There is nothing that can prepare Bylsma for this coaching challenge, which is disconcerting for a man who has risen to the top of his profession through rigorous preparation.

"For me, it feels uncomfortable," Bylsma said. "It's not what coaches do. I've had circumstances in tournaments where you have three or four days of practice and then three or four games. That would feel more comfortable. We won't see these guys again for another six months. That's not comfortable for a coach to deal with."

Bylsma has not had a stress-free summer. But he never has been so happy to live an uneasy existence. More than winning a Stanley Cup, as he did in 2009 with the Penguins, having the chance to pursue a gold medal as Team USA's coach always has been the ultimate carrot for him.

"I watched the Olympics when I was 5 and 9 and have memories of representing your country, playing in the ultimate sporting event," Bylsma said. "It's the culmination of a lifetime of work and achievement."

This opportunity couldn't have come at a better time for Bylsma. In June, his uber-talented Penguins were swept out of the Eastern Conference finals by the Boston Bruins -- a meltdown of epic proportions that had the city of Pittsburgh debating whether he should return as coach next season.

That meant having to hear the questions about his future from his own son and other family members. When Penguins general manager Ray Shero announced he was extending Bylsma's contract through the 2015-16 season, Bylsma admitted it was a huge relief.

Soon after, he interviewed with Team USA general manager David Poile, the general manager of the Nashville Predators, and impressed him enough to get the offer to be the American head coach just a few weeks after the Penguins' collapse.

Tuesday, two months later, there was Bylsma, fielding a question from a CNN reporter about how it felt to be coaching the Olympic team.

"It's an overwhelming thing that kind of rushed over me in terms of being the selection," Bylsma said, "and I think every day the significance of it [sinks in]. The privilege that it is to coach this team, to coach for the United States in the Olympics, is the highest honor in my career."

And, not to belabor the point, the greatest challenge -- especially considering the location of these games. Team USA has not won a medal outside of North America since taking silver in the 1972 games in Sapporo, Japan.

Bylsma, Poile and Shero, who is Team USA's assistant general manager, will have to select a team that can best adjust to playing on the larger international ice surface. The rink in Sochi will follow International Ice Hockey Federation guidelines of 200 feet by 100 feet with a corner radius of 28 feet -- compared to NHL specifications of 200 feet by 85 feet with a corner radius of 28 feet.

On the wider surface, speed becomes more of a premium as does the ability to play a more disciplined, patient style. It will be less of a big-checking game, more of a chess match.

Then, there are also the logistics of traveling across the world to overcome.

How will Bylsma and his staff have their eventual roster prepared for all this, in the midst of the first four months of a grueling NHL season?

The good news is that they've already spent most of their summer scouting, studying film of their opponents -- Team USA is in a group with Slovakia, Russia and Slovenia -- and film of past USA misadventures on the international rink. Plus, they've developed a clear idea of how they want this group to play, which schemes could be the most beneficial for this specific collection of talent.

The last few days, at orientation camp, it has been a mix of menial tasks and actual hockey preparation for Sochi. Players have been fitted for gear, performed media obligations and heard from the United States Olympic Committee about rules, all the while trying to create some camaraderie that can be brought to life again in February.

Until then, Team USA's staff will put to use the vast array of technology available to keep in good communication. Scouts will watch the NHL season closely, trying to put together the right 25.

For Bylsma, who will be attempting to put the Penguins on track for another Stanley Cup, there won't be enough hours in the day. And that's never been more OK with him.

"To win a gold medal for your country," Bylsma said, "is unparalleled."


J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published August 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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