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Mike Sullivan's success as Penguins coach no surprise to mentor

John Tortorella praises former assistant, now two wins from second straight Stanley Cup championship

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Sullivan went on at least three job interviews during six seasons as an assistant under John Tortorella.

Each time, Sullivan, now the coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, would come back to work with Tortorella for another season. Each time, Tortorella, now the coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, wondered if a general manager were ever going to see in Sullivan what he saw in him.

"People looked by him," Tortorella said. "I'd shake my head. I'd say, 'Sully, they don't know you. They just don't know what you do. You're going to get your opportunity.' "

Sullivan did, but it took time, patience and putting aside any ego he might have.

He had to break apart from Tortorella after the 2013-14 season, spend 2014-15 learning how a championship organization operated as the player development coach with the Chicago Blackhawks, accept a job in the American Hockey League at the start of 2015-16 because he knew he had to be a coach again, and then wait.

The Penguins' subpar first two months of last season opened the door. General manager Jim Rutherford promoted Sullivan from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate, to take over for Mike Johnston on Dec. 12, 2015.

More than 17 months later, Sullivan has the Penguins two victories from winning the Stanley Cup for the second straight season. He would be the first coach to do that since Hockey Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman in 1997-98 with the Detroit Red Wings.

Pittsburgh leads the best-of-7 Cup Final 2-0, with Game 3 at Nashville on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).

"I remember when we got fired [by the Vancouver Canucks after the 2013-14 season], we talked and I said, 'Sully, that's the last time we can ever work together,'" Tortorella said. "He was being labeled as an assistant coach, and that's the last place his road was taking him, as we see now.

"I think he just handles people really well, and that is so important with today's athletes. They've changed from 10 years ago. You have to be really careful with them, and I think that's his biggest strength, and everything falls off of that."

***

It was one week into Sullivan's tenure in Pittsburgh when Tortorella was breaking down video of the Penguins, preparing to face Sullivan for the first time since they began working together in the 2007-08 season.

That's when he first saw Sullivan take command of his new team.

"I was watching the tape, and [center Evgeni] Malkin was yapping at the ref when Sully was trying to just probably work the ref, as coaches do," Tortorella said. "And, quote-unquote, he spontaneously turned to Malkin and said, 'Shut the [expletive] up.' And don't you think, a new coach, been there a week, the bench turned around and said, 'Holy [expletive], he just told [Malkin] to shut the [expletive] up.'

"Those are important situations for a coach, and he's not afraid of it because he thinks it's the right thing to do. He's trying to build the team concept."

Sullivan has done that. Tortorella said he sees it every time he watches the Penguins and faces them. He has done a 180 with his opinion of Pittsburgh because of Sullivan.

Remember, it was Tortorella, two weeks before Sullivan was hired by the Penguins, who said, "Pittsburgh whines enough for the whole League, so there is no room for any other team to whine."

Now?

"They are business-like and it starts with [center Sidney] Crosby," Tortorella said. "He's playing. He's playing between the whistles. He's not getting involved in the [other stuff]. I think he has elevated his mental game. You have to give him credit."

 

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Tortorella also credited Sullivan's ability to communicate with top players like Crosby for helping the Penguins become arguably the most resilient and mentally strong team in the League.

"I don't think he's afraid to say what he needs to say to top players, and within the League some coaches struggle with that," Tortorella said. "One of Mike's biggest strengths as a coach is how he communicates to players, no matter if you're a first-line guy or you're a foundation guy playing as a penalty-killer on the fourth line. He's going to let you know where you stand. He's going to correct you when he thinks he needs to correct you. And he is not going to be rehearsed.

"It's very important you understand that when I say this, it's not with a personality of ripping a guy. He has a great ability to hold players' feet to the fire but also make them feel good about themselves while he's doing that. That's a huge trait."

Forward Martin St. Louis used to be in that position when Sullivan was Tortorella's assistant with the Tampa Bay Lightning. St. Louis remembers Sullivan being an excellent listener and communicator with the ability to stay on level in his approach. Players see that and follow suit.

"Sully brought [the Penguins] emotional stability," St. Louis said. "Don't get me wrong, Sully gets emotional, but he's pretty even-keeled and has a good pulse. Sully's ducks get all lined up, and if he doesn't like a duck, he makes sure he puts it back in the row where it needs to be. He's firm. He's in control."

Beyond that, Tortorella said Sullivan always has been excellent at stripping away emotion to make a decision. Switching from starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to Matt Murray after Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final is the latest and perhaps best example of that.

"I thought you could see Fleury's game just shake a little bit two out of the last three games he played, but it's still a very tough call," Tortorella said. "Mike Sullivan is going to make that call no matter what you are going to say about it the next day if it doesn't work. That's a huge thing for a head coach in the National Hockey League; they have to ignore the noise."

Tortorella said Sullivan's communication skills likely were the reason why the goalie story has become a nonstory in Pittsburgh.

Video: How the Penguins blew Game 2 open in the third period

"I'm sure that both players got the honest information and both players probably respected him for it," Tortorella said. "And this didn't turn into a thing [the media] are talking about for three or four days. It just kind of goes away and everyone goes about their business. I think he treats players with respect, but he also makes tough decisions not really worrying, 'You know what, he may be upset.' "

***

Sullivan is not taking anything for granted.

"I know how hard it is," he said. "I know that there's a lot of really good coaches out there that are very capable, that work extremely hard at what they do. Not all of them get the opportunity like I've been given here in Pittsburgh. I'm grateful for this opportunity.

"It's been the most rewarding, the most fulfilling couple of years of my coaching life."

In an odd way, Tortorella feels similarly.

"Sometimes I'm a little jealous, but certainly I'm living through him as I see him go because we just know each other so well," he said. "I am thrilled someone finally gave him an opportunity."

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