Skip to main content

Sullivan's journey to Stanley Cup title worth wait

Penguins coach seized in-season opportunity, helped talented group reach potential

by Amalie Benjamin @amaliebenjamin / Staff Writer

SAN JOSE -- There had not been time for Mike Sullivan to think back through the years, to revisit the decade that had stood between now and then. Then, he had been a young head coach, just 35, one season removed from his playing days, coaching not just an Original Six franchise, but also his hometown team. 

He lasted two seasons with the Boston Bruins. And, in the intervening 10 years, he had not been back. He had not gotten a chance to be a head coach again in the NHL.

It would turn out to, perhaps, be worth the wait. 

Video: PIT@SJS, Gm6: Sullivan talks about Pens' journey

"It's hard to articulate," Sullivan said, when asked what it all meant while standing on the ice after winning the Stanley Cup on Sunday. "It's hard to put into words the emotions that are going through me right now. It means so much." 

And it had taken so long. 

Asked about that wait, about biding his time as an assistant coach, Sullivan said he hadn't yet had time to reflect on it, hadn't had time to quite understand the implications and think about his path. It was too soon. He had just been trying to win that game.

But there was one message: That he was grateful. Grateful for the opportunity, grateful that Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford had handed him the reins. Grateful for the players who had come together to win. 

As he said, "I think when our guys were carrying the Stanley Cup around out there, what was going through my mind was, first and foremost, how proud I am of them for the sacrifices that they've made for us to win this championship. Then, how grateful I am for the opportunity that I've been given to coach this team." 

Sullivan had started this season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League before being named coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 12 after Rutherford fired then-coach Mike Johnston. This was, finally, his chance. 

It had been a long road since Peter Chiarelli, then-general manager of the Bruins, opted to replace Sullivan with Dave Lewis for the 2006-07 season. Sullivan became a hockey vagabond, becoming an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning, with the New York Rangers, with the Vancouver Canucks. He became a player development coach with the Chicago Blackhawks last season before heading to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season.

He has made the most of this opportunity, guiding the Penguins from a team in disarray and careening toward a long summer to the team hoisting the Stanley Cup after a 3-1 win in Game 6 on Sunday at SAP Center clinched a championship. 

Video: PIT@SJS, Gm6: Letang's goal helps Pens hoist Cup

"Mike came in and made it pretty clear how he wanted us to play, what he expected from each individual guy," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said after the game. "I think guys just welcomed the opportunity, welcomed the challenge, tried to get back on track. It took some time. Didn't happen overnight." 

But, guided by Sullivan, the Penguins eventually got there. They figured out what they needed to do, adopted more of the speed game pushed by their coach and demanded by their personnel, including the reinforcements brought in by Rutherford. They found an identity, and the results followed.

That was Sullivan's plan. That was the most important thing. He had seen the championship potential with his changes, and he needed to figure out a way to help them get there. 

So they played fast. And it was that speed that killed, that speed that the San Jose Sharks - and all the other teams before them - couldn't handle. 

"I think once Sully came in, we found an identity," Penguins third-string goaltender Jeff Zatkoff said. "He just has a presence in that locker room. We started rolling. I just felt that when we got to our game, there wasn't many teams that could play with us." 

Before that, though, Zatkoff said, "I think we didn't have an identity. We didn't know what we were. Were we a team to dump it in and grind? Were we a fast-paced team? What would we do when we came out of our zone? Even when Sully got there, it took us a while to get going."

But eventually they did. Eventually the lessons took hold and the talent won out and they began a run that didn't end until they finished the season as the last team standing. 

"I think when you go through a tough experience and you don't meet expectations and there's a coaching change, it's a difficult circumstance, for everybody," Sullivan said. "It's a hard environment to come to the rink every day. These guys are proud guys. They want to be at their best. They want to be good. They want to do well and win for their fan base and for everyone involved. 

"We tried to shift the focus and tried to get them to not pay so much attention to the circumstance surrounding the team, just come to the rink every day and just try to get better, just focus on hockey. And that was our approach. We took it one day at a time. We pushed them to try to get better each and every day. And I told them, let's see where it takes us." 

It took them - and him - all the way to the Stanley Cup.

View More

The NHL uses cookies, web beacons, and other similar technologies. By using NHL websites or other online services, you consent to the practices described in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, including our Cookie Policy.