Dan Bylsma has never coached hockey at the international level. The Pittsburgh Penguins coach does, however, know how to win while juggling a roster dotted with superstars.
That was good enough for USA Hockey to select Bylsma as coach of the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team at the 2014 Winter Olympics on Saturday, hoping the free-flowing style he teaches translates well to the wider rinks that await in Sochi, Russia in February.
The 42-year-old Michigan native didn’t hide from the glaring hole in his resume moments after being introduced. When asked how he was going to build on his limited experience in international coaching, Bylsma quickly offered a correction.
“I don’t have any experience,” Bylsma said with a laugh. “So ‘very little’ is wrong.”
The next eight months should take care of that as the U.S. vies for its first gold medal since the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980.
The U.S. won silver in 2002 at Salt Lake City and was runner-up to Canada in Vancouver three years ago, losing 3-2 in overtime when Penguins star Sidney Crosby beat U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller 7:40 into the extra session.
Bylsma, who won the 2009 Stanley Cup with Crosby, was watching the game from a restaurant when he saw his captain take a pass from Jarome Iginla and race in on Miller to produce one of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport.
“I got off of my chair because I had a pretty good notion he was going to put that home for the win,” Bylsma said.
Bylsma’s appointment was announced before the NHL has officially decided to take a break next season to allow its players to participate.
NHL officials will meet with the players’ association, the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation in New York on Monday to iron out an agreement that would free up its players to compete in Sochi.
Once approved, Bylsma will have to find a way to slow down Crosby and 2012 NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin, who is expected to play for his native Russia.
“I’m also a little bit concerned (Crosby) knows me as a coach, my strengths and my weaknesses he’s going to bring that to the attention of the Canadian team,” Bylsma said.
Nashville Predators general manager David Poile, who will serve in the same capacity for Sochi, called Bylsma “one of the very best coaches in the league.”
Bylsma played nine years as a defensive-minded forward for the Los Angeles and Anaheim from 1995-2004 before moving into coaching. He replaced Michel Therrien as Penguins’ coach in February 2009 and guided Pittsburgh to the third championship in franchise history.
He won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL Coach of the Year in 2011 and helped the Penguins post the best record in the Eastern Conference during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Pittsburgh advanced to the conference finals before being swept by the Boston Bruins. The Penguins rewarded Bylsma with a two-year contract extension through 2017 a week after their season ended.
The process of building the Olympic team will begin with an orientation camp in Washington D.C. in late August.
Poile expects the core of the team that won silver in Vancouver to return but allowed changes need to be made. The U.S. has historically struggled in Olympic competition overseas. The last time the U.S. team medaled at an Olympics outside of North America came in 1972 when it won silver in Sapporo, Japan and hasn’t medaled at an Olympics in Europe since 1956.
“We can’t be the same type of team because we haven’t had success over there,” Poile said.
Bylsma’s system should help. The Penguins are regularly among the highest scoring teams in the NHL thanks in part to a talented core and a style of play that focuses on puck control and pressure. It’s made Pittsburgh one of the most feared teams in the league. Now Bylsma hopes to do the same in the Olympics.
“We have one goal in Sochi,” Bylsma said, “and that’s to go over there and win gold.”