– Back in 2003, Mike Babcock and Dan Bylsma were too busy competing in the Stanley Cup Final against the New Jersey Devils to think about the possibility of coaching against one another.
Back then, Babcock was the coach of the Anaheim Ducks and Bylsma was one of his players, a hard-working fourth liner with an insatiable appetite to learn more.
Fast forward to 2009 and Babcock is now the head coach of the Detroit Red Wings looking to win a second straight Stanley Cup. Bylsma is the opponent, the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He took over in mid-season from Michel Therrien and turned the Penguins' season around.
"Dan played for me a couple of years, and Dan was a real important part of our team," Babcock said, recalling those days in Anaheim. "We went to the Final with Anaheim."
What kind of player was Bylsma?
"He was a guy who was a heart-and-soul guy, a good teammate, a positive person," Babcock said. "And he made his teammates better. After he was done playing, he was an assistant coach on our minor-league team. We talked a number of times and he wanted the job in Grand Rapids (AHL).
"I think we've talked periodically since that time," Babcock said. "But the reason Dan's doing a good job is not because he talked to Mike Babcock or not because he played for Andy Murray or played for me, it's because he's a good person. He works hard, and he has a passion for the game. Now he's sharing that with his players."
Who also are getting a little bit of Babcock in the process.
"If (Babcock) came and watched what we did, he would see me taking stuff from him," Bylsma told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. "He would also see me taking a lot from Andy Murray. He'd see stuff from Brad Shaw. Todd Richards is also a guy I've drawn upon. Some of the words I use, I learned from Mike Babcock as a player.
"That success, the way he coached, it's something I've definitely added to what I talk about and what I try to do."
"I just think he's an intelligent guy," Babcock said. "He's a good family guy, and he's worked hard over a long period of time and maximized his potential as a player and now as a coach to get this opportunity. He gets full marks for it."
It's pretty safe to say Bylsma wasn't on the radar screens of most fans when word came down he was replacing Therrien. After all, he had been an NHL assistant coach and was in his first season as an AHL head coach. He didn't seem a likely candidate to take over a team as talented as the Pens. But General Manager Ray Shero liked what he saw.
"The thought process back in February was I didn't like the way the team was playing, and I think I'm on record on saying that," Shero said. And, you know, Michel Therrien unfortunately had to take the fall for that. And I was up here last year with Michael, so it was bittersweet for me because of the success we had. … But as a manager looking at the team, something wasn't right.
"You know, when I turned to Dan that day and called him, I told him to think about it, and he called me back in five minutes and said 'I've got no reservations. This is a great opportunity. I'm going to do it.' I think the results speak for themselves.
"He's done a fantastic job. For me, the last three months have been my most enjoyable three months as a manager, quite honestly. It's fun to come to the rink every day with this group of guys and the players. I think we share a lot of similar things away from the rink, too. So it's been fun, so I think he's done a fantastic job."
Bylsma admits that this season's journey could be the topic for another book. He already has authored four titles including two devoted to hockey, "So Your Son Wants To Play In The NHL" and "So You Want To Play In The NHL"
"Well, I couldn't have imagined that inside of 12 months that this is the situation I would find myself in," Bylsma said. "Did I have goals and aspirations and did I think it was a possibility? Was I, you know, gathering experience and working toward a day like this? I hoped I was. I thought I could be. But certainly inside of 12 months, I never would have taken that bet.
"But I think life twists and turns quickly, and it's really how we expect it. The best thing you can do is be prepared for an opportunity when the opportunity arises. And he I believe I was. And, it's not that I didn't drive from Wilkes-Barre to Long Island for that first game without some doubts or some thoughts about what I was getting myself into.
"But I'm confident that I could, you know, do what I thought I could do. And certainly the guys have been amazing in terms of how they bought in and how they want to play and how we need to play. You know, it's just a fortunate situation for me to be in this organization with this group of guys, and them now playing the way they're playing. I feel very fortunate 11 and a half months later."
Author: Phil Coffey | NHL.com Sr. Editorial Director