SOCHI, Russia — In Dan Bylsma’s mind, his life is divided into two distinct parts: Before Feb. 15, 2009, and after.
That, of course, was the day he became interim head coach of the Penguins. And, in the five years since, he has struggled to reconcile the Dan whose sole purpose for walking the Earth was to beat his three older brothers in backyard sports with the Dan who is coaching Team USA in the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Bylsma couldn’t grasp it then, when he was promoted from the Penguins’ AHL team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to sit behind the bench in Pittsburgh.
“My first 25 games, I lived at the Marriott,” Bylsma says, “and every morning I’d get up and walk to the Mellon Arena, and I’d be thinking that thought … ‘It …doesn’t … make … sense.’ I remember watching the [Detroit] Tigers play, and Sparky Anderson was the coach. I remember watching the University of Michigan football team play, and Bo Schembechler is the coach. I don’t equate myself with Sparky Anderson and Bo Schembechler. I had a tough time walking over from the Marriott to the Mellon and thinking … I see myself on TV. I know it’s me. But you almost feel like two people.”
The Bylsma who wears a suit on TV and calmly commands the respect of his players has won a Stanley Cup and helped the Penguins become one of the most consistent winners in the NHL. (Yes, with their talent, that should be given, but that’s a topic for another day). Bylsma’s appointment to Team USA head coach in June was one more confirmation of how he has reached his profession’s pinnacle, but still, he fails to see it in greater context.
“I’m a kid from Grand Haven, Michigan,” he says, using one of his go-to lines. “We watched Herb Brooks behind the bench. It just doesn’t really make a ton of sense, to me, coaching the national team, and coaching in the Olympics.”
Now, that’s nothing against Grand Haven. Bylsma loves the place with every fiber of his being. This is just Dan being Dan, hoping that his opponents will actually buy the idea that he isn’t really supposed to be here, so that he can lull them to sleep and beat them, again and again. His favorite athlete growing up was Kirk Gibson, the hero of the 1988 World Series. Don’t think for a second that Bylsma doesn’t imagine himself as the type of guy who would make that same winning home-run trot on one good leg.
His being from Grand Haven, and the family-driven upbringing he experienced there, is exactly the thing that should explain his meteoric rise, not detract from it.
Today, when he leads the red, white and blue against Slovakia, Bylsma will be introduced to millions of Americans who might not care that much about hockey. They may wonder, who is that coach, this unlikely face of Team USA?
Well, about that face … early in his pro hockey career with the Los Angeles Kings, Bylsma did not wear a mask. He was trying to look tough. One game, he dived to block a shot, and the puck pounded into his face, shattering it all over. Two metal plates are still hidden there behind his square-jawed visage.
“I try to forget those things,” Bylsma says.
Deep down, we are a country of fourth-line grinders and gritty penalty killers. So America, here’s a prediction: You’re going to like Dan Bylsma.
Backyard of dreams
By the time he was born on Dec. 19, 1970, Bylsma’s family was more than ready for their sixth teammate. The home they purchased in Grand Haven, a town nestled on the shore of Lake Michigan and 40 miles west of Grand Rapids, was chosen for strategic reasons: It had a big, flat backyard.
According to “So Your Son Wants To Play in the NHL” — a book written by Dan and his father, Jay, in 1998 after Dan had made the Kings roster — it was Dan’s mother, Nancy, who strongly inferred that an ice surface should be put down every winter so the boys would always have a place to play.
So Jay, an accountant by day, would learn the ways of ice-making. They started with 15 square feet, then expanded to a 20-by-40 rectangle. Just before Dan was born, the Bylsmas bought a bigger house that could hold a 30-by-90 surface.
In that backyard, the Bylsma boys were encouraged to fashion any dreams that came to them. It was great when Dan decided he wanted to be a college hockey player, but the key thing for Jay Bylsma was that his son felt like it was his choice. Jay and Nancy would have been just as happy if Dan wanted to play golf or baseball, because all that really mattered to them was that he went to college and pursued his education.
Dan would earn a scholarship to play right wing at Bowling Green University in Ohio, which had a top Division I hockey program. From there, he’d bounce around in minor league hockey, making his first stop in Moncton, New Brunswick, the home of the Winnipeg Jets’ American League affiliate (he had been drafted by the Jets in the sixth round of the 1989 amateur draft). While he waited for that first training camp in the summer of 1992, he made extra cash by trying to mow all the lawns in Grand Haven.
His time in Moncton ended abruptly when the Russian Hockey Federation began allowing their players to sign NHL contracts.
“The Jets just signed six Russians,” Dan told Jay, according to the book. “There is no room for Dan Bylsma.”
Then, it was on to Greensboro, N.C., where Dan would win the team’s MVP award. After that, Dan came home and mowed more lawns.
His journey was only beginning. To Albany, back to Moncton, to Phoenix he went. And, finally, during the 1995-96 season, he was called up to Los Angeles. He’d play in four games, registering six shots. The next season, he felt, was a make-or-break year, because not many players break into the league past age 26. He was on the opening-day roster, and he would do anything to stay there.
“There was one particular time,” Bylsma says, “where I had a blocked shot and broke a finger. I felt like if I said anything to anybody I would have come out of the lineup, and I didn’t know if I would ever get back in. So I went to a clinic on my own.”
Bylsma became a fan favorite with the Kings for the way he would sacrifice his body night after night. The most points he would score in a season, with the Kings and later the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, was 17. But he was racking up the kind of statistics that don’t make the media guide.
“I was dumb enough to not wear a face mask for the first six or seven years of my career,” Bylsma says. “I had maybe 500 stitches. I had a ton of broken bones. I think the total is like 20. Smashing my face up accounted for seven or so. Lots of hands, fingers, feet, toes … it was a long time ago.”
Jay Bylsma loved every minute of it. Back in Grand Haven, he ran Dan’s annual hockey camp, and one year, he gave a speech titled, “So Your Son Wants To Play in the NHL.” A friend suggested that they should turn it into a book, in which father and son each give their perspective on what was right about the atmosphere in that four-bedroom house with the ice rink for a backyard.
“You don’t raise your kid to be an NHL star,” Dan says. “I argue it in the book, I made it not because I’m a good athlete or because I’m a good hockey player. I made it because of those values, the work ethic. That’s the moral.”
Passing it down
On that late June day when Dan Bylsma got the news that he had been selected Team USA’s head coach, he called his father. Similar to when Dan first heard, Jay Bylsma needed a few seconds to collect himself.
“You’re quiet, and amazed, and clearly proud as well,” Dan says. “It’s not like winning the lottery. You don’t go crazy. It’s not the end of the game when you’ve won a championship and you throw your gear off. It’s a pretty quiet moment.”
When Bylsma was hired as Penguins coach, he vowed he would be better in five years’ time.
That he picked that number as a benchmark is funny now, considering the huge challenge ahead of him in coaching the national team in Sochi after not having the American players together since late August.
How far has Bylsma come since Feb. 15, 2009?
“I don’t know the answer to that question,” Bylsma says. “I can’t say I’m five inches taller. If you put on 40 pounds, you look in the mirror every day and you don’t necessarily see it. But if you take a picture and compare the two, you say, ‘Oh goodness. Look at how much different I look.’
“In the process of going through five years, you don’t see that. I do know that I’m trying to get better. And so I know I’ve improved.”
One thing has changed for certain: He no longer has that pinch-me moment when he drives into work each day at Consol Energy Center. Too much has happened, too many memorable wins and too many crushing losses.
He’s in the thick of it now, and, like his days as a player, he’ll do anything to stay a part of the process of building another Stanley Cup champion.
But, as he is quick to point out, he still wants to be that boy from Grand Haven, Mich. And that means keeping his priorities in order. His teenage son, Bryan, is the one with the freedom to think big now. Bylsma actually seems bothered that Bryan has decided to only play hockey these days.
“He can be anything,” Bylsma says. “He has that ability, to be pretty much anything he wants to be. He doesn’t have to just be playing hockey, that’s for damn sure.”
A proud father, thinking about his son’s future in the midst of the most pressure-packed moments of his life. What could be more American than that?
J. Brady McCollough: email@example.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published February 12, 2014 9:28 PM