Dan Bylsma feeling sense of urgency
Slowly but surely, Dan Bylsma has been building his Olympic coaching nest.
A twig here, a scrap of paper there, notes taken during the 2010 Olympics, a visit to the world championships, a summer vacation to pick the brain of former Olympic head coach Ron Wilson.
Slowly, but surely, Bylsma has gathered the materials for the Olympic hockey tournament in Sochi, Russia.
It is a challenge unlike any other in coaching, one that distills the very act of coaching to its vital essentials: 25 bodies thrown together for less than two weeks with the expectation that they will emerge as the best in the world.
Someone asked Bylsma how he felt about the tournament back in August at the Team USA orientation camp. His answer: uneasy.
"I feel uneasy because coaches don't get a team and then two days later play in an Olympic competition," Bylsma said in a recent interview in his office at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
"If you came here [to Pittsburgh] for training camp, I'd say, 'This is how we build our team, this is our practice, our habits, our details and what we do.' And it makes a difference; we are how we do these things. You build foundations."
The Olympics? Exactly the opposite.
"Now I look to that tournament, and I say, 'How can I, how can we do this? How can we build this team? How can we become a team?' And that's kind of how I look at the tournament," Bylsma said. "OK, I have three practices, then a game, then a practice, then a game, then a game, and then I've got to get ready. So that's our first week, or however many days that is."
The only way to combat that unease is with preparation.
Let's go back four years to the lead-up to the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Bylsma, the journeyman NHL forward and minor league head coach, was coming off his triumphant turn as head coach of the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the spring of 2009.
When the U.S. coaching staff for the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver was announced, Bylsma's lack of international experience put him on the outside looking in.
Disappointed? A little.
"I knew I wasn't going to be the coach in 2010, but I wanted to be a part of that team in any way. Before 2010, I was thinking about trying to be a part of that team. If it'd been the water boy, I'd have been the water boy," Bylsma said.
The thoughtful Penguins coach is an orderly sort. He is a builder of lists, a setter of goals.
And the fact he was not part of the 2010 coaching staff did nothing to diminish his long-standing goal of coaching at the Olympic level -- just as he had long ago dreamed of being an NHL coach and winning a Stanley Cup. So as the Vancouver tournament approached, he asked himself how he would be preparing if this was his team.
"A month, or maybe two months, before the Olympics, I started to ask questions of myself: 'What is [U.S. head coach] Ron Wilson and [Canadian head coach] Mike Babcock doing right now getting prepared for this? What would I be doing if in a month we were playing in Vancouver?'" Bylsma said.
When the tournament started, Bylsma continued his scouting from afar, watching mostly the Canadians and the U.S. as the teams evolved and made subtle and not-so-subtle changes.
For instance, Babcock switched starting goaltenders during the preliminary round, replacing Martin Brodeur with Roberto Luongo, just as Brodeur had replaced Curtis Joseph in 2002 at the Salt Lake City Games.
"I most certainly asked myself the question, 'How are the coaches preparing for this?' And so going into the tournament, watching the tournament, yes, I was ... you just talked about Salt Lake, how the coach pulled the goalie. Those are things you have to ask yourself. 'What would you do?'" Bylsma said.
The Penguins coach was especially curious about how the North American coaches handled their combinations on the blue line among the forwards and the matchups they tried to get against various opponents.
"For certain. For certain. The changing of the lines in a tournament. The mix and match. I really was watching Canada and the U.S. because you don't know the other teams as well. ... How would you do 20 minutes [of 4-on-4 in overtime]? I've asked the question about the shootout. What do you do with the shootout with three guys and repeat guys? Does Mike Babcock go Sidney Crosby, Sidney Crosby, Sidney Crosby, Sidney Crosby or does he ... mix it up?"
And so Bylsma made notes, and he watched and wondered what he would do if -- and when -- it was his team.
"Put it this way: I wasn't doing, wondering about what Mike Babcock and what Ron Wilson were doing in 2010 just for fun. It wasn't idle time," he said with a laugh.
Todd Richards didn't know Bylsma the first time the two spoke. Richards, then head coach of the Penguins' AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., was looking for an assistant coach, and Bylsma's name came up from then-assistant GM Chuck Fletcher.
"I had interviewed a number of potential coaches, and what struck me the moment that I talked to Dan was that he was completely different than anyone else," Richards told ESPN.com in a recent interview.
"It was how he spoke. Right away it was very clear that he possessed a passion, an intelligence in a lot of different areas."
The two worked together in Wilkes-Barre for a couple of seasons before Richards took a job as an assistant in San Jose at the start of the 2008-09 season. Bylsma would take over the head coaching job in Wilkes-Barre before being promoted in February of 2009 to the big club.
Now, the circle has come full as Bylsma has tabbed Richards to be one of his assistants in Sochi.
"I think his coaching IQ and his personality make him a good fit," for the Olympic job, Richards said. "He fits in well with a group, and he's able to lead a group really well."
A couple of years ago, after Bylsma's Penguins were knocked out of the playoffs, it was suggested to Bylsma to go to the world championships to watch some international hockey.
"I needed to do it. I needed to go over there," Bylsma said.
For more than a week, he chatted with the coaching staff on practice days and scouted both the U.S. games and games involving potential opponents.
And he took notes. Lots of notes.
What did he take away?
"In international hockey, there is distinct differences in how the game is played from country to country. In North America, we talk about systems and the coaches' system. The variance in system and the difference that means is not very great. It's very minute," Bylsma said."The difference between the Swiss team and the Slovak team is significant. The difference between the Finns and Russians is significant. There's significant differences. That's what I immediately gleaned about it," he said.
In some ways, coaching the Olympic tournament might be the biggest coaching challenge in the game.
There's no element of a rebuild, no eye to the future with young players or saving aging veterans. Just a group of nations putting their best players on the ice and having at it.
Watch, read, react with the entire world watching.
It's in the planning and the execution, explained St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, who will be part of his fourth Canadian Olympic coaching staff in Sochi.
"That challenge is very invigorating because every shift matters. Everything you say matters. Having the ability to make adjustments quickly really matters. There's no long-term plan. It's period by period, shift by shift," Hitchcock said in a recent interview.
The players are going to see things they've never seen before. "The stakes are so high," Hitchcock said. "It's kind of why you coach."
Bylsma doesn't like to use the term "surreal," but it's something he keeps coming back to since being named the head coach of the U.S. Olympic team last summer. The emotions were similar to those evoked when GM Ray Shero asked him to be the head coach of the Penguins.
A dream realized, a goal achieved.
"I've dreamed. I've worked for it, but when you get that word, there's kind of ... to me, the words 'gravity of the situation' are much more meaningful because you actually feel the moment. It's surreal. I felt it again when they announced the team. I knew the players' names that were going to be turned around there at the Winter Classic. But I watched each name get picked, and it's like, 'There's our team, one by one. There's our players,'" Bylsma said.
"I've never really represented my country in any competition, and I think there's maybe not [an] indescribable [difference], but I think there's a significant difference when you're representing something that big, and it really is an honor and a responsibility," he said.
Unlike Canada, which returned almost all of its coaching staff, USA Hockey went in a completely different direction with its coaching staff in spite of the success of the team in Vancouver. Wilson and assistants Scott Gordon and John Tortorella have given way to Bylsma, Richards, Peter Laviolette and Tony Granato.
Last summer, Bylsma took his family on a vacation to the Hilton Head, S.C., area. Well, it was only part vacation, because they went to visit Wilson.
The two played golf -- Bylsma's a pretty decent ball striker, Wilson confided -- did some boating and talked about what Wilson went through in Vancouver as well as his other international experience.
One of the main things Wilson told Bylsma was to throw out his notions of what it means to be a good NHL coach.
"I always thought I could compress everything down to the real basics. When you coach a team like that at the world championships, World Cup or the Olympics, you've got to take out all the extra crap. What don't they need to hear? You find out it actually makes you a better coach because you skipped over a lot of things and you just hit on the basic things," Wilson told ESPN.com in a rare interview.
It's important, too, to be flexible enough to make changes or put players in positions you might not have imagined you would, Wilson said.
"That's what I told him: Don't go in there with any preconceived ideas about players that you've heard from different general managers or different people who don't know the players. My example to him was we had started Paul Stastny off with Patrick Kane, and I thought, "This is going to be perfect.' From the games that I'd watched, I thought there would be chemistry. There was none -- because both guys have to have the puck. There's only one puck on the ice, so the adjustment I made was putting Ryan Kesler with Patrick Kane. ... That's what I said to Dan: 'You've got to be quick to make a change to figure out I think your chemistry, and then you've got to stick with it,'" Wilson said.
And so, the time is at hand.
The nest has been built, and it is time to see if it will carry the weight of a nation's medal expectations.
Bylsma has tried to think of every eventuality, mapped out different variations on a theme.
"Obviously, winning your pool is a good thing, but there's also a very big portion outside of just winning the games. We have to build this team, and you've got to be able to keep working to get better, keep working to build, to get ready for your fourth game," he explained.
"Three mediocre games doesn't mean you've had a bad tournament. Three really good games at the beginning doesn't mean you had a great tournament. I don't think you can get too focused on the result as it is. You've got to build."