This morning, Mike Sullivan was preparing a video meeting for his Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins heading into their game tonight against Albany when he got a call from general manager Jim Rutherford – who informed him he had been named head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
And while Sullivan acknowledged he’s feeling a lot of emotions, the biggest one is excitement.
“I’m certainly excited for this opportunity,” Sullivan said. “We all aspire to be at the highest level; that’s why we do what we do. I feel as though with all the experiences that I’ve been through over the last 12-13 years as a coach, both as a head coach and as an assistant coach at the American League level and the National League level, have prepared me for this type of an opportunity. I feel more prepared now than ever.”
He’s certainly worked hard over the years to be ready for this opportunity.
After retiring from the NHL upon completing an 11-year career – where he played over 700 games as a center who specialized in killing penalties – 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 age 35 and remained in the position for two seasons.
As Sullivan put it, he “fast tracked” – and at that point, he realized he still had a lot of growing 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 in Tampa Bay, NY Rangers and Vancouver.
After the Canucks let them go following the 2013-14 season, Sullivan joined the Blackhawks organization as a member of their player development staff before being named head coach of WBS this summer – where he led them to an 18-5 record and first place in the Atlantic Division, setting a franchise record 11-game win streak along the way.
All of those experiences behind the bench taught Sullivan, 47, that learning how to communicate with his athletes and inspire them is the most important part of coaching – as well as its biggest challenge.
“I think when you have the opportunity to interact with top players, for me, those are the learning experiences that you go through that serve you well when the next opportunities present themselves,” he said. “I certainly have been through a fair amount of experiences as both a head coach and an assistant coach. Some of them have been successes, some of them have been failures and I think you learn from both. I hope to be able to bring those experiences with me to this opportunity to try to help this team move in the right direction.”
To do that, Sullivan said for him, the most crucial aspect is to make sure they coach that mindset right away – starting at Sunday’s practice before their game against Washington on Monday.
“I think that’s where I can have the most immediate impact,” Sullivan said. “That’s what I’m going to try to do. They have a sound fundamental structure in place. Will there be some differences? Yes, there will. I think every coach has their beliefs or their convictions that might be a little bit different from the prior coach. But certainly, the most important aspect for me is to try to instill a certain mindset that’s going to inspire these guys to be at their best.
“We’re going to establish an identity that’s clear. We’re going to try to play to that identity. We’re going to try to have an unwavering focus so that we don’t get distracted. And we’re going to try to play that way each and every night. It’ll be my job to try to inspire these guys to get that out of them and then to hold them accountable to that identity.”
Identity is a key part of his coaching style and philosophy, as Sullivan said the one thing that has never changed over the years is always staying true to himself.
“I believe in being honest and fair with people,” he said. “I believe in treating people with respect. I believe in treating people fairly. But I also believe in pushing athletes to be at their best and challenging them to be at their best. The only way they’re going to maximize their potentialities is to be challenged. That’s my responsibility. In the absence of that, I don’t think we can reach our potential. For me, that’s my personality, that’s who I am and that’s what I will be.”
Sullivan certainly has a big task ahead of him. He’ll be tasked with getting this underachieving Penguins team to reach their potential. But he knows the Penguins have the talent to do just that.
“I coached against those guys (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) for a lot of years when I was in New York,” Sullivan said. “I have a ton of respect for their ability level, their accomplishments. I know how good they can be, having coached against them for a lot of years. To have the ability to work with them, I can’t tell you how excited I am. I’ve been associated with a lot of great players and I think the challenge is to take a group of great players and become a great team. That’s going to be our challenge.”