PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — When we started this hockey season, not many Pittsburgh hockey fans knew anything about Mike Sullivan.
Now though, he’s the name most hockey people point to when discussing what has been an amazing turnaround for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
When he’s diagramming plays, Sullivan is straightforward. When he discusses philosophy with his players and coaches, he is direct. If course, it helps he has a deep and booming voice.
“I try to, the way I interact with the players, I try to use my tone of voice to relay certain messages, and hopefully they listen,” says Sullivan.
And what they hear is something that was missing under former head coach Mike Johnston, who was fired and replaced by Sullivan earlier this season.
They hear a coach who wants accountability, but a coach who is also willing to mold a game plan around the talent of his players.
“We think it’s important to let the players act on their instincts and make the plays that they see fit out there, especially the top guys,” says Sullivan. “For me, that’s what separates the elite players from the masses, is how they think the game and how the see the game. We think it’s important as a coaching staff that we don’t get in the way of that.”
Sullivan has learned to be flexible based on lessons learned behind the bench where he has been fired four times, once as head coach and three times as an assistant.
He won a Stanley Cup ring last year as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks developmental coaching staff before he took the job with the Penguins minor league affiliate, the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Earlier this year, and before the Penguins coaching job arose, he spoke to John Tortorella about joining him with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but Sullivan declined.
KDKA’s Bob Pompeani: “Is it fair to call you a John Tortorella disciple?”
Sullivan: “In some capacities, yes. I think, and you know, Torts and I are very good friends. I have a lot of respect for him as a hockey coach. I think he’s a terrific coach. We see eye to eye on how to run a hockey team. I think where we differ the most is just in our personalities and our approach.”
As the playoffs approach, it’s easy to see similarities between Sullivan’s Penguins and former head coach Dan Bylsma’s Penguins that won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
“I guess it’s flattering because we’ve had some success here as of late,” said Sullivan. “I’m a little bit concerned because I don’t want our players to get ahead of themselves and think this is a foregone conclusion. We’re two completely different teams; these are two completely different experiences.
“This team has had success because of its focus, determination and commitment to winning each and every day,” Sullivan added. “And when I took this team over, I told the players we were going to have this short-term focus. We were going to come to the rink every day with the thought of getting better every day. Where that takes us, who knows? But that’s the only approach I know.
“It’s important to our group that we don’t listen to some of the noise surrounding our team. I think the media and people like yourself have the luxury of drawing those correlations. For us, it’s dangerous,” Sullivan said.