Mike Sullivan and Rick Tocchet. (Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review)
In a career-long quest for professional development not often seen in jock culture, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has devoted considerable academic study to the biology of how hockey players learn.
He has read books, attended conferences chaired by renowned psychologists and neurologists, and given talks on his findings.
One particular conclusion he reached has practical applications in his current job, especially as he prepares to lead the Penguins into a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series this week: Learning requires struggle.
“Struggle is not an option,” he said. “It's a biological requirement.”
The Penguins struggled, all right. But under Sullivan, they seemingly have learned how to win.
He could be the ace up their sleeve for a possible two-month playoff run that is a test of focus and pain tolerance as much as it is a game of adjustments and counter adjustments.
Trudging through a joyless slog under mild-mannered coach Mike Johnston, the Penguins got off to a 15-10-3 start. They were in fifth place in the Eastern Conference's Metropolitan Division.
A team with some of the most dynamic performers in hockey had scored the fourth-fewest goals in the NHL.
On Dec. 12, Johnston was fired and Sullivan was promoted from the team's minor league affiliate in Wilkes- Barre/Scranton to replace him.
The Penguins now are 33-15-5. They're the NHL's hottest team — winning 14 of their last 15 games — and are the darlings of the hockey analytics community and Las Vegas bookmakers.
“Struggle is an important aspect of it,” Sullivan said.
For an athlete to learn a new motor skill, he said, a new neurological pathway is required in the brain. A fatty substance called myelin insulates the pathways.
As the athlete practices, the brain produces more myelin. Eventually, the pathway is fully insulated and the athlete has learned the skill.
“The brain fires until it wires,” Sullivan said. “We fire. We make mistakes. We attend to the mistakes, and then we myelinate.”
That's quite the catchphrase, but it's a fitting metaphor for the Penguins' resurgent season and the coach who has helped make it happen.
As a strategist, Sullivan was the right man for the job because the tactical changes he made to the team's game plan emphasized the greatest strength of its roster: speed.
“This team's got a lot of fighter jets, and they were getting the wrong fuel the first part of the year,” said former Penguins winger Mike Rupp, now an analyst for the NHL Network. “Sully came in, and they've got that jet fuel now.”
As a motivator, Sullivan's greatest trick might have been convincing his players that the struggle was necessary.
They made mistakes, addressed the mistakes and thrived.
They fired until they wired.
“We talk all the time about learning from mistakes. We watch them on video in front of the whole team and discuss what went wrong and what we need to do the next time. He expects you to learn from it,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “I don't know the science behind it. I didn't know his background. But you can see the hours and years he's put in to this craft.”
Some of those hours and years were marked by struggle.
Sullivan retired from an 11-year NHL career in spring 2002, and by summer 2003, at age 35, he had been named head coach of the Boston Bruins, the team he grew up rooting for in Marshfield, Mass.
The first season in his dream job ended in nightmarish fashion. The Bruins blew a 3-1 series lead and were eliminated from the playoffs by the rival Montreal Canadiens in a seven-game, first-round playoff series.
In the next nine years — first as the head coach in Boston, then as an assistant under John Tortorella with Tampa Bay, the New York Rangers and Vancouver — Sullivan was fired four times.
When the job opened in Wilkes-Barre last summer, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford wasn't fazed by Sullivan's pink slips. Firings are a way of life in the coaching profession. He hired Sullivan without reservation, admiring his resume and philosophy on player development.
“He was the guy that was the right fit for our organization, not only teaching our good young prospects at that level but also knowing that we would have a guy with NHL experience right here in the organization if we needed him,” Rutherford said.
Sullivan came through with a performance that has some championing his candidacy for NHL's coach of the year award.
“Of course he'd be my vote,” Rutherford said. “Usually when you say that, it's a biased opinion, but the results certainly back that up.”
For Sullivan, the next step might be the most difficult.
But struggle is practically his middle name.
“In a lot of the reading and research I've done on trying to better understand how we learn and how we make players better, struggle is a part of it. It's a necessary part of it. It's how we operate,” Sullivan said. “I don't think, as a team, it's very different. When you go through the adversities and you overcome challenges as a group, it can bring teams together. It can galvanize teams. It can make us stronger.”