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Teaching Never Stops for Sullivan

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

Mike Sullivan played 709 games in the NHL and he had a good idea there would be a coaching career when it was over.

Sullivan is a student of the game. The detail, the development process, the structure, the systems, has always intrigued him. When he is not on the ice at practice or on the bench during a game, the Lightning associate coach can be found alone in his office viewing game tape for hours.

“It’s an essential part of coaching,” Sullivan said. “If you don’t have discipline and create some sort of a process around evaluating your team, it’s tough to get the pulse of your team, the individuals and where the deficiencies may lie. During the game, there’s so much emotion attached and so many things on your mind, you can’t help but miss things. You can get fooled by a lot of things like the score or the shot clock.

“I enjoy doing it, the process of sitting down by myself in a room, with no distractions, watching the game with an analytical eye and trying to identify areas where we can get better.”

Sullivan’s video sessions, among many things, have made an impact since he returned as an assistant Nov. 25, especially on the defensive side of the ice. Just ask the players.

“I haven’t seen a better guy at breaking down video and teaching guys,” Lightning goalie Mike Smith said. “It’s one thing to tell someone what they did. It’s another thing to show him on video. He’s not only helped out our defensemen, he’s helped our forwards.”

He’s seen it all. His IQ of the game is very high. I’d be very surprised if he didn’t get another shot to be a head coach. - Rick Tocchet
Sullivan was an associate coach for John Tortorella last season before being let go after new ownership came in and retooled the coaching staff. But when Barry Melrose was fired as coach after 16 games and Rick Tocchet was elevated from assistant to interim head coach, a void was created.

It didn’t take long for the Lightning to contact Sullivan, who was back in his native Massachusetts.

“I’m not one to jump into something, unless I have a certain comfort level,” said Sullivan, who turns 41 Feb. 27. “I had extensive conversations with [general manager] Brian Lawton and [Tocchet] to make sure it was a fit for both sides. I wanted it to be crystal clear. I’m a guy that wants responsibility and I want to be a hands-on guy. [Tocchet] believes in that as a coach. It’s been a real good match.”

Sullivan hit the ground running, with several new players on defense. Paul Ranger, Mike Lundin and Matt Smaby were the only defensemen back from the 2007-08 season, among the 17 the Lightning has had on the NHL roster this season.

Even with the rash of injuries on defense, since Sullivan returned the Lightning has cut down the average shots against from almost 36 per game to less than 30.

“One of the things that I’ve preached to the guys is to just simplify things,” Sullivan said. “We want to play a north-south game, we want to try and get the puck to our forwards as quickly as possible. I’m a big believer in gaps. We want to get up in fives. When our team struggles, you see the gaps between our forwards and defensemen get too big. Sometimes as young defensemen, you think by playing back you’re playing safer, when actually you are making your job more difficult.”

Ranger said Sullivan is good at showing the little things that aid the team in different situations and has got the team to play together better.

“He’s helped me with defensive-zone coverage big-time,” defenseman Steve Eminger said. “Guys know where to be and it all starts with that. It didn’t take him long. Tocc gives him a lot of freedom to do his thing.”

Sullivan said when he was a head coach with the Boston Bruins he leaned on his staff and gave them authority. Tocchet is similar.

“I have no problem with a guy like Mike speaking or taking over,” Tocchet said. “For one, I don’t have a big ego. Secondly, I think the players hear your voice all the time, they get tired of you. It’s nice to get other voices involved.”

Especially, with Sullivan’s experience.

“He’s an organized guy,” Tocchet said. “He’s seen it all. His IQ of the game is very high. I’d be very surprised if he didn’t get another shot to be a head coach.”

Sullivan, from Marshfield, Mass., played four seasons at Boston University and scored 138 points in 141 games. He was the 69th pick in the 1987 draft by the New York Rangers in 1987 and played 11 seasons in the NHL. A top defensive center, Sullivan scored 54 goals and had 82 assists.

When his playing career was over, Sullivan took over as head coach of the AHL’s Providence Bruins and led them to a 41-17-13 record in 2002-03. He was moved up to the NHL Bruins the next season and led them to the Northeast Division title. Sullivan also coached the United States team at the World Championships in 2007.

“I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to be around the game the rest of my life,” Sullivan said. “I try to be a better coach every day. Whether learning from the guys in our room, other coaches or people in other sports, I enjoy the process.”

The love for his job shows.

“I heard he was a great teacher and he’s everything they said he was,” said Lightning forward Mark Recchi, a couple months older than Sullivan. “He’s very passionate about the game, well structured and he understands it. You never stop learning.”

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