It must be hard to be a coach or sports figure in the contentious world of Pittsburgh sports. The rabid sports fans of Southwestern Pennsylvania demand an unattainable level of perfection and accountability that leaves little room for the frailties of mortality.
I offer the example of Dan Bylsma.
He made the mistake of coaching the Penguins to a Stanley Cup victory the same year he debuted as an NHL coach. Since then, he has had the audacity to coach the team to a playoff berth every year but has yet to bring the cup back to the ’Burgh. “Fire him!” was the cry after the abbreviated 2013 season. Yinzer Nation deserves better than the likes of Dan Bylsma.
Or do they?
Bylsma grew up the youngest of four brothers in Grand Haven, Mich. He adored his brothers and would do anything to be included with the older kids. He told Joe Starkey in a 2009 interview, "If they wanted me to be all-time catcher, I was all-time catcher," Dan said. "They give the dirty work to the kid. That was me. I developed a work ethic and a tenacity because I was always trying to make up for a lack of size and skill. They were always better than me."
As a 9 year old kid he watched the ‘Miracle on Ice’ and dreamed of Stanley Cups and Olympic gold. He grew up with "no hockey rink within 20 miles," yet managed to play Division I hockey at Bowling Green and in the Calder Cup finals in the AHL. Hockey wasn’t the only sport he excelled in as a youngster. Bylsma graduated from Western Michigan Christian High School where he won the Class D golf individual championship as a freshman. He also played baseball and was the starting left fielder as a freshman on Christian's 1985 State championship team.
At Bowling Green he stood out academically as well as athletically. Bylsma, an accounting major, was twice selected to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association All Academic Team and once earned Honorable Mention. He was a Bowling Green Scholar Athlete all four years and won the Jack Gregory Award for the highest grade point average on the team in his Sophomore season and the Howard Brown Coaches' Award for excellence in his Senior year.
Bylsma was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets but never played a game for them and was signed by the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 1994. He played parts of five seasons for the Kings, acting as a defensive forward. LA was where he earned the moniker “Disco Dan” due to his penchant for dancing in the locker room. While with the Kings in January of 1998, Dan and his wife Mary Beth were anxiously awaiting the birth of their first child. Dan was at the practice rink when he got the call from his wife that their daughter had inexplicably died at 39 weeks gestation and would be stillborn.
"I look back at that, and I don't know if I can say anything in words that will make sense to the average person," Bylsma said. "I just know my family and friends and upbringing were a huge part of getting through it....Mary Beth and I and the nurse and doctor were the only four people who saw our child," Bylsma told the Citizen's Voice of Wilkes-Barre. "My dad didn't. My brothers didn't. My friends didn't. But to us, she's real.” The loss of his daughter made the subsequent birth of his son, Bryan, all the more precious.
In the summer of 2000 he signed as a free agent with The Mighty Ducks……yes, Disco was a Duck. He was named alternate captain and in his second season, he set a career high in points (17). He excelled as a penalty killer but injured his knee in 2003 and missed most of the season before being put on waivers in 2004. He retired from playing at the end of the 2003-2004 season.
Ever wonder how he got that scar on his face? A shot he took on the PK shattered his orbital bone during a 1999 International League playoff game in Houston. Over a decade later, he still has not regained his original smile. Nerve damage did that. His face was broken in 11 places and required 115 stitches and 13 pieces of metal to mend. Bylsma still has two metal plates and six screws in his face.
Always known for being academically smart as well as hockey smart, Bylsma immediately found a home in coaching. He served as an assistant coach with the AHL's Cincinnati Mighty Ducks (2004–05) and the NHL's New York Islanders (2005–06).
Dan Bylsma’s career was about to explode.
He was coaching the Penguins' AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins during the 2008-2009 season when the NHL Penguins fired contentious coach Michel Therrien. That February in 2009, Ray Shero announced that Dan Bylsma, at age 38 would be the interim coach of the Penguins and, in turn become the youngest head coach in the NHL at the time. He was just a just a month-and-a-half older than one of his players, Billy Guerin.
On June 12, 2009 Bylsma led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship, becoming the 14th coach and the second mid-season replacement to win the Stanley Cup in their first season.
During that 2008-2009 season Bylsma drew up his plans for where he wanted to be in one year, three years and five years: his five-year goal was to become head coach of the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. The rest, as they say, is history.
Back to the present.
In a pre-Olympic interview Bylsma admitted, "Since the August orientation, I've had an unnatural, uneasy feeling. I felt like I barely met the guys, then I said 'See you in February,' and then we'll have two days to get ready for our first Olympic game.” For a period of a month, from July 20 to Aug. 20, he said he set aside his Pittsburgh Penguins duties in order to prepare for the upcoming Sochi Games. He watched over two years' worth of international games to study power plays and tactics of would-be opponents. August 21 he put that aside and devoted himself to coaching the Pens to first place in the Metropolitan devision.
"It's going to be an unbelievable experience," Bylsma said to his hometown newspaper. "I can't really describe what it's going to be like to coach our national team in the Olympics. It's a huge honor and the biggest privilege of my life. I feel the responsibility of it, of representing my country."
Five years to day after being named interim head coach of the Penguins, Dan Bylsma coached Team USA to a victory over Team Russia in the 2014 Olympics.
Five year plan accomplished.
Still, doesn't the great city of Pittsburgh deserve better than a man trusted by his country to coach its Olympic hockey team to a once-in-four-years chance to shine in front of the world? Why would the Olympic committee choose Dan Bylsma to lead their quest for gold? Don’t they know in 2013 he only took the Penguins to the Eastern Conference finals in an abbreviated season? Who do they think he is…..the winningest coach in Penguin history or something?
Dan Bylsma Accomplishments:
- June 12, 2009 Bylsma led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship, becoming the 14th coach and the second mid-season replacement to win the Stanley Cup in his first season
- Winner of the 2011 Jack Adams Award
- Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year 2011 (co-winner with Marc-André Fleury)
- On April 22, 2013, Bylsma became the fastest NHL coach ever to reach 200 wins
- On January 7, 2014, a month before coaching at the Winter Olympics, Bylsma became the winningest coach in Penguins history (233 wins)
- He has co-authored 4 books with his father Jay, most notably ”So Your Son Wants to Play in the NHL?”