DETROIT -- With the Pittsburgh Penguins four points out of a playoff spot in early February, general manager Ray Shero made a coaching change hoping to shake things up. He promoted Grand Haven, Mich., native Dan Bylsma, who was the head coach for the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, to interim head coach on February 15.
The interim tag was later removed from Bylsma title by April 28 after he coached the team to an 18-3-4 record in his first 25 games.
Pittsburgh forward Jordan Staal cites a new atmosphere at the rink for a change in the team’s dynamics.
“Well I think the big thing is that he’s made coming to the rink fun,” Staal said. “He’s made every player excited to go out and play for him and work hard – I think it’s a great thing that he won’t accept anything less than 100 percent. All of those things combined have really helped our players come together as a group.”
Shero shares the same sentiments as Staal regarding the impact Bylsma has made on the team in the short time he has been there.
“He's done a fantastic job,” Shero said. “He's made this, 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.”
Even in high school, Bylsma had a calming influence on his team when he attended Western Michigan Christian in Muskegon from 1985-89. During his freshman year, he was an individual medalist in the Class D state golf tournament, and won a state title with the baseball team as their starting left fielder. Oh, and he played hockey, too, for the Whalers AAA team as a ninth-grader.
In his only golf season for the Warriors, Bylsma started a game where the team would do a chipping or putting competition before and after the match to see who could get closest to the hole from weird angles.
“It really helped loosen up the team,” former Christian golf coach Cornie VanTol said.
Bylsma joined the varsity baseball team as a freshman and didn’t see much playing time early on. He took the initiative to talk to assistant coach Sam DeBoer about wanting to play and asked what he could do to get more time. DeBoer went to head coach Joe Hicks and asked for him to give Bylsma a chance.
“I talked with him and we let him get in the game,” DeBoer said. “I’m not exactly sure but I know he went out and either got a hit and put his head in the game and that was the last time he sat on the bench.”
He had an unusual four years in high school. After his freshman year, Bylsma spent half of the school year playing junior "B" hockey in Canada for the St. Mary's Lincolns of the Ontario Hockey Association.
He returned each spring to Grand Haven where he finished the school year at Christian and played baseball for the Warriors.
“Back in the day, everyone knew Dan Bylsma and knew he would be special,” said Jim Goorman, a physical education and sociology teacher at Christian.
His former baseball coach remembers Bylsma, or Goober as his family calls him, seeing his name on the big scoreboard at Tiger Stadium and then hitting a ball 324 feet, just short of knocking in a home run in the left field down the line, during the state high school all-star game honoring the top seniors.
Bylsma spent four years at Bowling Green University where he was known for his hockey as well as his grades – he was planning for a career as an accountant. Upon graduation, he made his way onto a team in the ECHL and later moved up to the American Hockey League playing for the Winnipeg Jets’ affiliate after they had drafted him. He finally made his NHL debut in 1995-96 with the Los Angeles Kings, but never consistently played until the following season.
Over the next few years, Bylsma bounced back and forth between the NHL, AHL and IHL. After he played another full season with the Kings in 1999-00, he signed a contract with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and was named assistant captain. He retired following the 2003-04 season and moved into coaching.
While his former coaches never predicted that Bylsma would become an NHL coach because of his desire back then to play in the NHL, none of them are surprised that he is one today.
“He was a coach’s dream on the field. He was always very positive, always under control, just a great student in school and he did very well on his subjects,” Goorman said. “He was kind of a coach on the field. Just in terms of encouraging, he would build up all the other kids. He had a demeanor about him that just commanded respect.”
Another characteristic frequently mentioned by his former coaches was Bylsma’s ability to listen.
“He always listened well and he worked hard and he was a kid that didn’t get rattled,” former Whalers AAA head coach Gordy Laxton said. “His composure was always there.”
Fans in west Michigan cheer for the Red Wings each spring as they make their postseason run. This year, Bylsma’s appearance in the Stanley Cup finals as the head coach for the opposing squad has thrown a wrench into a few Grand Haven hockey fans cheering plans.
“A lot of my brother's co-workers in west Michigan are cheering for, interested in and cheering for the Penguins up to this point,” Bylsma said. “And I would say a majority of them are now reverting back to their old colors and flying the flags from the cars as we see around the state. But there are a handful that think that friendship ties and family ties are stronger and will be cheering for the Pens. It makes for an interesting story.”
It’s not just Bylsma’s family and friends who are considering switching allegiances this postseason. Students at his old high school have also become quite supportive.
“Once the kids have now learned that this guy here was a product of Western Michigan Christian, it’s a big deal,” Goorman said. “We got a lot of hockey enthusiasts over here and most of them are Red Wings’ fans, obviously now when it comes to Dan Bylsma, I’ve got a little mixture of opinion about who to root for. The kids today are just proud that this kid, Dan Bylsma, went to their school and now he’s filled up about every level playing and coaching in hockey and now he’s big time.”
Even Bylsma grew up a Red Wings’ fan, but as he points out, “It's been a long time since I've cheered for the Red Wings,” he said. “It's been through college and then into pro hockey, you cut those ties quickly and learn to fly other colors.”
For Bylsma’s former assistant baseball coach, there’s no question where his allegiance lies this year even as a lifelong Wings’ fan.
“In my heart, boy I hate to go away from the Red Wings,” DeBoer said. “I guess it’s not a question of which team. It’s a question of which memory. When I look at the headlines and it talks about the two teams getting together, I don’t think of it as a game between two teams. It’s about a kid I love and really want to see go forward. I guess I’m rooting for Dan Bylsma.”