The signs which hang in the Penguins locker rooms stress accountability. It’s a staple of the culture Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan wants to instill in his teams. As skating and hockey skills become refined by endless camps and year-round work until a player hangs up his or her skates, so too has the art of coaching evolved. You may not realize it but Sullivan is one of the prominent purveyors of language and phrasing as a building block for his team.
You’ve heard the phrases, “Play the right way,” or “team game,” and “the right side of the puck,” as well as adjectives like, “stick-to-itiveness,” and “shoot-first mentality.”
After losses, Sullivan often says, “There was a lot to like.”
Sure, like you I’ve often taken notice of a that one after a loss. How much can you like after a 4-2 loss?
It is easy to think it was coaching spin or merely speaking in cliche to avoid more blunt answers. However, it was a conversation with a juniors coach which occurred last season and continued throughout the year, which explained the phrases aren’t bland jargon.
There is far more to “coach speak” than avoidance of a reporter’s question. It is a new wave of coaching psychology designed to build a culture, positive mindsets, and avoiding negativity which can be corrosive.
Consider it Dale Carnegie on steroids.
For example, in December Jake Guentzel’s game was slipping. Sullivan was forced to bench the Penguins leading goal scorer. More straightforward coaches likely would have said, “he wasn’t playing well,” or “we expect more, and we have to keep our legs moving.”
Instead, Sullivan phrased it forward, “his game is best when he’s stiff…”
Obviously, the positive approach didn’t work for every player, but at the moment when Sullivan punished a player, he dangled a carrot in front without adding insult. Sullivan often chided players on the ice but publicly encouraged them.
“That’s so important for the new generation of players,” our junior hockey coach and friend said.
Fans well beyond Pittsburgh who grew up with hard-talking football coaches or even hockey bosses may look at the positivity with a little side-eye. Something is satisfying when a coach echoes the same emotion or disappointment the fans are feeling. Fans may want to flip tables, read the riot act, or have the come to Jesus meetings, but a coach may only get one of those per season.
If a coach goes for too many, it’s probably over.
The most recent situation which had Penguins fans buzzing was the Phil Kessel friction. Sullivan worked very hard to always categorize the kerfuffle as within the norm of the winning process. Sullivan said this at the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas and repeated a couple of variations of it throughout the season:
“The reality is our relationship is as good as it has ever been,” Sullivan said. “Have we had our differences? At times during the course of each season that we’ve been together, of course, we have. That’s the player-coach relationship which goes on between every team.”
Had Sullivan admitted Kessel was difficult or not following directives, us media folk would have run wild. We had other sources which would have added to the story, but by taking a positive tone, Sullivan again showed his leadership and the other sources quieted down to follow his lead.
It’s fascinating stuff when you look at it from the objective big-picture view, isn’t it?
The closest Sullivan came to truly let it rip last season was his critique of the power play which handed out shorthanded goals like Netflix hands out comic specials, “We lack a defensive conscience.”
There was no way to church-up that power-play effort.
Sullivan’s words stand in contrast to many of his colleagues. Even successful coaches like Barry Trotz, John Tortorella, and recent Stanley Cup winner Craig Berube are more interesting quotes because they will verbally spank their team or cut loose. Sullivan and the Penguins changed the game in 2016 when they unleashed an unparalleled speed game, skill, and discipline on their opponents.
He may or may not finish the four-year extension which the Penguins provided this summer. It’s rare enough for a coach to last nearly four seasons, and certainly rarified air if he makes it to eight. But maybe our conversation with a fellow coach has provided some insight into what you see and hear.
Sullivan is again on the forefront as a coach, even if we mistake his words for cliches.