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TRANSITION GAME

03/20/2005 6:42 AM - Dan Bylsma is making the move from player to coach look a lot easier than it should be

Story and photo by Mark Newman

On the ice, Grand Haven native Dan Bylsma was a player whose effort often exceeded his talent, a blue collar guy who came to work every night as though his job depended upon giving every ounce he had.

Now that he’s behind the bench – this is his first season as an assistant coach for the AHL’s Cincinnati Mighty Ducks – Bylsma is no less energetic.

He jumps as he exhorts his penalty killers to execute, twists as he tries to will a defenseman out of trouble, bounces off the glass as he watches the puck find its way past his goaltender.

Being that these are Mighty Ducks, you could say Bylsma is animated.

Some coaches look like cigar store Indians, wooden-like figures standing motionless with their arms folded. But Bylsma never stands still, wholeheartedly throwing himself into coaching with the same aplomb he exhibited as a player.

Wooden? How about John Wooden?

“John Wooden said that once the game started, his coaching was done,”
Bylsma says. “I’d love to get to the point where I feel that way, but right now I still feel emotionally tied to the players.

“I don’t want to be out there, but I feel like I’m with them on the ice, watching them, seeing if they apply what we’ve talked about in practice or what we’ve shown them on video. I’m in that moment with them.”

And so Bylsma points, shouts, cajoles, pleads – basically, everything possible to help his players succeed.

“People see the coach as the professional guy on the bench – the man in the suit and tie – but why should I stand there stoically?” he asks. “Hockey is not a stoic game – it’s an emotional game.

“Sure, it’s a job and we’re all graded on our performance, but it’s still a game, something you put your heart and soul into. When our team does well, I’m excited. When our team does poorly, I want to rectify it.

“There are times I want to energize the team and other times I want to settle them down. I’m animated because I want to have fun. I want to feel the emotions.”

Bylsma retired after the 2003-04 season, satisfied that he had enjoyed a full career. He played his entire NHL career in sunny southern California, splitting his time almost evenly between the Los Angeles Kings and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

“Twelve years is a long time for anybody and I feel comfortable being able to say that I gave everything I had,” Bylsma says. “While emotionally I would liked to have been able to play hockey forever, I knew it was time to do something else.”

His heart was still in the game, but bad knees hastened his decision to leave the ice. “I had played the majority of the last two years in pain, so I knew the end was coming,” he says.

Coaching, it seems, was something he had thought a long time about doing. In fact, he started compiling a notebook several years ago. “For a long time, I’ve been keeping a log of what I liked and what I didn’t like,” he says.

When Bylsma decided to retire, he talked to as many hockey people as he could – not only to network, but to gain further insight into the direction he was about to take. “Basically I was talking to anyone who would listen to me,” he says.

Although he interviewed for a coaching position at a Minnesota prep school, Bylsma felt his future rested in professional hockey. “I like the pro fit and it’s the game that I know best,” he says.

Running a hockey camp for the past decade helped prepare Bylsma for the teaching responsibilities of the job, but he’s learned there are many other roles, from motivator to strategist.

“You could work 24/7 as a coach and never feel like you’re done,”
Bylsma says. “When you’re a coach, the season goes 10 times as fast. There’s always a player to be concerned about, an aspect to consider. As a result, the days fly by.”

If anything has surprised Bylsma about the job, it’s the relative insignificance of wins and losses, at least in the context of player development.

“As a player, everything generally rides on the wins and losses,” he says. “As a coach, you find satisfaction in different ways – when a player turns a corner and starts to apply the lessons he’s learned, when a team plays the way you’ve come to expect them to play.

“It’s the little victories that matter.”

He’s also learned the virtue of patience. “Hockey is a game of mistakes and
it’s difficult for anyone, let alone young kids who are new to the program and who are trying to make sense of what you’re asking them to do,” he says.

Although the Mighty Ducks struggled early in the season, Cincinnati’s fortunes improved after the return of Casey Hankinson, younger brother of Ben Hankinson (who played for the Griffins’ during their inaugural season), and Chris Kunitz, former Ferris State star.

As a commodity treasured by coaches, the value of veteran leadership should not be underestimated, Bylsma contends.

“It’s great to hear stuff from your coaches, but it’s even better when you see a veteran do what the coaches ask,” he says. “That’s an invaluable tool that you simply can’t measure.”

Bylsma is thankful for the opportunities that Cincinnati head coach Brad Shaw has given him this season. “Brad has given me the chance to experience virtually everything from a coach’s perspective.

"He’s clearly the man when it comes to making a decision, but we talk a lot and that interaction is really important for me. I feel like I’m just starting down the road of coaching, at least in terms of experience.”

It’s no wonder then that Bylsma can hardly stand still. “I’m as excited about coaching as I was about being a player 12 years ago,” he says. “This is my second career. This is what I want to do.”

Bylsma continues to get advice from his father, Jay, with whom he has written several youth-oriented books, including “So Your Son Wants to Play in the NHL,” “Pitcher’s Hands Is Out” and “Slam Dunks Not Allowed.”

“We talk less about coaching than we did about playing, maybe because I’m busier and he’s been running a sewing company in Sparta,” he says. “But we’re still planning on doing more books in the future.”

He admits that he had no idea that their joint endeavor would make such a difference.

“We wrote the books because we saw parents were having a difficult time fitting amateur sports into their lives,” he says. “But I know for sure that we didn’t expect to receive what we’ve gotten in return.

"It’s amazing what the books have brought about for my dad and me. We’ve talked all over the continent. We’ve interacted with friends and families all over the world. It’s been a great experience.

“I’ve received as much satisfaction out of writing the books as I got from playing.”

While more books are planned, Bylsma says none are in the process. And yet it’s not difficult to imagine a book on coaching. That’s one subject on which he hopes someday to be an expert.


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