Ron Cook: Eddie Olczyk’s goal is to return to NHL as a head coach

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Eddie Olczyk is in Sochi, Russia, where he’ll be the lead analyst for NBC’s Olympic hockey coverage. He says the Canadians and Swedes are “1 and 1A” as favorites to win the gold medal, the Russians will be under “enormous pressure” in their home country, and the United States, coached by the Penguins’ Dan Bylsma, has “a big shot” because of goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller. “NBC tells me not to root, but I’m always going to be for the red, white and blue. I’m an alum,” Olczyk said. “I tell [Bylsma] he might think he’s under pressure, but it’s nothing compared to what I faced. I played on the 1984 team. We had to follow the ’80 U.S. team.”

This is Olczyk’s second Olympics as a broadcaster. He worked the 2010 Vancouver Games and became something of a folk hero among hockey fans when he described a U.S. win against Canada early in the tournament as “tremendously tremendous.” “It just felt right,” Olczyk said. “That’s me. You’ve got to be yourself, right?”

You also have to listen to your heart from time to time. That’s why it’s possible — perhaps even likely — that Olczyk will coach again. He was fired in December 2005 after a season-and-change with the Penguins, a time when he was young, overmatched and had little support from the organization.

It would have to be the right opportunity for Olczyk, of course. He has a great television gig, two actually. He works the NBC telecasts with Mike “Doc” Emrick — the best national play-by-play man in any sport — and does commentary for the Chicago Blackhawks with legendary local broadcaster Pat Foley. “He’s to Chicago what Mike Lange is to Pittsburgh,” Olcyzk said. “I have been so lucky.”

So why even consider giving it all up?

“I still have a burning desire to teach,” Olczyk said. “I have a passion to be a part of the wins and losses. I think I would like to fulfill that emptiness. At the end of the day, I’m a coach by trade who happens to have a microphone.”

Olczyk came out of the Penguins broadcast booth to become their coach in June 2003, a surprise choice, to say the least, because he had no coaching experience. He went into his interview with general manager Craig Patrick hoping to get the team’s minor league job in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton only to walk out with the big job. The Penguins were a bad franchise. Ownership had no money. This was before the NHL lockout in 2004-05, before the team won the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes in July 2005, before spectacular Consol Energy Center was built. The Penguins almost certainly wouldn’t still be here if not for all three developments.

“We knew we weren’t going to be good for a while,” Olczyk said. “We were going to start over with young guys. They wanted someone to speak well and sell the process, sell the plan. That wasn’t Craig’s strength.”

The Penguins, predictably, were the NHL’s worst team in 2003-04 with a 23-47-8-4 record. Olczyk said he is proud of their late-season improvement, 12-5-3-0 in the final 20 games. “A lot of positives came out of the end of that season. I still hang my hat on that. I felt I had an impact on the ice and maybe even more off the ice, showing guys how to be a pro.”

Things changed dramatically for the Penguins, beginning with the lockout season. When the new NHL emerged the next season, there was greater financial parity in the league.

Then, the pingpong ball bounced the Penguins’ way, giving them the rights to Crosby in the 2005 entry draft. Suddenly, the franchise’s goals, once minimal and attainable, became playoffs-or-bust.

“We went from one extreme to the other,” Olczyk said. “We were trying to go from worm-burners to the penthouse overnight. It doesn’t happen in one year.”

Olczyk took the fall after the Penguins started poorly in the 2005-06 season, but many others deserved blame. “I was playing five-card stud with three cards,” Olczyk said. Ownership still had financial problems, to the point that goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had to spend much of the season in the minors because the team couldn’t afford his bonuses.

“I begged Craig every day to keep him, but we couldn’t do it,” Olczyk said. “It was hard to tell a 19-year-old kid with tears in his eyes that he had to go down for reasons that had nothing to do with his performance. It was a tough sell with the other players that we had to play without the best goaltender in the organization.

“We had spent a lot of money to bring in guys like Ziggy Palffy and Sergei Gonchar and John LeClair and Lyle Odelein. I wish we had allocated a portion of that to the kid. Would things have been different for us as a team and me as coach? I have my opinions about that. But, hey, timing is everything.”

Olczyk had the unique and challenging experience of coaching his boss, team owner Mario Lemieux, a good friend who was winding down his iconic career. “I always knew what hat Mario was wearing,” Olczyk said. “He treated me unbelievably well.”

Helping the Crosby assimilation was much harder for Olczyk. A lot of the Penguins — Lemieux aside — didn’t exactly welcome the kid with open arms. Jealousy was a big part of it. The Crosby treatment was so bad that Olczyk felt the need to call out a veteran, both in the hallway and in his office, after a game Nov. 27, 2005, in Tampa Bay.

“It was a one-sided conversation,” Olczyk said. “I knew when that player walked out of the office and went back to the other veterans that my time as coach would be short.”

The Penguins lost that night to Tampa Bay, then lost six of their next seven games. Olczyk was fired Dec. 15. The team was 8-17-6.

“I would do the exact same thing again,” Olczyk said. “I had to make sure that kid was protected. I knew it was the right thing for the future of the organization.”

Olczyk, 47, will be much wiser when and if he gets another coaching job. He’s already a sharp hockey man. He said he’s willing to go to the minor leagues to get experience. “That’s what I wanted to do in the first place.”

Here’s hoping coaching works out for Olczyk if that’s what he truly wants. Now, though, it’s time for what should be a fabulous hockey tournament in Sochi. It’s going to be great fun listening to Olczyk and Emrick. No doubt they will be tremendously tremendous.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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