In Robert De Niro’s directorial debut, “A Bronx Tale,” Sonny, the neighborhood “Don,” played by Chazz Palminteri, is probed by his young protege’, as to whether it is better to be loved or feared. Sonny’s retort is “It would be nice to be both, but it’s better to be feared…it lasts longer.”
Perhaps this is coach Mike Sullivan’s internal and undeclared mantra. It may never get uttered, but there seems to be a healthy fear of the man.
Whatever it is, there’s something about Mike that has the attention of his high-flying Penguins, even though Penguins can’t actually fly… except these of course.
“I think the players have a healthy fear of him,” cites Pen’s radio color commentator and ex-Penguin winger/defenseman Phil Bourque.
“I call him Master and Commander,” quotes former Pen’s broadcaster and now Pen’s front office man, Paul Steigerwald. ”He has a commandant quality about him.”
“He commands respect,” adds Gene Collier of the Post-Gazette. ” He has their attention. He also lets them play the way they want to play.”
Really? This group of high flying Penguins?
Well there is surely something there about this 25th Penguin’s coach that we haven’t seen since the Badger Bob Johnson era…not that his demeanor should ever be confused with Badger Bob’s.
“The best coaches I ever had, had three elements,” recalls Bourque, who was coached by Badger Bob. ”Fear, love and respect…Mike has that.”
“I think it’s that booming voice of his,” bellows baritone Bob Pompeani, of KDKA TV Sports. ”It’s a command thing.”
“He’s comfortable enough in his own skin that he can delegate authority,” according to NBC color commentator Pierre (the Iron Man) McGuire, who has a peeping tom view from ice level between the benches. ”He tells guys ‘wake up, or calm down, or shut up.’ He came in with a firm hand on the rudder. His approach has really worked here.”
Myself, I sense a restrained rage there with Sullivan…always waiting for the alien to burst out of his chest…yet there seems to be an evenly applied pressure on the gas.
Drafted by the N.Y. Rangers in 1987 out of Boston U., schooled in the art and craft of coaching in Chicago, Vancouver, New York, Tampa Bay and Boston, and on this job a mere 17 months, Sully is poised to win his second National Hockey League championship, affectionately known as Lord Stanley’s Stanley Cup.
(Incredibly, Lord Stanley never saw a championship game and never saw his trophy raised.)
“He’s the best in the NHL right now,” says Steigerwald of Mike Sullivan. ”He’s got a tremendous feel for the game and an ability to convey that to this team.”
Personally, I think first and foremost, Mike Sullivan believes in Mike Sullivan. Players get that and they believe too. Mike preaches puck possession, a basic game fundamental, but has a way of bringing home that point…and he’s all about speed, and being defensively responsible. (Can you spell Sidney Crosby?)
“His philosophy is play defense in the offensive zone,” adds Collier, “with intense forechecking.”
Steigerwald says Sullivan is a man’s man with a Bostonian sense of humor and demeanor…sometimes a hard ass but real compassionate and affectionate, and he cares about people. “He crystalizes things,” says Steigy about Sully. ”He can tell a player what the expectations are.”
The expectations are all about performance. Why else would he face certain scrutiny in yanking Marc-Andre Fleury in game 4 against Ottawa in the conference finals, replace him with Matt Murray, and go with Murray in game 5-7? This, after Fleury did handstands in goal since game one of series one. But when Fleury floundered once, it was Murray who finished out the third round, sending the Pens on their way to this 2-0 finals lead.
He’s passionate and appreciates the hard work his players put in. This is one of the hardest working Penguin teams I have ever witnessed. There is no more lustrous illustration than how hard Sidney Crosby works the ice…all of the ice.
“Consistency is important when you’re talking about a coach,” cites captain Crosby. ”His poise and leadership go a long way.”
“A rare quality Sullivan has had from day one, was his ability to handle the stars,” adds Steigerwald.
“He’s a vocal coach and has poise, ” according to winger and oft Crosby line mate, Conor Sheary. ”He makes the right decisions whether it’s lines or D pairings, and he puts confidence in us.”
“I think the players have a healthy fear of him,” reiterates Bourque. ”I don’t do it his way, I’m not going play. He is tastefully honest with them and it’s all reinforced by winning. That’s the bow to the whole package. If you’re selling me all these systems, or this style, or this attitude that you want me to play with, and it results in wins, then I’m going to buy in.”
Yeah, winning…that’s the ticket. Since becoming the Penguin head coach, Sullivan has yet to lose a play-off series (7.5-0).
“There are some big egos in that locker room.” says Steigerwald. ”He came in from day one and said, ‘I used to coach against you guys, I know what your weaknesses are, what your tendencies are. We have to change those right here and now.’ He took charge and earned the respect of Crosby, Malkin and other veterans.”
In interviews, unlike other head coaches in sports (and in this city) who rarely answer a question directly, concisely or informatively, Sullivan gives little “coach speak.” His elucidations are never perfunctory, but always thoughtful and thorough. He defines the game for you. You’ll literally learn something.
“I really like him from a media stand point, no matter what question you ask him, he answers” confesses WTAE’s sports anchor Guy Junker. ”He has a consistent personality and athletes are attracted to that. I think that’s why the players respect him so much. He’s a very good X’s and O’s guy too. And the players don’t whine anymore…they play through stuff now. That ‘just play’ mantra has worked.”
“He has a commanding presence,” adds Pompeani. ”He demands accountability and responsibility.”
One thing is certain…he holds players accountable no matter whose name is on the back of the sweater, whether it’s a first line center or a fourth line checker. “There’s a certain way we’re going to play, there’s a certain way we’re going to carry ourselves,” says Sullivan.
He has no reticence behind the bench. He confronts officials constantly. He’s fiery. He rarely accepts an official’s call or the explanation of such. And he does not want his players talking to officials. He’ll tell a player to zip it. Mike Sullivan controls the dialogue.
In the 2014-15 season, the Penguins were 0-28 when trailing after two periods. They were bounced early from the post-season. When Mike Sullivan arrived in late ’15, he asked the team why that was. He got little response except a tepid, “it’s hard to come back in this league.”
One way to rectify that situation was to have the Pens not-be-trailing after two periods. The team promptly started a 67-0 win-streak when leading after two periods, for these two seasons Mike Sullivan has resided in the coach’s office.
According to Sullivan, “the game is fast and you need to react. If you do that instead of thinking too much, you have more success. Less thinking and more reacting. We play such a reactionary game, where things happen so fast, when our guys are in their instinctive mindset, they are at their best. So, make plays at the blue line, and if there is no ice to make a play, put the puck behind them and play a puck pursuit game, not feeding the opposition’s transition game.”
He’s a master and commander of the game, and as a player, you learn to love a guy like that…and fear him too?
Yes Sonny, it’s nice to be both.
Lee Kann is a media producer and a writer. contact: firstname.lastname@example.org