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Decade Review: Hiring Mike Sullivan

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

I remember how thrilled our management was about hiring Mike Sullivan to be head coach of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on June 28, 2015. I remember having to do a phone interview with him outside of Church Brew Works while I was having lunch with coworkers. We spoke for 10 minutes and that's when I experienced his firm, articulate, passionate and intense speaking manner for the first time.

I did another lengthy interview with him at the rookie tournament that fall, and remember being so impressed. That turned out to be just a foreshadowing of what was to come.

Following training camp, Sullivan went down to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, where he guided a team that featured players like Matt Murray, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl to an 18-5 record and first place in the Atlantic Division.

While WBS was having plenty of success, Pittsburgh was experiencing some struggles. And those struggles came to a head during their California road trip.

My schedule is usually the same as the Penguins' schedule. If they have a practice, morning skate, game or any type of off-ice event, I'm typically covering it from either home or the road. During my first few seasons, there were stretches where our amount of days in a row worked stretched into the double digits.

Fortunately, with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams are required to have at least four days off every month, which usually means one day off each week. And I have to say, sometimes you really look forward to that one day off.

That was the case on Dec. 12, 2015, which was a Sunday. That season, I was co-hosting the Penguins Live pre- and post-game shows on the team's flagship radio station, 105.9 the X, with Josh Getzoff. We had spent that previous week in the studio covering the contests in Los Angeles, Anaheim and Colorado.

With the time change, that meant some really late nights for us. And right after that, the team came back to Pittsburgh to host the Los Angeles Kings at home that Saturday. I went home following that game knowing that I had a much-anticipated day off on Sunday and would probably be able to catch up on sleep.

I should have known better.

I should have known that even though the Penguins topped the Kings in a shootout after beating the Avalanche, 4-2, general manager Jim Rutherford had been displeased with the Penguins' play ever since a 4-0 loss in New Jersey on Nov. 14. For the most part, they looked sluggish and disinterested during games, like they had lost the will to win - and a change felt imminent. That change came Dec. 12.

I was woken up by a phone call from my boss, director of content Sam Kasan, telling me that I needed to get down to PPG Paints Arena right away - Rutherford had relieved Mike Johnston of his duties and was going to be holding a press conference to announce it. I took the quickest shower of my life, threw on some clothes and drove downtown. We went into the media room, where members of the Penguins communications staff handed out press releases to the assembled media members with the header: "Mike Sullivan Named Head Coach of Pittsburgh Penguins."

Tweet from @penguins: Mike Johnston and Gary Agnew relieved of their coaching duties. Mike Sullivan named new Head Coach of the Penguins. https://t.co/1Y2HMlpCXf

At 12:52 p.m., Penguins senior director of communications Jen Bullano texted both Sam and I telling us that Sullivan would be calling around 3 p.m., that he wanted to pack up at home before he got on the road. He would be doing phone interviews with the media during the five-hour drive from Wilkes-Barre to Pittsburgh.

Between 1 and 5 p.m., we completed our coverage of Rutherford's press conference and prepared questions for Sullivan. Once we did all of that, it was time to just sit and wait. At one point, I took a nap in the chair across from Sam's desk, and then stole some candy from a coworker's desk for some much-needed energy.

But once Sullivan called, we snapped into attention, and again, we experienced his firm, articulate, passionate and intense speaking manner. We have interviewed him countless times since then. Sullivan is fantastic when it comes to dealing with the media, and during the regular season, he is available every day that the team skates (and handles countless other requests as well). During the playoffs, when the team has a day off, he will always have some sort of availability. I'm so used to the sound of his voice that when the team comes back for training camp, I joke with him about how weird it was not hearing it every day throughout the summer.

But despite the hundreds of interviews in the years since, I still remember that one like it was yesterday. I remember just being blown away by what he had to say. And I remember thinking that Rutherford couldn't have been more right - Sullivan was exactly the kind of guy who could come in and take control of the situation, mold what needs to be done going forward and what needs to be dealt with.

Tweet from @penguins: New Head Coach Mike Sullivan: "We���re going to establish an identity that���s clear. We���re going to play to that identity."

Tweet from @penguins: Sullivan: "The challenge is to take a group of great players & become a great team." STORY: https://t.co/Dl1XL6df4S pic.twitter.com/CI7b4TugdP

It's that booming, baritone voice that demands your attention and respect. He speaks in clear and concise words and hammers home his points. From just one conversation, we could tell he was the alpha male the Penguins needed to come in and get them back on track. That's exactly what he did, and what he continues to do.

This season in particular, Sullivan has done an incredible job of steering the team through an influx of injuries to key players. Despite having 173 man-games lost, the Penguins have 25 wins - which ranks fourth (tied) - and 55 points, which ranks fifth (tied). Ask any of the players why they've been able to have such success, and they'll point to their coach and his staff.

"We're well prepared," Sidney Crosby said. "You can see the way that we're playing. We're disciplined in the way we play. Everyone's on the same page. A lot of that comes from the coaching staff. It comes from the players to buy in, but I think the coaches are the ones who set the tone for that. He's definitely done a great job, especially given all the injuries."

When Sullivan first took over as coach, one of the things he told us was that it was important for him to show a certain level of resolve and resilience because that was the very thing he was asking his players to do. He wanted to be a confident, calming influence while balancing that with challenging them to get better every day and focus on the details. He has stayed true to that in the three-plus years since, and because of that, the Penguins are finding a way to persevere.

The Penguins were arguably the most successful NHL franchise over the last decade (2010-19). They made the playoffs every season while becoming the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in nearly 20 years. The team provided many memorable moments over that 10-year span. In this Decade Review series website writers Sam Kasan and Michelle Crechiolo, who have been with the team the entire time, highlight the 10 storylines and moments that stand out to them from the past 10 years.

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