As we conclude the Pittsburgh Hockey Now series on the Pittsburgh Penguins all-time team, there was one surprising fan vote which not only went a different way than we expected but moved significantly in that direction.
The Penguins cursed themselves with a line of head coaches who failed not only to reach their star players but whose incompetence spawned long-standing tales of ignorance. The Penguins have also been blessed with a handful of the best coaches in the game.
Nay, the Penguins have been blessed with a few of the greatest coaches of all-time.
He didn’t receive many votes, but Herb Brooks will forever be enshrined in American hockey hearts for engineering the greatest takedown in hockey history. His Team USA full of upstart college kids took down the most powerful team in the world, the Soviet Red Army at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY.
Brooks didn’t even coach the Penguins for one full season. He coached only 58 games, but he unleashed Jaromir Jagr after the grind of innovative, but far too defense-oriented coach Kevin Constantine.
Brooks’s study of Russian hockey and what made it special helped transform the North American game. He was and remains a giant of the industry.
If PHN were to interview candidates to coach the Pittsburgh Penguins all-time team, Scotty Bowman would likely get the job. How do you say no to a coach with nine Stanley Cup rings, 1248 regular-season wins, and 223 playoff wins? Nine Cups! And that doesn’t count the five more pieces of jewelry he earned in front office capacities.
Bowman is an extraordinary coach who will be remembered as the best ever. He was PHN’s original choice for Penguins all-time coach. Still, something Bowman told us, combined with our conversations with people in the Penguins organization, put him behind our eventual winner, at least for the Penguins all-time coach.
The fan vote was clear. Pittsburgh Penguins fans like Mike Sullivan. He won the PHN poll, 45%-37% over Badger Bob Johnson. Readers cast nearly 1000 votes.
Sullivan is a great coach and stands above most of his colleagues. Matt Cullen raved about Sullivan’s chalkboard work to PHN during the 2017 playoff run.
“He’s probably the best Xs and Os coach I’ve been around,” the long-time NHL veteran Cullen said.
The Penguins were a HAZMAT disaster when Sullivan took over on Dec. 12, 2015. The Penguins stars were sniping at each other, and there was even some disagreement between Sidney Crosby and owner Mario Lemieux (though PHN believes the “rift” reported by Canadian media was far too strong of a term).
It appeared the celebrated Penguins core had come to an ignominious end. Internal battles, on-ice collapses, and a general feeling of misery were pervasive. It was an ugly scene to cover.
Sullivan is a powerful voice. He is a commander and effectively commanding. Sullivan broke the Penguins free of the 1-3-1 counterattack, which suppressed Crosby and which Evgeni Malkin liked to ignore. He didn’t just teach sharks table manners (a nod to former Penguins coach Gene Ubriaco who uttered that phrase in exasperation of trying to coach Mario Lemieux and the boys in 1989), he taught the Penguins how to win.
Yes, Sullivan taught the Penguins how to win again.
His “Just Play” theme was more than a mantra. It became ingrained in the previously petulant Penguins, who again grew up. As things spiraled, the Penguins became resilient; “resiliency” became another theme Sullivan drilled into his team.
“He’s a no-nonsense guy. He has a blueprint, and he asks players to follow,” Scotty Bowman told PHN.
However, Bowman wasn’t done praising Sullivan.
“(Sullivan) has a feeling of the game. He knows when guys are playing above their peak,” Bowman said. “You can’t teach that. You have to know your players. That’s (hockey) IQ.”
In the early Sullivan tenure, countless memes were created, and social media exploded with shock and respect when Sullivan was seen on camera scolding one of his superstars. That had never happened before. Sullivan was quickly a different kind of coach.
As the Penguins core marched towards a legacy-defining second Stanley Cup, Evgeni Malkin sniped at officials who raced over to the Penguins bench. For the TV audience to see, and the arena to hear, Sullivan bellowed to his player.
“Shut the F*** up!”
And Malkin did.
And the Penguins won two straight Stanley Cups. The Penguins systems have evolved under Sullivan as their personnel has changed. It is to his great credit the Penguins still listen after five years on the job even as one Penguins player joked on locker cleanout day last April.
“Oh, that voice. I won’t miss it this summer.”
Don’t worry. Sullivan still commands the room and that player’s total respect. It really was a joke.
Mike Sullivan also engineered a change in the NHL game. Previously, the LA Kings won a pair of Stanley Cups in 2014 and 2012 by pounding opponents and suppressing not only their offense but their will to play. LA suffocated opponents with defensive responsibility, size, and strength.
Sullivan bot only broke that mold, he and the Penguins shattered it. The 2016 Penguins played so fast that nearly every team in the league began to change their roster, immediately, to keep up with the Penguins.
“He’s also ahead of the game. He was one of the first coaches–he built a racetrack team,” Bowman said.
The Penguins had speed, but not necessarily the highest volume of speedy players. No, the Penguins played fast. And aggressive. Their forecheck was even more disruptive than the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning Stanley Cup winner, which forever sleighed the awful clutch-and-grab NHL mold. Not coincidentally, that Tampa Bay team was coached by long-time Sullivan boss and friend, John Tortorella.
However, Mike Sullivan is not the Penguins all-time coach. He has a pair of Stanley Cup rings, and he’ll finish his career as the most successful Penguins coach.
But the Penguins have been blessed by all-time greats on whose shoulders modern coaches stand. The Penguins have been graced by coaches for whom statues have been built.
Badger Bob Johnson
The Penguins all-time coach is Badger Bob Johnson. “The Professor” coached the Penguins for only one season, but his ingenuity and transformative will changed the Penguins franchise and left indelible marks upon those around him. Johnson passed away just months after the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins claimed the Stanley Cup. Nearly 30 years later, his passing brings tears to those who knew him.
That’s the quality of the mark Johnson left.
If Sullivan earned votes by winning two Stanley Cups, fans should know Johnson essentially has two, as well. One posthumously.
We asked Scotty Bowman, who succeeded Johnson as the Penguins coach, and guided the team to its second straight-Stanley Cup, about Johnson. Bowman also spoke in glowing terms. In fact, Bowman attributed the 1992 Cup to Johnson.
“What would Bob do,” Bowman said he contemplated. “I didn’t come in with new stuff. Bob was a tremendous offensive coach. One of the truly great minds of the game. A unique coach.”
The great Scotty Bowman emulated Bob Johnson.
“(Johnson) was such a research guy. He was really the guy who turned things around. He took tapes from the previous season. I don’t think (the Penguins) made the playoffs the season before,” Bowman said before he raved about Johnson’s statistics at The University of Wisconsin, where Johnson often had a power-play conversion in the 30% range.
Using videotapes may not seem unique (unless you’re too young to have ever used a VCR), but in 1990 it was revolutionary. Johnson also kept a notebook on the bench. He could often be seen scribbling notes during games.
Johnson kept notes on every line combination he ever used.
Not only did Johnson fastidiously study tape of his own team, but he also gobbled up film on Czech, and Russian power plays. The 1990-91 Penguins only had Mario Lemieux for 26 games. They received Ron Francis on March 4. Yet the Penguins power play clicked at 22.9%.
Young players Mark Recchi and Kevin Stevens had breakout seasons, without the aid of Lemieux, under Johnson. Both Recchi and Stevens had their first 40-goal season, and Recchi increased his point total by a whopping 46 points over the previous season.
PHN had several conversations with those who were there, including long time Penguins broadcaster and current team employee Paul Steigerwald, before we selected the Penguins all-time coach. We needed to make sure we got this one right. We were told stories of “Badger Bob’s” next level communication skills, which left us in awe.
Johnson had long-time equipment manager Steve Latin create a rink on the locker room floor. Latin also made pucks with each player’s face, and the combination became Johnson’s pregame chalkboard.
Before each game, Johnson moved the player’s pucks around on what he termed the “rink within the rink,” so each player knew his assignments that night. The previously uncoachable Penguins revered Johnson. Those “sharks” who couldn’t be taught table manners followed instructions to the letter.
And Bob Johnson’s words are immortalized at the Pittsburgh Penguins facilities, to this day.
“It’s a great day for hockey.”
And Badger Bob Johnson is truly the Pittsburgh Penguins All-Time coach.