Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In Shero and Bylsma, two of a mind

By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, 7:18 p.m.
SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 10: Head coach of Team USA Dan Bylsma conducts practice on day three of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Arena on February 10, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

SOCHI, Russia — Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma were pretty much expressionless as they stepped up to the bright, blue dais in the Olympic media center's grand Pushkin Hall, comparative dots on the landscape amid the hundreds of global reporters. It was, in essence, the pinnacle of each man's profession, being entrusted with the national hockey program and faced in that moment with the scope of it all, but still no sign of emotion.

Or wait …

“More than anything,” Shero would offer once it was done, “I looked over to my left at Dan and thought, man, I'm happy for him. He deserves this.”

Funny, but here's what Bylsma would offer: “I looked over to my right at Ray and …”

He hesitated, visibly a bit emotional.

“I'm … comfortable with that. I'm comfortable.”

That's the management team you have, Pittsburgh. That's the duo that's built the Penguins into one of the NHL's perennially strongest — albeit disappointing in the playoffs — and most respected franchises. The GM and the coach work together, trust each other, discuss their problems, disagree without venom, and, for the most part, they win.

Imagine that, in a league where coaches get dumped for a six-game slump.

Shero isn't Team USA's GM, of course. He's officially acting GM in the absence of David Poile, who was struck in the face by a puck last week at a practice with his Nashville team. Shero will miss Poile here. Poile's a good friend, a mentor, the man who gave Shero his big chance in a front office. When Shero said Tuesday, “This is David's team,” he meant it.

That's because Poile is his role model in more ways than one. Poile's been the Predators' only GM since their inception in 1998, and Barry Trotz has been their only coach. It's a pairing unlike any in pro sports these days.

That's Shero and Bylsma.

We might not always like their moveson or off the ice — I'm certainly no exception — but there's an authenticity that emanates from what they do because of their relationship.

“It's certainly not something you see much in sports anymore,” Shero said. “I just think we're comfortable with each other.”

That word again.

Maybe it's the right one, too. Maybe it explains best not only their relationship in Pittsburgh but also the formation of this national team that's about to take the ice Thursday against Slovakia.


When Team USA's eight-member GM committee was meeting about a coach last summer, Shero wasn't about to interfere.

“When the topic of Dan came up, I just stayed quiet,” he recalled. “He's my coach, so they already knew what I thought of him.”

He didn't recuse himself from the eventual vote, but Bylsma won out by enough of a margin that “my vote didn't make the difference,” Shero said.

Bylsma won, per Shero, because the GM committee wanted Team USA to have a brand, an identity well before flying to Sochi. No, before even being selected. They wanted the speed and skill of the silver-medal group in Vancouver as well as the brilliant goaltending that was supplied by Ryan Miller. But they wanted something more.

When I asked Bylsma on Tuesday what he saw as this team's identity going into these Games, he gave one of his classic ponder-the-question pauses before this: “With the bigger ice surface, we knew we'd need to be an intelligent team, but we felt we had that, anyway. What we needed …”

Another pause, but a telling one. What he's about to say here, if you cut right through it, is that the Americans needed a bunch of jerks. Or at least guys capable of being jerks on the ice.

“We know we're going to be playing against the best players in the world,” Bylsma continued. “We know other teams are going to come at us with a lot of skill. We wanted our team to be the toughest team to play against.”

Right. Jerks. Like Dustin Brown, David Backes, Ryan Kesler. Those are Grade-A, Ken-The-Rat-Linseman, Jarkko-Ruutu, Matt-Cooke caliber jerks. And they can play.

“You look up and down our roster, and they're tough guys to play against, guys that match up against your best,” Bylsma kept going. “That's what you see on our team. It's a blue-collar mentality. That's where we think our strength is.”

Not surprisingly, Shero was on the same page. And to make sure everyone else was, too, he addressed the U.S. players in the locker room Monday.

“Let's be honest,” Shero remembered telling them. “When the roster was announced in January, there was a lot about good players who weren't selected. Well, damn right there were good players not selected.”

That's a clear reference to the controversy over omitting Bobby Ryan and Keith Yandle. Both are known for scoring, not for being jerks.

“I told our guys all 25 players here were selected for a reason,” Shero said.

The mutual trust between Poile and Shero and, by extension, Bylsma allowed Shero to be the intermediary. He would seek Bylsma's input throughout the roster process, but he also would handle the headaches.

In the end …

“Ray and Dan and all those guys got exactly the team they wanted,” defenseman Ryan Suter told me. “That's the reason we're not worried too much about a system. They had something specific they wanted from every piece in the puzzle, and they've put us in those slots. Now it's up to us.”

To be jerks?

“Ha! We've got some tough guys, man. I know I wouldn't want to play against us.”


So Shero's the boss. All due respect to Poile, but Shero's on site. He'll make not only any remaining roster calls but also oversee operations, handle issues with officiating and the like. He also won't be timid about meeting with his coaches, even challenging them. That's part of the relationship.

Bylsma's the boss, too. He's rolled out his lines and pairings, and although he's being coy about goaltending, it's becoming obvious he'll open with Miller, then ride him as long as he can.

Some come to an Olympics and talk about pride and patriotism. With these two, you get the sense they're holding back.

“It's one of the honors and highlights of my career to be head coach of the United States of America,” Bylsma said, enunciating each of those nine syllables. “I'm so happy to be here.”

“Proud and honored,” Shero said. “More than anything, again, I'm happy for Dan.”

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