Coach Mike Sullivan's passion, purpose keyed Penguins' remarkable turnaround

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Mike Sullivan's journey to becoming a Stanley Cup-winning coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins began with a book.

It's titled "Passion and Purpose."

Sullivan has had the inspirational tome for a while. He still occasionally revisits it and shares it with some of his players. He uses those two words -- passion and purpose -- more often on a daily basis than he says "hi" and "bye." The words also describe his coaching philosophy, and that passion and single-minded purpose are two big reasons he stood on the ice at SAP Center Sunday night with the Stanley Cup hoisted above his head.

When Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as Penguins coach on Dec. 12, 2015, Pittsburgh was 15-10-3 and out of a playoff spot. Six months to the day later, the Penguins won a championship by defeating the San Jose Sharks, the team Sullivan began his NHL playing career with back in 1991.

As Sullivan and his players celebrated the organization's fourth Stanley Cup, team co-owner Mario Lemieux, a Hall of Famer who won two Cups of his own, stood on the ice and praised Sullivan for his role in the turnaround.

"Incredible job," Lemieux said of Sullivan. "When he came in, he changed how we play the game. We started playing a fast game, we played on our toes. And he changed the way we approached the game as well. He made all the difference in the world, along with Jacques [Martin] and Rick Tocchet."

When he first arrived in Pittsburgh, Sullivan held a team meeting with all of his players, and then met separately with the leadership core, including captain Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. Sullivan explained to them what he expected from a roster of world-class players who had seemingly lost sight of the value of a team-first mindset.

"I told them, 'Look around this room: We've got some great players, and our challenge is to become a great team. That's how you win championships,'" said Sullivan. "We pushed these guys each and every day to be at their best, and they responded the right way every time.

"I don't know if there's a team in the league that, from the start of training camp, has been through more adversity. They went through a coaching change. There was a lot of noise and critics out there, suggesting that these guys didn't have what it took. I couldn't be happier for them right now because now they proved everybody wrong."

Crosby, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy, said that Sullivan's straightforward message resonated in the dressing room with veterans and rookies alike.

"Mike came in and made it pretty clear how he wanted us to play, what he expected from each individual guy," Crosby said. "Guys just welcomed the opportunity, welcomed the challenge, tried to get back on track. It took some time and didn't happen overnight."

It took a few weeks for the players to get in sync with Sullivan, who hadn't been a full-time NHL head coach since he was fired by the Bruins in 2006, and to embrace his philosophy, which he described as "playing the right way" -- as well as his system. He wanted the stars to have an all-in attitude and play with conviction. He encouraged them to tap into their speed -- not only to generate more shots and scoring chances but also to shut down their opponents in the neutral zone and the defensive end. He recognized and tapped into the organization's depth and gave the non-superstars important roles.

Once they did so, this mix of veterans and young talent -- which wasn't even a playoff team in December -- began to look like a Stanley Cup contender. Pittsburgh went 33-16-5 with Sullivan behind the bench during the regular season and 16-8 in the playoffs.

Before Sullivan stepped behind the bench, he played 709 games in the NHL over 11 seasons with four different teams: the Sharks, Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins and Phoenix Coyotes. Toward the end of his playing career, he knew he wanted to stay in the game as a coach. So he would sit in on coaches' meetings and absorb every aspect of the game through the eyes and ears of a coach. When he retired following the 2001-02 season, it didn't take Sullivan long to land a coaching job.

A native of Marshfield, Massachusetts, Sullivan was hired by the Bruins to coach their AHL affiliate, the Providence Bruins, for the 2002-03 season. During his first meeting with the players, he read excerpts from "Passion and Purpose," and he saw immediately that they responded to his message of paying attention to the process. At the time, his assistant coach with Providence was Scott Gordon -- who would coach the New York Islanders for a time, be an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs and then the head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers' AHL affiliate.

Gordon, a former goalie, already had been coaching at the pro level for seven seasons. He knew that there was a learning curve for coaches, too. But Sullivan was clearly a natural.

"He was already a coach even before he started," Gordon said. "When you're around Sully, the one thing that stands out is his passion for anything, but especially coaching. His passion to coach comes out just in the way he talks to you, and there's a purpose to everything he does.

"It wasn't like he showed up in Providence and decided a month earlier that he wanted to coach. Right from the get-go he was very comfortable in those shoes. In his demeanor and how he carries himself, he is a coach. He has that personality that comes out when he's talking to you."

Sullivan spent only one season behind the bench in Providence. He was promoted to the NHL and served as Bruins coach for two seasons. In 2003-04, he led Boston to a 41-19-15-7 record and a first-place finish in the Northeast Division. After the lockout, Sullivan and the Bruins struggled, ending the 2005-06 season with a 29-37-16 record and missing the playoffs. He was fired by new general manager Peter Chiarelli that June.

Sullivan spent the next seven seasons as an assistant under John Tortorella with the Tampa Bay Lighting, the New York Rangers and the Vancouver Canucks. Sullivan wanted to be a head coach again and knew he had to split ties with Tortorella to do so.

Sullivan was out of a job after the Canucks fired him on May 1, 2014. Stan Bowman, the GM of the Chicago Blackhawks, didn't know him well, but Bowman had received rave reviews from assistant GM Norm MacIver, who had been part of Sullivan's coaching staff in Boston. So the Blackhawks hired Sullivan to oversee player development for the 2014-15 season. Bowman quickly learned how well Sullivan could help cultivate young talent.

"He's got a presence," Bowman said. "Whether it's his voice or he's just sitting down to talk, you've got a good feeling that this guy knows what he's talking about."

The ability to communicate with a player at any level is one of Sullivan's strengths. He's demonstrated that both in the minors and in the NHL.

"You have to establish a relationship with kids so they sort of trust you and buy into what you're saying," Bowman said. "It's a specific skill, and not everybody can do it. That's one of Mike's biggest strengths."

Bowman knew once Sullivan accepted the job with the Blackhawks that he still had a desire to coach, so he wasn't surprised when Sullivan was hired by the Penguins last offseason to coach the organization's AHL team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

It wasn't long before Sullivan hit his stride as a coach again. The second weekend of the AHL season, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins traveled to Providence to play the Bruins' AHL affiliate. As Sullivan returned to the place where he began his coaching career, he decided to take the team to one of his favorite restaurants for dinner. They were given a private room at Capriccio restaurant, where Sullivan, Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl broke bread and shared stories. On Monday night, less than eight months later, all five of them stood on the ice at SAP Center on Sunday and celebrated together as Stanley Cup champions.

Sullivan's confidence in his young charges -- and ability to help them develop that confidence in themselves -- was one of the main reasons all those five made significant contributions during Pittsburgh's championship run.

"The one thing that he certainly brought to that team is they play with a whole different demeanor in the playoffs," Tortorella said after the Penguins won Game 6. "The concentration level, their hardness, the no-nonsense ... They don't get caught up in the minutiae, and he's brought his personality to that team. I couldn't be [expletive] happier for him. He has been one of the best coaches in the league for quite a while, and now he's finally getting his due. I am thrilled for him."

When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2015, Sullivan received a ring for his contributions to the team. He wasn't satisfied. A year ago he said, "I want to win a Stanley Cup as a coach."

On Sunday, he did.

"We've come a long way from the Providence Bruins," Sullivan said.