PITTSBURGH – Like all the other hockey-playing kids in America 34 years ago, Dan Bylsma and his buddies had their own version of the “Miracle on Ice.”
During those spirited reenactments of the U.S.’s upset over Russia at the 1980 Winter Olympics, Bylsma didn’t play the role of hero Mike Eruzione or goaltender Jim Craig. Instead, he opted for high-flying winger Mark Johnson, who sealed the unlikeliest of gold medals with a late insurance goal against Finland in the final.
“I dreamed about winning gold like I dreamed about winning the Stanley Cup,” Bylsma said.
He’s halfway to achieving both, just not the way he imagined.
Nearly five years after etching his name on the Cup by leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to a title in 2009, Bylsma will coach Team USA at the Sochi Olympics, looking to provide the kind of golden moment that will inspire a country much in the way he was inspired on that cold Friday in February.
Though, if Bylsma is being honest here, he wasn’t plastered to the television set as Al Michaels famously intoned “do you believe in miracles?” The game was broadcast on tape delay, and Bylsma was watching “Joker’s Wild” when a ticker started running across the bottom of the screen to blare news of the improbable 4-3 victory by the Americans.
“I was like, `Oh my god,”’ Bylsma said.
It won’t take a miracle this time for the U.S. to reach the top of the podium in Russia, just the ability for a group of 25 relative strangers to find a way to play as a team during the two-week test the Olympics provides.
Enter Bylsma, who knows something about having a team click at the most opportune time.
He was a 38-year-old rookie coach in February, 2009 when the Penguins picked him to replace Michel Therrien. Pittsburgh’s star-laden roster that included Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin was languishing .
The easy going guy from Grand Haven, Mich., nicknamed “Disco Dan” provided one.
The Penguins finished the regular season 18-3-4 before edging the Detroit Red Wings in seven games to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 17 years. Press Bylsma on what stands out about that remarkable run and he mentions the initial meeting he had with the team after replacing Therrien.
“We had a 10 a.m. meeting and a 2 p.m. faceoff,” Bylsma said.
The Penguins fell in a shootout but Bylsma’s personable approach — in stark contrast to the typically stern Therrien — resonated in the dressing room.
The pressure eased, Pittsburgh took off. Team USA officials are hoping for a repeat in Sochi as the U.S. tries to make that one final step after losing in overtime to Canada in the gold medal game four years ago.
While Bylsma allows there are similarities between the Olympics and what he faced during those first days in Pittsburgh, that doesn’t mean it will be any easier when he gathers Team USA together next month.
“It’s an uncomfortable thing for a coach,” he said. “I’m just introducing myself to these guys right now.”
The fastest coach to 200 victories in NHL history is already the all-time winningest coach in Pittsburgh history. He surpassed Eddie Johnston’s mark of 232 wins last week.
When the franchise paid a video tribute to Bylsma during a stoppage in play in Wednesday night’s game against Washington, the sellout crowd at Consol Energy Center rose to its feet.
It was an homage hard to imagine last spring, when the high-powered Penguins looked listless in a four-game sweep by Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.
Rather than change course, Pittsburgh rewarded Bylsma with a two-year contract extension. It’s not a coincidence that Malkin and star defenseman Kris Letang signed lengthy extensions of their own days after Bylsma’s new deal was announced.
The grinder who spent nine years in the NHL toiling on fourth-line shifts has become adept at handling highly skilled — and highly paid — players, a trait that should serve him well in Sochi.
“He’s not shy by any means,” Crosby said. “I think being able to communicate with guys well is important and kind of getting your point across as early as possible is important and it’s something he excels at.”
For the U.S. to advance to the deep rounds, Bylsma will have to. He is preaching a defensive mindset but will also have perhaps the most talented American team of all-time at his disposal.
It’s a good problem to have.
If he can lead the U.S. team to gold, Bylsma won’t get one. The Olympics don’t give medals to coaches.
“An opportunity to coach for your country,” he said, “what more do you want?”