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4 Takeaways from New Head Coach Mike Sullivan

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Mike Sullivan took a phone call from Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford Saturday morning. In the subsequent conversation, Sullivan was offered the job to become head coach in Pittsburgh.

(For more background on Sullivan and his success with WBS click here)

We already covered the takeaways from Rutherford’s decision to make the coaching changes. Here are the four biggest takeaways from the Sullivan’s point of view on becoming the new bench boss of the Pens.

Sullivan has a very simple strategy for approaching his upcoming challenge. And he knows his end goal.

“The challenge is to take a group of great players and become a great team,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to establish an identity that’s clear. We’re going to play to that identity. We’re going to try and have an unwavering focus so that we don’t get distracted. We’re going to try and play that way each and every night.”

Rutherford told the media this afternoon that he made a coaching change because his team “has more to give” and has to “have more will to win.”

Sullivan’s first priority, before schemes, strategies and on-ice details, starts with the players’ heads.

“The most important element is to coach the mindset right off the bat,” Sullivan said. “That’s where I can have the most immediate impact, and that’s what I’m going to try to do.

“Every coach has their beliefs and convictions that are different from the previous coach. But the most important aspect for me is to try and instill a certain mindset that will inspire these guys to be at their best.”

In Sullivan’s opinion, coaching is a lot more than X’s and O’s. In fact, he believes on-ice schemes and strategy aren’t the top priority of coaching.

Coaching is about people.

“Most important is the interactions with the athletes, and your ability to communicate and inspire guys to be at their best,” Sullivan said. “That’s the biggest challenge in today’s professional sports, never mind professional hockey.

“There are a lot of real smart hockey guys out there that come up with strategies and schemes from a technical standpoint as far as how you play on the ice. For me, the competitive advantage is your ability to interact with your athletes and inspire and empower them to be at their best.”

But building relationships is the foundation of coaching, the on-ice strategy is still very important.

“I’ve always had an intrigue, curiosity and insatiable appetite for the X’s and O’s of hockey,” Sullivan said. “I’ve always been fascinated by it and trying to stay on the cutting edge with the evolutions of the game. That aspect I love. I love the analytical aspect of coaching. But arguably the most important element is that human element, the relationships that you build with your athletes.”

But Sullivan understands that coaching still comes down to dealing with people – in this case high-profile, professional athletes.

“That’s the human element of coaching. That’s the art of coaching,” he said.

Sullivan has one approach to life, whether it’s coaching, being a family man or in his personal friendships: Honesty.

“I believe in being honest and fair with people,” Sullivan said. “I believe in treating people with respect. I believe in treating people fairly.”

And fairly means telling hard truths to players and pushing them to improve.

“I also believe in pushing athletes to be at their best and challenging them to be at their best,” Sullivan said. “The only way they’ll maximize their potential is to be challenged. That’s my responsibility. In the absence of that, I don’t think we can reach our potential.”

And if the athletes don’t fulfill their potential, it’s Sullivan’s job to keep them honest.

“(I believe in) holding players accountable to those challenges,” he said. “That’s been my approach in Wilkes-Barre. Our team has responded in a positive fashion. That’s my personality. That’s who I am. That’s who I will be.”
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