On May 31 Tampa Bay Lightning head coach John Tortorella added Mike Sullivan to his staff as an assistant coach. Sullivan comes to the Lightning with a resume that includes an 11-year NHL playing career, a year as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins, two seasons at the helm of the Boston Bruins and two coaching stints with the U.S. national team.
Sullivan recently sat down with TBL.com to allow Lightning fans to get to know him better.
Tampabaylightning.com: Before we get into your coaching/playing background, how do you enjoying spending time away from the rink?
Mike Sullivan: I enjoy watching my kids participate in youth sports. All three of my children play hockey and lacrosse and it is a lot of fun for me to watch them play. We spend a fair amount of time as a family at the rink or the lacrosse field. I also enjoy playing golf and spending time on my boat. My kids like to wakeboard; I bought a wakeboard at the boat show this year and my kids are going to teach me how to use it. We also like to fish for Stripers and Bluefish.
TBL.com: What have you heard about living and working in the Tampa Bay area?
MS: Not a lot other than my conversations with Torts and some of the Tampa Bay organization people. Everyone seems to enjoy Tampa and what it has to offer. I am looking forward to experiencing all of the wonderful things Florida has to offer.
TBL.com: After a year away from the NHL, what intrigued you the most about the opportunity in Tampa Bay?
MS: I am looking forward to getting back behind the bench. I love the opportunity to get up in the morning and make a contribution to something special. I think Tampa Bay has a great organization and a great team with a real chance to win. I have the utmost respect for what the organization has accomplished in a short period of time. I am also looking forward to working on a daily basis with Torts. He is a good person and a real good coach. I played for him and coached against him, and I respect his work ethic and his approach to running a team.
TBL.com: As you mentioned, you’ve crossed paths with John Tortorella in the past. How do you think your coaching style will mesh with John’s style?
MS: I think Torts and I see eye to eye on the approach to running a hockey team. I love his honesty. He is a person that sees things as they are. I think his honesty is the backbone for the winning culture he has created in Tampa. The only way you make progress is by having the courage to make an honest assessment of a given situation. This approach allows for an opportunity to find solutions to problems or challenges that present themselves.
Torts is a guy who is not afraid to make a candid assessment of a given situation. I hope my personality will complement his in such a way that allows us to get the most out of the players. I hope I can challenge him with new ideas and together we can help the Tampa Bay Lightning win another Stanley Cup.
TBL.com: The Lightning play an aggressive system with a lot of fore-checking and pinching. Do you need to adjust some of your coaching philosophies?
MS: No. I think the way the game is being played today in this new NHL is the type of game that does not reward conservative play. I have always been a believer in a proactive style of play. I think that successful teams in any sport impose their will on the opposition - they dictate how the game will be played.
Tampa Bay has a proactive approach to their game plan. I also believe that in a successful game plan a team has purpose to their aggression. There must be calculated risk to the decisions that are made within the framework of the game plan. The biggest key to a winning approach is the “buy-in” factor. If the players “buy-in” to the approach or the game plan, than the chances of success are greatly increased. That is one of the biggest challenges of a coaching staff.
TBL.com: Having coached against the Lightning, what kind of challenges do the team’s up-tempo style present for an opponent?
MS: Speed is the most intimidating factor in hockey. Individual speed, team speed, transition speed, intellectual speed all add up to how fast the game is played. Tampa Bay’s greatest attribute has been the speed factor. This team does things FAST. It forces opposing teams to be on their toes. You know when you play the Tampa Bay Lightning that they are going to come at you. You had better be able to handle their speed and aggression or you will be in for a long night. I think that is what most coaches will talk to their respective teams about playing against the Lightning.
TBL.com: From what you’ve seen of the Lightning, how do you view the team’s potential for the 2007-08 season?
MS: I think they have a great nucleus and are a legitimate contender. Having said that, it is difficult to win in the NHL and a lot of work and preparation has to take place in order for any team to be successful. Potential is a word that is used in sports often, but does not mean a whole lot unless the necessary commitment and sacrifices are made to turn that “potential” into something special.
TBL.com: After an 11-year playing career you moved directly into coaching the year after you retired. Was it difficult to make the transition so quickly?
MS: It was definitely a challenge. I have enjoyed every step of the way from coaching the Providence Bruins to coaching the Boston Bruins to coaching in international competition with the USA Olympic team and the USA World Championship Team. I have learned every day on the job and I believe that I am a better coach today because of these experiences. I am looking forward to working with Torts and the rest of his staff because I know that I will be challenged every day to be a better coach.
TBL.com: How do you think your experiences in Boston, as head coach of the Bruins from 2003-06, made you a better coach?
MS: I think as a head coach you deal with many facets of professional hockey. You deal with the players, the media, management, etc… on a daily basis. A professional hockey team is faced with many challenges, and dealing with the daily challenges from the different facets of the pro hockey business has been a tremendous learning experience for me. The head coach is responsible for providing the vision and focus necessary to win. It is his responsibility to create the environment that is conducive to winning.
All teams deal with adversity. The most rewarding part of coaching is helping the players, as individuals, and the team, as a whole, work through the adversity. The head coach is responsible for this process. I have heard the statement, “one learns more from his failures than his successes.” I experienced both successes and failures as the head coach of the Boston Bruins.
My experiences as the head coach of the Bruins included a division champion team and a post-lockout team that did not make the playoffs. These experiences have helped me to grow as a coach and a person, and I believe that I am a better coach today because of these experiences. It has allowed me to define and refine my convictions as a coach from how to communicate with players to the details of system play.