After retiring from the NHL upon completing an 11-year career, Mike Sullivan immediately transitioned behind the bench – becoming the head coach of the Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League for the 2002-03 seasons.
He was incredibly successful there, compiling a record of 41-17-9-4 (.669 pct.) in 71 games before getting promoted to Boston later that season as an assistant. Sullivan then became head coach the following year at just age 35 and remained in the position for two seasons.
“I was coaching guys that I had played with in Boston, like Joe Thornton, Hal Gill, Sergei Samsonov and P.J. Axelsson,” Sullivan said. “To be their head coach was an interesting experience. It was a great learning experience from my standpoint because I went through the lockout when I was coaching there. We essentially had two completely different teams the year before the lockout and the year after, and having to go through that process was just a tremendous learning experience for a young coach.”
After going through all of that so early in his coaching career, Sullivan realized he still had a lot of growing and developing to do. So he decided to take a step back and join John Tortorella’s staff as an assistant, and they remained together for the next seven years.
“One of the reasons that I did that was because I had aspirations to be a head coach again," Sullivan, 47, said. " I thought it was an important step for me to work beside someone that’s had success, that’s been a head coach for a long time, has won championships at different levels and learn from how he goes about his business from a preparation standpoint, organizational skills, attention to detail, all of those things.
“So that was really my motivation to join John Tortorella initially. And I told him that when I went to him. I said to him, ‘My hope is that I’ll bring everything I can to help you be successful and I hope to learn from you in hopes that I get an opportunity down the road here to be a head coach again.’ So that was really how my relationship started with John Tortorella as his assistant, and it’s just amazing how one season rolls into the next.”
After the Vancouver Canucks let them go following the 2013-14 season, Sullivan joined the Chicago Blackhawks organization as a member of their player development staff. It was an energizing year for Sullivan for a number of reasons, but there was one that particularly stood out.
"I got a chance to take a step back and soul search and reflect a little bit on my own personal career and where it’s gone and where I intend to go,” he said. “And my gut was telling me you know what, I need to be a head coach again.”
Now Sullivan has gotten that chance, as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins named him head coach on Thursday.
“When Pittsburgh reached out to me I was excited,” Sullivan said. “I think Wilkes-Barre is one of the more sought-after positions in the American League for a lot of reasons. But most importantly, I think it’s because the Pittsburgh Penguins organization values their minor-league team and the importance of that team in the development process. So they put their resources behind it. They understand the importance of creating a winning environment down there and giving their players an opportunity to develop in a winning environment and I agree with that philosophy. So when they reached out to me I was excited about the opportunity.”
Sullivan can’t wait to take everything he’s learned from his last 13 years of coaching and apply it to this new challenge.
“I feel like I’m a way better coach today than I’ve ever been because of my experiences over the last six, seven, eight, nine years as both a head coach and an assistant coach and just going through some of the trials and tribulations that the NHL presents a coaching staff on a daily basis,” Sullivan said.
But while he has learned and experienced a lot over the years, Sullivan’s personal philosophy is the same as it was back when he was hired by Boston for his first-ever coaching gig over 10 years ago.
“I think my philosophy and my style of coaching will be the same that it was when I was a head coach with the Providence Bruins because I think it’s important as a coach that you be true to yourself,” he said. “I think it’s very difficult to be someone that you’re not, and I think players see right through you. For me, it’s about being real. I think it’s about being true to yourself and putting your personality on, influencing the team that you’re leading. I think that will resonate with players. It certainly has based on my experience over the years."
In terms of the X’s and O’s of the game – particularly the systems, drills and vocabulary that Pittsburgh uses – Sullivan plans on taking direction from Penguins head coach Mike Johnston and doing whatever is necessary to make the transition from the AHL to the NHL as smooth as possible. The two of them will have many conversations between now and training camp on just how they’ll accomplish that.
“It’s important for me to be a cog in the wheel, so to speak,” Sullivan said. “So I think the communication between myself and Mike Johnston is critically important to the development process.”
Sullivan can’t wait to get started and bring his wealth of experience
“One of the things that I really enjoyed this year (with Chicago's prospects) was my interaction with the players, the 1-on-1 time when I’d take them for a cup of coffee and we’d talk hockey or we’d talk about their games and I’d share my observations or my insight,” Sullivan said. “I would put together little video clips of NHL guys, where I thought they might want to improve an aspect of their game. I think for me, the most fulfilling part of being a coach is helping players grow as both people and players. And this year was just a great reminder of that for me and the exciting part about working with young players is that they look to you and they look up to you as far as how you can help them. They’re so accepting of your observations and your insights. That’s rewarding for a coach.
“I had that great experience this year working with a bunch of the players in the Blackhawks organization that were in their pipeline, and so to have the opportunity to coach Wilkes-Barre and to be on the ice with these guys on a daily basis and to have an opportunity to interact with them and help them along is really exciting for me, and I’m thrilled for the opportunity.”