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Mike Sullivan: Cup Winning Coach … and Tap Dancer?



Pittsburgh Penguins Mike Sullivan
Masks are just one thing Mike Sullivan has had to learn to live with.

This could be one solution to coach Mike Sullivan’s absence from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ game Thursday at Montreal: Set up a Mikebot, a mobile stand with a screen on top where he can see and be seen as a virtual presence behind the bench.

Just kidding. We think.

In fact, the Penguins plan to revert to the formula they used recently while Sullivan was sidelined by a case of COVID-19 – assistant Todd Reirden will step in for Sullivan and will oversee the forwards, with assistant Mike Vellucci handling the defensemen, and Sullivan will chime in virtually from Pittsburgh between periods.

This just the latest quirk that has forced Sullivan to morph into part coach, part mask expert, part tap dancer as he navigates what has been a pretty stellar coaching stint with the Penguins, including two Stanley Cups.

Sullivan played more than 700 games in the NHL, so he certainly was aware of some of the flux in the game – injuries, trades, contract situations, things that have been around for decades.

How could he have known he was signing up for things such as a general manager abruptly quitting in-season as Jim Rutherford did last season; a pandemic that has forced the absence of players and Sullivan and has meant vaccines and all sorts of protocols and restrictions to try to mitigate the spread of the virus; and now the potential in-season sale of the Penguins franchise?

He couldn’t. That’s kind of the point. And so he falls back on a philosophy he has held for a long time.

“I just think the nature of pro sports is that volatility is part of it,” Sullivan, 53, said, “and you have to be prepared for whatever comes your way. We’ve certainly gotten hit with a fair amount of it over the last couple of years.”

Sullivan has said he enjoys both the Xs and Os as well as the development of relationships with players that all go into coaching.

He’s certainly had to deal with a lot more than that.

“He’s done a great job. He’s been very adaptable,” Penguins winger Bryan Rust said. “Just like us players, there are things in the season where you can’t really control things. With a GM stepping down or a pandemic, you’ve just got to roll with the punches. Things happen. You’ve to adapt on the fly. He was the one who was preaching that from the start. He’s backing up his words.”

Coaches, at least some of them, take on the large role of team leader beyond what happens behind the bench, in the dugout or on the sideline. Troubleshooting included.

Consider this scenario that happened several years ago when Dan Bylsma was the Penguins’ coach:

During a preseason road trip, the club took two buses postgame – one for players and some staff, the other for some support staff and media members such as broadcasters – from an arena to the airport.

Things stalled when the buses got to the tarmac, next to the charter jet. It was Bylsma – not any other team or airport or charter airline employee – who was briefed on the situation and then announced to those waiting on both buses that there was a mechanical issue with the jet, and he outlined the contingency plans.

That’s just the sort of responsibility coaches take on, well beyond the things more closely associated with overseeing a team’s performance.

Sullivan included.

He is expected to meet Canadian customs rules regarding COVID-19 in time to rejoin the team for the second two legs of this trip to American’s northern neighbor, with games Saturday at Toronto and Monday at Winnipeg.

The sale of the team, assuming it goes through, is percolating in the background, and the Penguins could use some wins after three straight losses. And the pandemic persists.

But there are some signs of normalcy. At the moment, all players are healthy and available, other than Evgeni Malkin, who is making good progress in his recovery and rehab from knee surgery.

But who knows what could happen next?

“When you choose to go into pro sports as a player, as a coach … you understand a number of things – that it’s very competitive first and foremost. There are a lot of players, coaches that are really good at what they do,” Sullivan said. “The other aspect of it is that it’s a results-oriented business and that change is inevitable, and that’s the reality of the business. That’s what we signed up for.”

But did he go so far as to sign up to be a Mikebot?

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Shelly is a columnist and reporter for Pittsburgh Hockey Now. She was a Penguins beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and remains a contributor to The Hockey News. Catch her on Twitter @_shellyanderson

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1 year ago

Hey you stole my idea. I posted that very thing from the Big Bang Theory on another website.

I say why not?

1 year ago

I like Sully but you have to question the style and the system they play and his unwillingness to change when you lose this much and have been a first round exit out of the playoffs for the last several years one has to think he is going to have to try something different sooner or later or his seat is going to be on fire! Yes I know pens have had a rash of injuries and cv19 absences still something’s gotta give. I imagine he will not change his style they he will be fired before he changes another… Read more »

Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  JasonC

This is Shelly’s article, not Dan’s.