Lockout is no vacation for Bylsma
PITTSBURGH -- There is a stillness near the Pittsburgh Penguin locker room that speaks if not of abandonment, then of unusual disuse.
It is the quiet that permeates every NHL rink right now, places that this time of year traditionally hum with activity, with purpose.
Every once in a while, head coach Dan Bylsma will look at his watch and think, 8:45 a.m., Pascal Dupuis will be in his stall. Or 9:15 a.m., Sidney Crosby will be walking in to prepare for that night's home game.
For NHL coaches, these are the things of muscle memory.
How many times has Bylsma thought instinctively to go to Crosby, the team's captain, to get feedback after the coaching and training staff created practice schedules, and then modified them as the lockout has progressed?
Or how many times has Bylsma looked to share in some of the small things, like the minor changes that have been made in the offseason to the team's locker room.
Instead, Bylsma takes a spinning class with his wife on Tuesdays and Fridays.
He plays shinny with the Penguins coaches and staff three times a week and recently took a puck to the lip area that required a few stitches.
For the first time in years, Bylsma gets up in the morning and has breakfast with his son Bryan and sees the 13-year-old off to school before heading into the office.
He has attended most if not all of his son's practices, helping out on the ice. He recently joined the rest of the hockey moms and dads at an away hockey tournament in Erie -- another first.
The Michigan native made his way to Game 3 of the ALCS between the Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees.
He has helped out with local charities.
Stuff has gotten done around the house.
"I'm a list person. I make a list," he said. "Usually, during the hockey season, I have less of a list."
But if anyone thinks Bylsma is enjoying his forced break from the routine of coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins, uh, no.
"People have said, oh, you're on an extended vacation," Bylsma said in an interview in his office this week.
"It feels nothing like a vacation. ... I'm not good at what I'm doing now."
Bylsma is no different than any other NHL coach who prepared and planned as though the 2012-13 season would start on time.
He mapped out the entire season in terms of practice schedules and travel schedules with the Pens' team services coordinator.
Then, when the lockout began on Sept. 15, he began modifying as time passed.
Last week when the NHL produced a proposal that would have included a Nov. 2 start to the season with a limited training camp, Bylsma set out to work out the ins and outs of a shortened training camp, talking to his assistants and the team's training staff.
"But you don't even know all the rules," he noted, things like how the waivers would work and who would be able to attend camp.
"You don't know a lot of things."
Last weekend, he and assistant coaches Tony Granato and Todd Reirden traveled to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to see the baby Penguins play.
Before the trip was half over, the three had pretty much mapped out how a shortened camp would work.
And therein lies the dilemma for coaches like Bylsma: lockout tasks are often easily accomplished and when they are accomplished there is the nagging question of, OK, now what?
Each summer Bylsma gives his coaching staff a project, something they need to research and report back to the rest of the staff before the season begins.
That has been done.
"Part of me, as a coach, wants to reach out to them," Bylsma said.
But he can't; the rules of the lockout forbid contact between locked-out players and team staff.
Recently Bylsma started to log on a computer program all of his practices for the past eight years, so he can accurately track how his drills were employed and the emphasis on various parts and whether that translated to on-ice success.
Granato has gone to Ann Arbor, Mich., to check out the USA development program, where his brother Don is the coach of the U.S. Under-18 team.
The coaches have seen some OHL games to track some of the Pens' prospects that aren't in the AHL.
There have been trips to Wilkes-Barre, including a trip for the start of the AHL team's training camp, and Bylsma has seen in some form all of the Baby Pens' games (they are 0-4). Part of the reason is that they have asked head coach John Hynes to implement some of the systemic changes that Bylsma and his staff would have tried out in camp had there been a normal NHL training camp.
But there is a certain delicacy when it comes to the relationship between an NHL team's coaching staff and the coaching staff at the AHL level. Bylsma knows this. He came from Wilkes-Barre midway through the 2008-09 season to replace Michel Therrien and won a Stanley Cup a few months later.
"John Hynes is a great coach. And he's doing a great job," Bylsma said.
Eight years ago when the NHL lost an entire season to a labor dispute, Bylsma was a young coach behind the bench of the Anaheim Ducks' AHL affiliate in Cincinnati.
With the season canceled, then-Ducks head coach Mike Babcock, for whom Bylsma played for in Anaheim, was a regular visitor to Cincinnati.
Babcock would ask questions about why Bylsma had made decisions and there was a healthy give and take between the two coaches.
"It was a learning experience when Mike was there," Bylsma said.
Still, in the end, it's Hynes' team in Wilkes-Barre, and Bylsma is careful not to disrupt the routine of that coaching staff just because the NHL routine has been thrown for a loop.
At this point in the season, this locker room area should be a thrum of activity.
Players might be playing the bubble hockey game, working out in the gym or taking a hot tub or cold tub.
Instead, the lighting seems muted and there is a feeling of empty anticipation.
Instead of walking down the hall to talk to defending NHL scoring champ Evgeni Malkin, Bylsma has to look up his stats in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Now he sees Evgeni Malkin in his Magnitogorsk uniform, he reads about Matt Cooke and his family or Sidney Crosby heading off to Dallas to work out as he did this week.
"And they're not here," he said. "It's odd. It's just not right."