Dapper Dan 76th Honorees: Bylsma, Fleury, Passion headline 2012 dais
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They've held together through some trying times, and it hasn't slowed them a bit.
For the Penguins, coach Dan Bylsma and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury were the glue as the team played on through major injuries to key players -- Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin headed up a wide swath -- and continued to win.
For the Passion, coach, co-owner and former player Teresa Conn has stuck with a women's football team that has reached not only credibility but also national attention heading into its 10th anniversary season.
At the March 12 Dapper Dan Dinner and Sports Auction, Bylsma and Fleury will be honored as co-Sportsmen of the Year, and the Passion will be feted as Sportswomen of the Year.
It's the fifth time the Sportsman of the Year went to more than one person. The first three times, two men split it. Most recently, in 1971, it was shared by Pirates Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Danny Murtaugh.
Bylsma from behind the bench and Fleury from between the pipes helped the Penguins finish the 2010-11 season with 106 points to grab the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. A tough time scoring led to a seven-game loss to Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs, when the injuries finally caught up to them.
"That was the tough part -- I don't think we had faced as much adversity since [Crosby] got here [in 2005]," said Fleury, who went 19-12-3 from the start of January 2011 through the end of last season despite most of that stretch not having Crosby because of a concussion, Malkin because of knee surgery and others for various reasons.
"To have those two guys out, I think it meant maybe a lot more close games, lower-scoring games."
It didn't get a lot easier this season. Crosby has missed all but eight games because of continuing problems, and Malkin and center Jordan Staal have missed time. So have most of the Penguins' regular defensemen.
Still, Fleury went 19-9-2 from the start of this season through the end of the calendar year. The upbeat goalie with the outgoing personality has thrived under a lot of pressure.
Bylsma's chore has been a bit different. He has had to prepare his club to ignore the gaps in the lineup.
He has relied on what loosely might be called the Penguin way, an X's-and-O's system blended with an attitude that permeates the franchise from the NHL to the club's American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
"We have a clear understanding of who we are and how we play and what it means to be a Penguin," Bylsma said. "That carries onto the ice in how we play and what's expected. Whether we've had injuries or not, we've had players come in and play that way. It's been that way in Wilkes-Barre as well.
"A lot of people are involved in that aspect of what it means to be a Penguin, from our ownership down to [general manager] Ray Shero and myself, our team."
Bylsma's ability to oversee that success in the face of so many injuries helped him earn the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year.
Fleury is looking forward to attending the banquet and meeting people from other teams. "It's fun to learn about them in different sports, what they do," he said.
Bylsma has been a regular since shortly after he was promoted from Wilkes-Barre to take over as Penguins coach in February 2009.
"Being up on the dais with so many unbelievable athletes who were from Pittsburgh or played in Pittsburgh, it's really a significant event," he said.
Conn has been to a Dapper Dan banquet previously, too, and this time she's looking forward to relaying the Passion's rise from a grass-roots operation to a team that is considered the premier of its sport.
The team went 8-1 last year. The Passion, which is playing host to the Women's Football Alliance championship this year, has won one championship and four division titles, and Conn points out that it was the first women's pro football team to get attention from ESPN and Sports Illustrated.
In the past year, the Passion welcomed longtime supporter and former Steeler Franco Harris as a co-owner with Conn, and plans were made for the club to move into a new multipurpose stadium to be built at Station Square in 2013 -- the first women's pro football team to play in something other than a high school or college stadium.
"It really has been a 10-year journey," said Conn, who played during the Passion's first seven years. "We have girls that are nurses and CEOs and attorneys who have given their time and ability...
"No individual could have pulled this off."
Receiver Rachel Wojdowski, who in her first season in 2011 was one of four to represent the Passion as a first-team All-American in the Women's Football Alliance, has heard stories from the team's early days. "Like about them practicing outside and the lights going out and having to turn on car lights to finish," she said, and she admires the commitment from women who continue to do fundraising to keep the team going and get involved in charity work.
"The Passion had to build from the ground up," said Wojdowski, director of women's basketball operations at Duquesne. "You don't get the luxury of having so much money, a whole staff. It's a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It's a 'League of Their Own' thing.
"But we fit in because we're homegrown, and this is a football city."
Conn remembers when the Passion wasn't so sure how well it would fit in.
"Our very first year, we were in the St. Patrick's Day parade, our first event," she said. "We were a little worried. Maybe everybody gets cheers in the St. Patrick's Day parade, but everybody was great.
"Nobody was telling us our boundaries. The reception was amazingly good. We're Pittsburgh through and through, and it just felt good from day one."
Correction/Clarification: (Published January 24, 2012) A story and information box published Sunday had an incorrect date for the Dapper Dan Dinner & Sports Auction. The date of the event is March 12.
First Published January 22, 2012 12:00 am