Bylsma beating odds yet again

Updated: April 17, 2009, 5:54 PM ET
By Scott Burnside |

PITTSBURGH -- In Dan Bylsma's world, falling down on a 2-on-1 with Wayne Gretzky isn't embarrassing, it's proof positive you can end up on the ice with the greatest player of all time if you work hard enough.

When he was told to get a place in Moncton with the Winnipeg Jets' AHL farm team only to be told two days later that there was no place for him on the team, Bylsma saw it not as failure, but an opportunity to play somewhere else.

In the moments after he accepted the head-coaching job with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he wondered what he would say to his players and wondered if he could do the job at all.

But Bylsma instead pushed those thoughts aside and embraced them as being perfectly normal for someone in his position.

[+] EnlargeDan Bylsma
Gregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty ImagesDan Bylsma is 19-3-4 with the Penguins since taking over as coach in mid-February.

"'Can you do it?' 'What am I going to say?' 'Will I say the right thing?' When you have those thoughts, I at least think you can come to grips with how to do it," Bylsma told this week.

There is a tendency to suggest Bylsma is a kind of Coach Who Fell To Earth. Think David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell To Earth" or any other form of alien visitation and you get the drift. It wasn't just that Bylsma seemed to appear out of thin air when the Penguins fired Michel Therrien in mid-February, but that he appeared with only five months of head-coaching experience and achieved a remarkable coaching sleight of hand, turning around a talent-laden Pittsburgh team that had inexplicably gone adrift.

As the Penguins head into Friday's second game of their Eastern Conference quarterfinals series with the Philadelphia Flyers, Bylsma boasts a 19-3-4 mark, including a victory in his first postseason game Wednesday night. His 18-3-4 mark was the second-best 25-game regular-season start for an NHL coach in league history. The fact the Penguins were five points out of a playoff berth when he took over and they ended up with home-ice advantage in the first round has merely added to both Bylsma's legend and the mystique that surrounds him.

"In Anaheim, I probably was recognized five times in five years," Bylsma joked of his newfound celebrity.

Now reporters are calling his family, friends and former coaches to find out about him.

"I'd like to think it was all my fault," Dan's father, Jay Bylsma, said over the phone from Grand Rapids, Mich., where he teaches business courses at a local community college.

He jokes, of course. But as much as Bylsma's journey is a story of a unique single-mindedness, it is also a story about how the fabric of family can create the canvas on which it might unfold.

Here is how it starts.

When Scott Bylsma, the oldest of the four Bylsma brothers (there is a daughter, too, the youngest of the five siblings) was about 5 years old, his mother bought him a pair of double-runner skates and informed her husband that if he was any kind of dad, he'd build a backyard rink for his son. So he did.

Later, the boys, including Dan, would dress in the basement dressing room fashioned by their father and clamber up the stairs to that 20-by-20 rink.

From the early days, Dan displayed a unique aptitude for athletics, whether it was football or golf or hockey. He played them all with his brothers. "We all kind of marveled at his ability," Jay Bylsma said.

Even though Dan was eight years younger than Scott, he got to play with the older boys. The rule in the Bylsma house was everyone got to play and, contrary to what you might think, the older brothers were generous and gentle with their younger brother. At least that's Dad's recollection.

"They tolerated him to a great extent," Jay Bylsma said.

"Oh no, we beat him up," Scott Bylsma said with a laugh.

Scott thinks those days with his older brothers helped form Dan's decidedly analytical take on sports in general.

"He couldn't compete with us, but he was smart enough to figure out a role to fit," Scott said.

It may have been subconscious, but Dan figured out if it meant being the catcher all the time or always teeing up last in golf -- at least until he got good enough to beat his brothers -- then that was worth it to be in the game.

It is a mindset that was applied again and again as Bylsma defied the odds and his own limitations to become an NHL player.

Jay Bylsma recalled the year after Dan graduated from Bowling Green State University. He'd been playing in the East Coast Hockey League in Greensboro and came home at Christmas.

"I said, 'Danny, don't you think it's time you dusted off your accounting degree?'"

Dan looked at him in disbelief. Quit hockey? He was going to play in the NHL, he told his father.

"Then you think, 'You poor demented kid,'" Jay said. "You think, 'You have no idea how far you have to go and how little you have to get there.'"

And, really, there was so little to suggest Dan Bylsma was going to make good on his dream. He scored when given a chance in college, but ended up becoming a solid third-line player. His teammates included Nelson Emerson and Rob Blake, but the reality was, there aren't many third-line collegiate players who end up forging an NHL career.

After graduation, there were minor pro stops in Greensboro, Rochester, Greensboro (again), Albany, Moncton and Phoenix. When the Winnipeg Jets drafted Bylsma with the 109th pick in the 1989 draft, his father wondered aloud, "What were they thinking?"

Bylsma was invited to Jets training camp, but was then told not to bother showing up and that he should just report to the team's AHL affiliate in Moncton, New Brunswick. He led the team in preseason scoring and was told to find a place to stay on the Monday before the start of the regular season. On that Wednesday, he called his father to say there was no room for him in Moncton and he was coming home.

Undeterred, he ended up in Greensboro, playing for $225 a week, and had a place to stay. And so it went.

After a stop in Phoenix of the old International Hockey League, Bylsma got his first taste of NHL action with the Los Angeles Kings during the 1995-96 season and had his infamous turn with Gretzky, during which he fell on the puck during a 2-on-1 rush. Scott recalled watching the game in a near-empty restaurant in Grand Rapids and groaning out loud.

"I was like, 'Oh my god, he's on a 2-on-1 with Wayne Gretzky,'" Scott said with a laugh. "It wasn't funny at the time."

In fact, watching Dan play in the NHL was a stressful endeavor, Scott said, because every little mishap, any miscue might have been the one that would send him back to the minors. But it was Scott who always believed his brother was going to make it.

"I would always say, 'He's going to play in the NHL,' and my dad would look at me like I was crazy," he said.

Running on an almost parallel track to Bylsma's pursuit of an NHL job was his methodical gathering of information that would form the basis for his next job as a coach.

"I remember he came home from Bowling Green with these stack of pages in a three-ring binder," his father said.

They were drills his college coach had used and Dan told his father he wanted to keep them for when he became a coach.

"And every year, he'd come home and he'd add to that binder," his father said.

At the start of the 2000-01 season, Bylsma found himself with the Anaheim Ducks and was part of the team that later went to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003, playing for coach Mike Babcock.

Babcock, who is now coach of the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, recalled Bylsma being a terrific penalty killer. At one point, Bylsma suggested to Babcock that the penalty-killing team meet in the morning so it could have more time to digest the materials.

Babcock appreciated the idea, but was fearful the rest of the players in the unit might forget everything they'd been told if they had their meeting in the morning.

"To me, he's always been a student of the game," Babcock told this week. "I think it was his destiny to be a coach. I think he'll be a coach as long as he wants."

What sticks with Babcock is Bylsma is one of those rare people who got the absolute maximum out of his abilities. "To me, that's an unbelievable thing to say," Babcock said.

At the time Bylsma was named coach in Pittsburgh, there were more than a few raised eyebrows. Even Jay Bylsma thought the same thing he thought when the Jets drafted his son: Huh?

Is he more nervous watching his son play or coach? Well, the chance of his son now taking a puck in the face has declined pretty dramatically. When Dan played, his father acknowledged he would sometimes look up from his crossword puzzle when his wife would note that Dan was on the ice. Now, he's jumping out of his seat yelling for the Penguins to clear the zone.

"I want so much for him to be successful," he said.

For the uninitiated, it looked as though Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero might just have hired the first guy who walked by his desk after firing Therrien. It wasn't like that, of course. Shero knew of Bylsma, both as a player and as the co-author of a book he wrote with his father, "So Your Son Wants To Play In The NHL," one of four written by the father-and-son team. A copy of the book currently has a prized place in Shero's son's backpack, and there are often discussions at the Shero table about what "Coach Dan" thinks or says.

The risk wasn't in hiring Bylsma, Shero said this week, it was in doing nothing. And while he didn't know Bylsma well, Shero did his due diligence by talking to people who did know him, like Senators GM Bryan Murray and his own assistant GM Chuck Fletcher.

"They all said, 'He's got it,'" Shero said. "Yeah, it was a chance, it was a risk. But you spend half an hour with Dan and the risk is minimized. He's just so passionate about life, about his job, about hockey, about his family."

When Dan got the job, Scott met him in Chicago and made him a promise: When the Penguins made the playoffs, the two would enjoy a good cigar to celebrate. Sure enough, the day after the Penguins clinched a postseason berth, Scott called, put the phone on speaker, and the two brothers sat, hundreds of miles apart, savoring their cigars and the accomplishment they represented.

When Bylsma talks about his career or his life, it rarely has to do with stats or those kinds of benchmarks we often turn to as a way of assessing whether someone has been successful or not. And he may not be the best X's and O's guy in the game.

But he applies the ethics, values and morals he learned growing up to his everyday life, whether it's at home with his wife and 10-year-old son or at the rink.

"My success in life has very little do with my skill as a hockey player," Bylsma said. "I'm just really trying to be the best I can be. And that's what I ask of the people around me."

In Dan Bylsma's world, that looks like a pretty good way to go.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for

Scott Burnside

ESPN Senior Writer