ARLINGTON, VA – Patrick Kane was eating breakfast last December in Davos, Switzerland, playing in the Spengler Cup tournament during the NHL lockout. He glanced up from his plate and looked out the window, spying a familiar face shuffling by in the snow-covered street, wearing a pair of skis and a USA Hockey jacket.
It was Ron Wilson, two-time coach of the U.S. men’s national team, doing the same thing he did as coach of Kane's team in the Vancouver Olympics: making an uphill climb while wearing his national pride on his sleeve.
“I was a big fan of his,” recalled Kane. “He was great for that tournament, and a guy that’s very outgoing and not afraid to say what’s on his mind, that’s for sure.”
Kane remembered him. But at the 2014 U.S. Olympic camp held in Arlington, Va. this week, Ron Wilson was a forgotten man.
The players he coached to a silver medal were there. The general manager that hired him, Brian Burke, was there. The legacy of that 2010 team – from the way it exceeded expectations to the bitter end of its journey on Sidney Crosby’s golden goal – loomed over everything. But the focus was on how new coach Dan Bylsma intends to build on that success, rather than on the foundation Wilson helped construct for it over three years ago.
Although he’ll pick his own supporting cast, Bylsma is essentially taking over Wilson’s team. The comparisons will be drawn, from the players and the media and the American fans expecting the Pittsburgh Penguins coach to, at a minimum, reach the same heights as Wilson did in 2010.
No one knows this better than Bylsma. Which is why he’s done anything but ignore Ron Wilson’s legacy.
Last June, when Bylsma was given the Olympic head coaching gig, Wilson was one of the first people to whom he reached out. The two spend a few days together during the summer, as Bylsma attempted to drain Wilson’s brain of every bit of insight, experience and advice he could acquire.
“I’m going to be looking at a bench that I’ve never coached before, one day after we’ve had one practice,” said Bylsma.
There was plenty of talk between the two American coaches about the players – their tendencies, their chemistry, their personalities. “Even some line combinations that didn’t work, or players that didn’t play together, and Ron had some insight on that,” said Bylsma.
“The only time [these players played together] was in 2010. They don’t play together now, and we won’t see it again until we play Slovakia in the first game.”
Understanding how to use that personnel is, perhaps, Bylsma’s greatest challenge. With the Penguins, he knows who to deploy from his bench in a given situation. That’s a mystery for him with Team USA.
“There are some things you take for granted in coaching your team or coaching your bench and understanding that,” said Bylsma.
“Right now if you tell me there’s a right-dot faceoff in the defensive zone with 30 seconds left in the game, I know the two factors that’ll go into that decision on my team. I don’t know that in the Game in Sochi. I have to find that out now, not by trial and error,” he said.
Wilson’s had those trials, has seen the errors and the successes. He also has something that Bylsma doesn’t, which is a multitude of international experience. He coached the legendary 1996 World Cup winners for the U.S., as well as the 1998 Olympic team, the first to have NHL players.
Bylsma has never coached a single game outside of North American leagues, leading to questions about his preparedness for the larger ice surface and the rigors of travel to Russia.
“Ron was a little older, had more international experience, but Dan has a lot of international experience around him,” said center Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche, who played for Wilson in 2010. Bylsma has assistant coaches with international experience, such as 2006 Olympic coach Peter Laviolette on his bench.
“There’s not going to be any surprises on that big sheet. Everyone plays the same systems. It’s a cookie-cutter league,” said Stastny. “It’s getting the best out of your players in those two weeks and understanding the players.”
Ah, but do the players understand Bylsma?
To a man, the returning U.S. Olympians say they liked playing for Ron Wilson.
(In fairness, Phil Kessel said “I don’t know yet” when asked to draw a comparison between Bylsma and Wilson, for whom he played with the Toronto Maple Leafs before Wilson was fired in 2012.)
In public, Wilson could be blunt and brash. But that wasn’t the coach the players saw in the locker room.
“All you see is that stuff on media. Coaches never come off good. They get the same questions over and over again. But coaches are better away from the cameras,” said Stastny.
“Ronnie let us play and told us what an honor it was to play for our country. We really bonded well.”
Defenseman Erik Johnson said Wilson’s personality was never going to be too much for the players to handle.
“It’s hard to seem like a bad guy in such a short tournament. You could have the biggest prick in the world as a coach, but it’s such a short tournament you’re going to see the good in all of them,” he said.
Johnson’s liked what he’s seen of Bylsma, having spent time with him at a team dinner at Morton’s Steakhouse during Olympic camp.
“He’s a guy that seems like you can have a beer with. An easy guy to shoot the [stuff] with,” he said.
Kessel's wait-and-see approach with Bylsma extends to the on-ice product. “It’s going to be different because it’s on Olympic ice. It makes a big difference. We might play some different systems," he said.
Last time Dan Bylsma was hired for a coaching job was on an interim basis when the Penguins fired Michel Therrien in 2009. He famously led Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup and won the Jack Adams in 2010-11 for leading the Penguins to the playoffs with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin injured.
It was a move made based on personality as much as anything: Therrien was the veteran disciplinary that had lost the team, and Bylsma was the players’ guy and the fresh face.
Bylsma is again the fresh face in taking over the U.S. Olympic team, winning out over former coach Laviolette and John Tortorella, an assistant with the 2010 squad. But he’s closer in persona to Wilson than he ever was to his predecessor with the Penguins.
“Meeting Dan, he’s got a lot of similarities. Easy to talk to, always shares what’s on his mind. It’s like you’re not even talking to a coach when you talk to him,” said Kane. “But he seems like he can be very serious, too. You want it that way.”
The biggest difference between Wilson and Bylsma: Expectations.
Wilson took over a team allegedly in transition from one generation to the next, as the era of Mike Modano and Chris Chelios gave way to the one featuring Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
“The expectations for the 2010 were lower – I think you all were a part of that,” said Bylsma to the media, earning a chuckle.
Bylsma takes over a reigning silver medalist with a returning core of players in their prime or entering it.
“We’re in a different position. We’re looking at a group that succeeded as a young group,” he said. “But it’s also a different flavor for this group of players. We’re not going to Vancouver. We’re going overseas, on foreign soil. We’re going to a place where we really haven’t done well in Olympic Games.
“I’m not saying we’re going over there as underdogs, but we’re going over there with something to prove about USA Hockey.”
With a coach that has something to prove, too.