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Bales Perfect Fit as New Goalie Coach

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins general manager Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma had been searching for a goaltending coach ever since Gilles Meloche stepped down from the position after the end of last season to spend more time with his family.

They talked to current NHL goalie coaches about the important aspects of the job before getting underway, going through the interview process with a number of viable candidates about the position.

I think (being a high-character guy) is really important in any business, at any position. But the reality is, especially in goal when you’re a specialty coach, the guys that you work with have absolutely have to believe in you. That they believe you have their best interests in mind. That you don’t have or display a selfish bone in your body. And Mike is exactly that way. High character, doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body, he’s a 100 percent team guy. So that’s really important.Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn, on Mike Bales

But after doing their due diligence, as Shero and Bylsma had suspected, it turns out the perfect candidate was already in the organization.

On Monday the team announced that they had promoted Mike Bales, who had spent the past two years as the Penguins’ goaltender development coach, to goaltending coach.

“Interviewing Mike for this position (along with others), obviously knowing Mike but then coming full circle at the end, it was pretty apparent to myself and Dan and a few others in this organization that having seen Mike since we hired him and knowing his background, his passion for this job, his ability and his upside, it made a lot of sense that Mike Bales was the best candidate for this job,” Shero said. “I really like what he has brought to the organization; I like how he’s done with our goaltenders and the work ethic he has.”

When Shero first hired Bales as the goalie development coach two years ago, they both hoped it would lead to something more with the organization. And just a relatively short time later, it did.

“When I first came on to Pittsburgh two years ago, that was a very exciting time for me,” Bales said. “I hoped that one day that job would eventually lead to the NHL for me. I didn’t know when or how, but it’s been a quick two years here and I’m just really happy that I get to be a coach now in Pittsburgh.”

Bales was brought in just about a year after his playing career ended. So while he has 18 seasons of professional experience that spans a number of leagues, including 23 NHL games with the Bruins and Senators, he’s still young at just 42 years old and has a promising coaching career ahead of him. Shero is excited about that upside Bales will bring to his new position, along with everything else.

“Mike is a student of the game, technically with the styles around the league and what’s important and what makes a good goaltender in the National Hockey League. Mike has got excellent communication skills, he’s got a great personality and played pro 15 years, so he understands the position,” Shero said. “He understands the goalies. He’s worked with some great goaltending coaches in his career. He understands what it takes and what goalies expect.

“So coming back full circle to this thing and talking about Mike and what he’s brought to the organization, what we see and the upside that he brings to this job, I think it’s a really good hire for us and the right person at the right time. I’m very happy that we hired him a couple years ago to get him to this point, because you can see what he’s done for our organization and what he has brought. So I think it’s a good hire for us and a real good opportunity for Mike.”

Bill Guerin
was hired as the Penguins’ player development coach at the same time Bales was hired as goalie development coach.

“Mike and I worked real closely together the last couple years,” Guerin said. “We spent a lot of time together. Not necessarily on the road watching prospects because he was always watching the goalies, but we spent a ton of time in Wilkes-Barre together – especially during training camps and playoff time.”

Mike Bales working with Eric Hartzell last season

What Guerin saw from his colleague impressed him.

As goalie development coach, Bales was responsible for working with and assisting in the development of goalie prospects and players throughout the Penguins organization – as well as assisting in the evaluation and scouting of amateur goaltenders.

In his first season, Bales had more time to spend in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton since the Penguins were lacking goalie prospects for him to work with and develop. But Bales made sure that changed during his second season, as he was instrumental in helping the Penguins restock their depth at that position throughout the organization.

Pittsburgh has since drafted three goaltenders – 2013 second-round selection (44th overall) Tristan Jarry, 2012 third-round pick (83rd overall) Matt Murray and 2012 fourth-round pick (113th overall) Sean Maguire – along with signing 2013 Hobey Baker Award finalist and USA Hockey College Player of the Year Eric Hartzell as an undrafted free agent.

And though Bales’ role changed and his duties expanded with the acquisition of these four goalie prospects, he still got to WBS as much as possible during the regular season (spending virtually every day there during the playoffs) – and under his tutelage during the 2012-13 campaign, WBS goaltenders Jeff Zatkoff and Brad Thiessen combined to allow the fewest goals (178) in the American Hockey League (AHL). Zatkoff’s 1.93 goals-against average was the lowest in the AHL.

What Guerin believes helped Bales do all of that and what will make him a fantastic goalie coach in the NHL is what he called the “basics” – hard work, detail, dedication and commitment.

“He’s there early, he’s watching video, he’s not afraid to put the effort in,” Guerin explained. “He knows the position. He was a pro goalie for 15 years. No matter where you go in the world, the position is the same. He’s a student of the position. He’s got a great work ethic and you know what, he’s a real easy guy to get along with, too. He’s got a great personality that will always allow for top prospects to feel comfortable with him.”

Elaborating on the traits Guerin mentioned, starting with work ethic …

“(Being an NHL goalie coach) is much more than working with two guys an hour and a half a day.”

That’s what Mitch Korn, who is in his 22nd season as an NHL goalie coach and one of the most respected and accomplished goalie coaches in the league, said in a phone interview on Monday. Korn, who is currently overseeing back-to-back Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne with the Nashville Predators, has been with the organization since the very beginning – when they took now-Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun in the 1998 NHL Expansion Draft. Before that, Korn worked with two-time Hart Trophy winner and four-time Vezina Trophy winner Dominik Hasek and Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr during seven seasons in the Buffalo Sabres organization.

“As a goalie coach, (your responsibilities include) not only your NHL goalies, it is preparation on the goalies that you’re playing against,” Korn explained. “It is watching video on drafted players you may possess, American (Hockey) League guys that you guys own that are under contract. It’s being aware of your prospects, being aware of the prospective draftees – all those things are part of the job. And when you’re in your office or on your iPad or on your computer or on the network or doing all your work, most players will never see that.”

Korn said that being a successful goalie coach in this league requires a high work ethic to handle all of that – along with high character and an unassuming personality. And Korn, who has known Bales since working with him as a player for the first time in 1997 and has been a both a mentor and a friend to him, says that Bales possesses all of those qualities – which is why he'll thrive in his new position.

“I think (being a high-character guy) is really important in any business, at any position,” Korn said. “But the reality is, especially in goal when you’re a specialty coach, the guys that you work with have absolutely have to believe in you. That they believe you have their best interests in mind. That you don’t have or display a selfishbone in your body. And Mike is exactly that way. High character, doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body, he’s a 100 percent team guy. So that’s really important.”

Korn also said that Bales has the certain kind of personality that a goalie coach needs.

“He is extremely (unassuming),” Korn said. “He is not an emotional guy. He doesn’t have any panic in him. He is a voice of reason. I think especially as a goalie coach, when coaches around you tend to become very emotional – especially about a goal that went in and they may not think was a good goal – I think that being the voice of reason and being able to communicate in a manner that’s not threatening, that’s not emotional, that it’s logical and rational, is really a good trait. And he possesses all of that.”

Until now, Bales’ responsibilities had been working with every goalie in the organization not in Pittsburgh. Now he will spend the majority of, if not all of, his time in Pittsburgh, overseeing returning netminders Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun.

Bales has of course met both Fleury and Vokoun, and has spoken to them on the phone since his hiring was announced. But Bales does not have an extensive relationship with either, and knows building that rapport and that trust is his top priority heading into the season.

“I think part of being a good goalie coach is to establish that relationship with the goalies so that you can move forward and work together,” he said. “That’s sort of the early stages of any type of relationship as a goalie coach with the guys you want to work with. That’s the first priority.

While Bales is going to work with both Fleury and Vokoun on things he feels are important, he also wants there to be an open dialogue between them.

“Obviously as I move forward here and we get out on the ice together and stuff, we’ll start working on things I feel are important and we’ll do that together,” Bales explained. “I don’t take it all towards just me dictating to the goaltenders do this, do that. I’m more of the open-minded type where there’s more than one way to skin a cat as a coach. We’ll work together to figure out what works best for each guy and most goalies have some similarities, but they also have a lot of differences. You have to work with each guy individually and help build their strengths and improve their weaknesses.”

Though Bales does not know Fleury or Vokoun very well yet, Guerin is absolutely confident that his colleague will have just as much success working with them as he did in WBS and with the prospects.

“Mike’s been a pro,” Guerin said. “Mike’s played in the NHL, Mike’s played in the American (Hockey) League, he’s played in Europe, he’s got great experience. He’s been around. He has been an elite goalie in his lifetime and he has been around the very elite in the NHL. So he’s going to have no problems. I don’t think he’ll have any problems relating to Flower and Tomas.”

While Bales points out that there are many successful goalie coaches in the NHL who never played a game in the league, he does concede that in his personal situation, his experience has helped shape him as a coach.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a requirement or a prerequisite to do the job, but I know from my standpoint, I definitely draw on my experiences and everything that I did over the years to help shape how I approach things and how I work with the guys,” said Bales, who appeared in 23 NHL games between 1992-97 after being drafted by Boston in the fifth round (105th overall) of the 1990 NHL Draft.

“I think that obviously having played goal and that I did play in the NHL – I didn’t play a lot, but I did play in the NHL – I do have an understanding of the position and the demands and that sort of stuff. I think that helps build a relationship with a guy too, when they know you’ve also experienced a lot of the same types of situations over the years.”

Shero said that the Penguins will begin interviewing for the open position of goalie development coach. There is no rush on hiring Bales’ replacement, as Shero stressed they must find the right person for the job.

“We have some good candidates for that as well, some candidates we had talked to about for this job,” Shero said. “No rush on that either, but making sure (we hire the right person is crucial), because it has been an important position. Mike’s done a fantastic job in terms of not only working with our goalies in Wilkes-Barre, but also in terms of scouting and helping develop – whether it’s the number of goalies we’ve drafted the last couple years (or) of course (Eric) Hartzell, the free-agent goaltender. He was a big part in signing and recruiting.

“So we have to make sure we get the right guy for that job because it’s an important position for us since Mike took it over and of course where it is now. Making sure we get the right guy with the same type of work ethic and hopefully the upside as well (is a priority). You want to hire good people (so) that if they do well, you hope when you hire good people they have an aptitude for their job, that they progress, which Mike certainly has done and we want to try to find that as well. So we’re looking to fill that.”

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