The Big Guy with the Big Voice
After joining the Penguins in mid-season, head coach Mike Sullivan instills the focus needed to win the Stanley Cup.
Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock
“Shut up and play.”
It’s what the Penguins learned how to do most of all under Mike Sullivan. More than anything else, it’s what Sullivan demanded from the Penguins.
The rest isn’t just details, far from it.
If the replacement coach hadn’t instilled in the floundering team he inherited a collective capability to avoid distraction and overcome challenges, however, the Stanley Cup championship the Penguins celebrated last season would not have been possible.
He did — and it was.
“Any time there’s a coaching change, it’s a difficult circumstance for everybody because it usually means that expectations haven’t been met,” Sullivan says of moving up from the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and replacing Mike Johnston behind the Pittsburgh bench on Dec. 12, 2015. “Players are proud guys. They take it personally. It’s not that an individual or the team doesn’t want to succeed. For whatever reason, it was a struggle.
“Sometimes players or teams can get overwhelmed by the circumstance. What I tried to do was just shift the focus. Let’s not dwell on the circumstance. Let’s not dwell on what everybody’s talking about, whether expectations aren’t being met or whether we’re not playing well or the power play’s struggling.
“Whatever they’re talking about, let’s try to ignore the noise and just focus on the game. Let’s come to the rink and work to get better and challenge one another. We’ll celebrate the small successes until we work our way out of this. That was our message.”
It was received as “just play” on the Penguins’ end.
“‘The moment’ was during that first meeting, and he told them they were a good team and all they had to do was just play,” Equipment Manager Dana Heinze says. “Everyone in the organization jumped on Mike Sullivan’s back.
“We had goosebumps, and we were excited about Penguins hockey again.”
That change in attitude and approach meant everything for the Penguins.
Their reputation at the time portrayed a talented team — but one that wasn’t mentally tough. One that was easily distracted. One that didn’t handle adversity well and crumbled at the first sign of trouble.
Sullivan, a former head coach of the Boston Bruins (2003-06) and an NHL assistant with Tampa Bay, the New York Rangers and Vancouver from 2007-14, knew what he had inherited.
“When I took this team over, I challenged our guys to become a more resilient group,” he says. “It was based on my experience coaching against them for a number of years.
“I felt that was an area where we could get better — so we challenged our group in that area.”
His goal upon becoming the Penguins’ head coach was to transform the players into a team that wouldn’t get distracted by chirping at officials or opponents. A team that wouldn’t collapse when confronted by injuries, bad breaks or other unforeseen misfortunes of the game.
Accomplishing that, Sullivan reasoned, would permit the talent to take over.
“We talked about dealing with the adversities and overcoming the challenges that the league presents,” he says. “It’s a hard league. Things don’t go your way out there. When they don’t go your way, what’s most important is how you react and respond to it.
photo courtesy pittsburgh penguins
“We still talk about it on a daily basis. I think a team’s ability to handle the ebb and flow of games, or seasons for that matter, is going to dictate its ability to have success.”
Such messages are delivered by Sullivan with volume. He’s a big guy with a big voice; there’s never any question as to whether or not he’s in the room.
Sullivan, 48, is a native of Marshfield, Mass., but “his parents are from ‘Southie’ [South Boston],” Penguins CEO and President David Morehouse notes.
“He’s a working-class guy,” Morehouse says.
“Both he and [General Manager Jim] Rutherford, they say what they mean. They don’t beat around the bush, they’re emotional and they don’t take any guff from anybody.
“It’s exactly what we needed.”
Sullivan’s players might not like what he’s thinking from time to time, but there’s never any question as to where he’s coming from.
“I’ve definitely heard people describe me as having a loud voice or being direct, and I am,” Sullivan acknowledges. “I don’t know how to do it any other way.
“You’re dealing with a group of players — they’re alpha males. To get them to buy into a certain identity or a certain way of playing or a philosophy as the head coach, you have to have an unwavering clarity on where you want to go with your team.”
There was no doubt whatsoever as to where Sullivan was coming from on May 7 at Washington.
The Pens were leading their second-round series with the Capitals three games to one, but they were facing adversity in Game 5.
A call hadn’t gone the Penguins’ way, and Sullivan wanted an explanation.
But the two referees wouldn’t approach the Penguins’ bench, perhaps because a group of players that included Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin, Phil Kessel and Bryan Rust wouldn’t stop letting the referees know the extent of their displeasure.
“There was a lot of yapping,” Sullivan remembered.
Television cameras captured Sullivan initially gesturing with his hands for his players to calm and to quiet down — and then moments later exploding on them in full throat.
And at that moment, “just play” was replaced by “shut up and play” as the Penguins’ unofficial motto.
“Everybody always brings that up,” Sullivan says months later, laughing heartily at the recollection of what turned out to be one of the postseason’s defining moments for Sullivan and the Penguins. “What they never add is, I asked them nicely twice to be quiet, and nobody wanted to be quiet. It’s not unlike parenting. Sometimes you have to be forceful to get your point across.
“It was more about trying to keep our players focused on the game and not to worry about the referees. I asked them nicely twice.”
The Caps ended up winning the game.
The Penguins ended up winning the Cup.
They went 33-16-5 in the regular season under Sullivan before beating the Rangers in five games, the Capitals in six, the Lightning in seven and the Sharks in six on the way to the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup championship.
They became a team that played with emotion but also with focus.
Sullivan wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love the energy our team has,” he says. “Our guys, they’re all in, they’re invested in what’s going on. When a line comes back to the bench, there’s interaction on the bench. Somebody wants the puck, they say, ‘Hey, give me the puck there.’ For me, that’s good stuff. That’s how you develop chemistry and cohesion.
“Every once in awhile it turns into a man’s argument. And that’s OK, too, as long as it doesn’t get to a certain point where it becomes a distraction. When it does, the coaches, we’ll interact.”