Skip to main content
The Official Site of the Pittsburgh Penguins

Exclusive One-On-One with Dan Bylsma

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
On Wednesday, the Penguins signed head coach Dan Bylsma to a three-year contract extension. Before meeting with the media, Bylsma sat down for an exclusive one-on-one interview for Here is what the coach had to say about his contract, his two years in Pittsburgh, what he's learned on the job, and much more.

How does it feel to sign a three-year extension? And what kind of statement is that from the team about wanting you to be a part of their future plans?

As a coach, getting that kind of security and having that statement from the organization about the job that we’ve done as coaches means a lot. It’s a big boost. The humility of getting an opportunity with this team and this organization and the confidence that Ray Shero has in me, the ownership group here with Mario and Ron (Burkle), I can’t imagine there being a better situation from the owners. The confidence they have in Ray to do his job, and the coaching staff. It’s a unique opportunity. I feel extremely humble to have gotten it. It means a ton to continue on and have the confidence moving into the future with this team.

What was it that made you want to get into coaching? Did you know during your playing career that was the route you wanted to take?

I played for 12 years. I knew six years into my career that I wanted to coach. There was an opportunity and need there for a certain kind of coach. I felt like, when as a player you do certain things and are coached a certain way, you say, ‘that coach does it really well.” Then there’s a situation where if only the coach understood what the players want or the players need. For six years I charted that for myself. I have journals, books, drills that I’ve amassed on what I would do in certain situations, this would work, this didn’t work, I would never do that, etc. I felt that there could be a certain type of coach or a need for a certain quality of coach in the National Hockey League. I wanted to play forever, but at some point you can’t do that anymore. I knew I was going to go into coaching. By the time I got there, I had a pretty good understanding of what I liked, what I didn’t like, how I wanted to act, drills, situations. You do a lot of learning when you start to coach. I had a pretty good I idea when I (retired) that I was going to jump right into (coaching).

How much did that preparation help prepare you for that first coaching job and down the road?

I made a point when I went for my first interview of showing them that I had already done work. Not only that I’m saying I can coach, but I had work, already prepared things, already thought of different situations, what I would do with the team, team atmosphere, organization. I had already prepared so that I could say I have a strong work ethic, but I’m also going to do work, here’s the work I’ve already done. When I went for the interview, looking back and having interviewed a lot of people, I went to the interview with a lot more work than other people have. A lot of that was over the course of six or seven years, preparing in the offseason, doing different things to get ready for that.

Do you remember when Shero called you to bring you up as “interim” coach to Pittsburgh? What was that conversation like? And what were you thinking at the time?

I remember it well. I was sitting in the training room after a morning skate. We have a 5 o’clock game so it was just a few guys. I was sitting with the trainer and Todd Reirden and one or two players. I got a phone call from Ray Shero. At that point and time, with Chuck Fletcher being the GM of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, I had exclusively talked to Chuck. I got a call from Ray, it was my second call from him that year. It was a situation where you instinctively know something is happening. You can’t pinpoint it, but it was a pit of the stomach feeling. I remember showing the phone to Todd Reirden. We looked at each other. I walked out of the room and Shero said, "I’m going to call you back in your office in a few minutes. Make sure you’re there." He may have said five minutes, or 10 minutes, or two, but it felt like an hour. You instinctively know something is going on. It was an interesting phone call in my office. He asked me if I wanted the opportunity to coach the Penguins. There were a lot of things going on in the conversation. I remember a piece of advice given to a different person – you don’t get opportunities like this a second time. They don’t come around often. I still feel that way today. To be able to coach the Pittsburgh Penguins, this organization, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, these players, you can fight your whole life and be one of the best coaches in the world and not get an opportunity like this. I still feel that today. I’m reminded of that today.

What happened during your first meeting with the players? Did you plan on what you wanted to say? Or go spontaneous?

I plan my talks, but I don’t write them out. I had given this talk in some form or another a good 20 times in my life, whether I’m fishing by myself or driving in the car for six hours, I’ve given a talk like this. I certainly had a lot of time to think about it on my drive from Wilkes-Barre to Long Island. A lot of things were going through my mind on that ride. It was emotional. I wanted to make a statement that we were going to make a change in our attitude and the way we play, the way we’re perceived.

Is your system a conglomeration of other systems you’ve played under or coached with? Did you take various elements from other coaches and adapt them to your style?

It’s not some idea I kept in a dark room and brought out when I finally got a chance to be a head coach. I learned a lot from the coaches that I paid attention to at the end of my career. There were some great things. There were some things that I thought weren’t very good. Mike Babcock did the best job of building a clear foundation for the team in that this is what we do and this is what we depend upon. That’s something I really hadn’t seen before, a coach developing that in his team so that when you talk about these things there was a clear understanding of what that meant. Andy Murray was a very detailed-oriented coach, a hard-working coach that set an example. I learned a lot from him. When you get to be a coach, the learning curve is drastic. You have to be getting better in so many areas so quickly that you probably don’t realize how steep the curve is until now. You look back and see a lot was going on. You were doing different things, dealing with different circumstances, dealing with the players, authority figures, assistant coaches, being in front of the room, conveying your message, improving players. There are so many things that are going on, especially at the American League level where there are only two coaches. As I continued on in coaching, I had a great mentor in Brad Shaw in Cincinnati. He was with me again in Long Island. Going to Wilkes-Barre with Todd Richards, that’s where you finally started to see painting a picture, an identity of how you want to play, having it be clear and then instilling the habits and the system that achieves that. Not just talking, not saying random words, not having different pictures in different people’s minds, but having this identity of how you want to play and how you want to be, and implementing it into your practice, building those habits into your game, build in a belief in who we are, how we play and how we do it, and take pride in that. You build habits in people’s games and set them on the course individually, getting better at what they need to get better. The career management of each player and developing that too, it is a culmination of how I coach and all the other coaches in those situations. I’ve been fortunate to develop under a number of different people that have been a big part of me.

How important have your assistant coaches been in your career? And what have you learned from them?

Todd Reirden, Tony (Granato), Mike Yeo, Tom Fitzgerald, Gilles Meloche, they have been a big part over the years. The work ethic and ingenuity that they’ve shown has been a big part and helpful. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.

What are some of the things your learned once you became a coach? How different is the American League level different from the NHL?

The more that I realize it’s not any different, the better coach I am. It’s tough not to look at Evgeni Malkin and think he’s different than Tyler Spurgeon. If Tyler Spurgeon walked in here no one would even blink. If Evgeni Malkin walks in it’s different. The thing that I was really pleased about, and found interesting in my first year, was that you don’t have to change. That was a big thing that I’ve learned. The other thing, the best thing for me is reminding myself that no matter how many people are in our organization, we are all doing the same thing. We do different things. Some people put on skates and play. Some people scout. I don’t sit above everybody. I’m the coach. I feel like the other guys are right in there with us. Tom Fitzgerald and Dan MacKinnon, Ron Burkle, our trainers, we’re all on the same field together pushing for the same goals.

How important is the relationship with the players? And how do you view the coach-player relationship?

The way it feels for me is that I’m a parent. I set the parameters. We have goals. There are things we want to achieve. The players get to come together as a team and go out there and play. The individuals are challenged. This is what they love to do. It doesn’t mean I can’t play a game of Monopoly with them. I can still be involved, but I don’t go into the basement and play with their friends. I’m not a player and I don’t want to be a player. I don’t want a relationship that I had with my teammates as a player. I want to make sure they’re challenged. I want to make sure they have a clear understanding of what they’re doing. I want to provide an environment and atmosphere that this is a challenging and fun place, but one that we get after. I don’t like being viewed as a “player’s coach,” because I think that is viewed as being a kid’s dad. With my son, when I say it’s time to go to be then he knows it’s time to go to bed. If I say let’s stay up 15 minutes longer, I can do that too. I love the aspect of challenging players to be better and get better. I love the fact that our team is pushing for something and asking something unique from our players. We take great pride in that as a group. That’s my goal as a coach. I have a lot of pride when I see our players doing those things and playing well in their careers.

What does the future hold for you? What are your goals for the next few years?

I think it is important to win as a coach. To have won a championship and to win games is an important part. But it really has nothing to do with my goals. I don’t have goals for winning. I like winning. A 50-win season is a benchmark. But my goals are really providing an environment for the guys and the team to really be challenged, to work towards their potential, to have that environment where we can do something special. That’s where my goals lay. I have odd goals. I got invited back to the Mario Lemieux Golf Tournament. That’s a check off every year as a goal. Now I guess I’m working toward another contract, I guess, I don’t know.

Photos: Getty Images
View More