Penguins' Bylsma Knew He Was Destined to be a Coach
He started to bring a notebook to practices so he could document what his coach was doing and saying that day. He thought about the drills and the daily messages he would receive and started to contemplate what he would do in those situations, what he would have said on that day.
Bylsma said his notebook wasn't necessarily a journal and not something he wrote in every day, but he compiled enough physical and mental notes as a player that when he became an assistant coach in the American Hockey League eight years ago, he had a plan and the ability to implement it.
Now, at 42 years old, Bylsma has among his fellow members of the coaching fraternity, without question, one of the most unique perspectives on the game and everything that surrounds it.
When you were a player, do you recall finding yourself trying to think like a coach and perhaps even act like a de-facto one for the team you were on?
"There are two parts to the answer.
"One is that in a lot of situations as I got older, mostly with the penalty kill, in some situations with some coaches you were involved in the process of strategy and what we might do against a team. So in some cases, with some coaches, there was a little bit of that going on.
"But I played for 12 years, and after about six years I knew I was going to be a coach so I started to think and prepare for when that day might come down the road, whenever that was. I started to try to educate myself a little bit and part of the education process was, 'OK, this is what this coach did, these drills, and this is what this other coach does really well. And here is something this coach does that I wouldn't do.' Part of that education process is you start to ask yourself, 'OK, what would I do? What would I practice? What would I say to the team in this situation?' You put yourself through those drills and that is part of the education process as well as taking notes on good things and bad things, taking notes on drills and putting yourself in the decision-making process."
At 38, you were not far removed from being a player and now you were summoned to be the head coach in Pittsburgh, to coach with and against some of the players you played with and against. Did you find that to be difficult?
"Not really, to be honest. I had the same experience even more so when I started coaching. I went from Anaheim, down to Cincinnati the last couple of months of my playing career and then I turned into an assistant coach in Cincinnati -- so the previous year I played with a number of the players on the team. I remember establishing a difference between not being a player anymore and not being a friend, but to being a coach. I remember that both from a philosophical standpoint but also taking action and making sure there was a difference there.
"By the time I got to Pittsburgh there were a few moments where there was some difficulty. For instance, I played with Petr Sykora in Anaheim and coached Petr here. There was Bill Guerin and Sergei Gonchar, Pascal Dupuis -- I played against a number of them. But by that point in time I felt a lot different, that I wasn't a player anymore even though I wasn't that old and my age was close to some of them.
"Still, in a playoff series that year I sat out Petr Sykora, a guy I played with and a guy that was a good friend of mine when I played with him. I remember that just from the fact that there was a little bit of a tug, that I did have a different relationship, a playing relationship with him prior to that."
You also coached in the American Hockey League so you can answer this question: Do you believe it is essential that the AHL team in the organization runs the same systems as the NHL team?
"I think it's a huge benefit. I just think it is a huge benefit when that is the case. Now, I have had two different sides of it.
"When Michel Therrien was in Pittsburgh and I was down in Wilkes-Barre first as an assistant coach and then a head coach, we had meetings as a group so that we fully understood the system and the words and how Michel Therrien was coaching the team up here. But from a philosophical standpoint I maybe had some different thoughts about it. So when our players went up to Pittsburgh from Wilkes-Barre, every part of the system in Pittsburgh they played in Wilkes-Barre, but we added some different things in addition to that. Sometimes we would change back and forth between different types of systems, but when the player got called up they knew exactly what Michel Therrien was saying when he would say, 'This is what the forecheck is, this is how we play defense.' They knew exactly what they were coming up to do. I think that is really important.
"It happens for us now. There are certain players that get called up who know the drills and know what is going to happen in practice better than some of the NHL players who have been here. I think that's a huge benefit for the player to have success when he steps on the ice. To try to figure out a system, where to go, what to do and what they're saying can be a handicap to a player when they come up if in addition they're trying to be effective in what they can do in the National Hockey League. If they know what to do, what the coach is talking about, then they can just go play. When a player comes up to Pittsburgh, I don't have to talk to him for one second. Now, I do, but he already knows.
"And, even for us now with [coach] John Hynes in Wilkes-Barre, he has implemented some stuff down there that we have taken from him. So he has enhanced what we do up here in implementing some things down there. In the situation we're in now, he's doing some teaching down there and we're learning from it, so we'll be taking that up here."
Does what happened in the playoffs last spring (a first-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers) still eat at you, make you go over decisions, plays, everything that happened over and over and over again in part because you have the time to think about it now?
"I don't think there is going to be a time when I don't look at that and learn lessons, think about situations, analyze what went wrong or what we didn't do or where we came up short. It's not going to go away. Having a little more time on my hands probably makes me visit that a little more often or dwell on it.
"As a player I lost in the Final in '03 -- and that was even on TV just the other day -- and that loss really stuck with me for a long, long time. I never really liked to see any championship get handed out because of that '03 loss. It wasn't really until we won the Stanley Cup (in 2009) that you're kind of all right with watching other teams win their championships, no matter what the sport is. But when that '03 Final was on, I see it on the TV, and it still doesn't sit well with me. So I don't think last year is going to go away for me. I'll try to learn those lessons for a long time."
Last one for you: You wrote two books with your dad, including the well-known, "So Your Son Wants to Play in the NHL." What was the purpose of writing the books with your dad, and what did you want to get out of that experience?
"I played for 12 years, and after about six years I knew I was going to be a coach so I started to think and prepare for when that day might come down the road, whenever that was. I started to try to educate myself a little bit and part of the education process was, 'OK, this is what this coach did, these drills, and this is what this other coach does really well. And here is something this coach does that I wouldn't do.'"
-- Dan Bylsma
"At that point in time I had done about six or seven years of a hockey school in Michigan and started a website to run the hockey camp and also have some interaction with parents and kids in youth hockey. We started doing a question and answer with them, and part of the hockey school was a talk my dad gave to the parents titled, 'So Your Son Wants to Play in the NHL.'
"We were approached one summer from a publishing company in Michigan that had done some local sports books with Sparky Anderson and Kirk Gibson. They knew of our family and their idea was to do some local books. They approached my father and I and asked would we be interested in writing a book. The first stage of that was that we didn't really totally consider it. I didn't really give it proper thought.
"Initially we sent them the outline for the speech my dad gave to the parents. Within 24 hours they got back in touch with us and asked if we could give them an outline for a book and how this would go. So we sat down and went over what an outline for the book would be. As we were doing that I started to realize we were putting our own thoughts, our own life onto paper and into a book and that's when you contemplate, 'Is a book from Dan Bylsma worthy? I'm not Wayne Gretzky or Mark Messier or Sparky Anderson or Kirk Gibson? Is it worthy of a book?'
"I thought if we were going to write something I wanted it to be worthwhile, more than just a story of my family. Then you get under the gun and find out if you're willing to put your words out there to be exposed in that way. The idea we had was really a message to give that I thought was meaningful and had a purpose, and that's why we went to write a book. We went forward with the fact that we had a message about sports and the role it plays in our lives that I thought would be helpful."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl