The Coachella Valley Firebirds have hired former Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma as their first head coach, the hockey team announced Tuesday. Bylsma will lead the Firebirds into their inaugural season, starting with training camp with their NHL affiliate, the Seattle Kraken, in September.
The hiring of Bylsma, who played in the NHL and later coached the Penguins to a Stanley Cup title, is a significant step for the American Hockey League team that will play a role in shaping the future of the Kraken, the NHL's newest franchise.
“I think a huge responsibility in the organization for the Seattle Kraken is the development of the players and development of the young players coming into the organization," Bylsma told reporters during a conference call. "Getting an opportunity to do that as a head coach in the American Hockey League is something I take a great deal of pride in and I’m excited about that opportunity to do it.”
A native of Muskegon, Michigan, Bylsma played nine seasons in the NHL and spent his entire playing career in Southern California. He played right wing for the Los Angeles Kings for five seasons, from 1995 to 2000, and then for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim until 2004.
Following his retirement from playing, Bylsma immediately began his coaching career as an assistant for the American Hockey League’s Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, then the NHL’s New York Islanders. He coached the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton starting in 2008, and a year later stepped in as interim head coach for the Penguins after the organization fired Michael Therrien. At 38, Bylsma was the youngest head coach in the NHL at the time.
Bylsma, now 51, was named Therrien’s permanent replacement after Pittsburgh went 18-3-4 through his first 25 games, and just four months into his tenure, he led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2009. Bylsma was named the NHL’s most outstanding coach in 2011 and two years later became the fastest NHL coach to ever reach 200 wins.
At the time, Bylsma was also named the head coach of the United States Olympic Team for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Following the 2014 NHL season, with the Penguins finishing 51-24-7 and losing to the New York Rangers in the second round of the playoffs, Bylsma was fired. He is the second-winningest coach in Penguins history, with a record of 252-117-32.
Bylsma was hired by the Sabres a year later and won 68 games in two seasons, missing the playoffs both years, before he was fired.
Bylsma was hired as an assistant coach by the Detroit Red Wings in 2018. He coached there for three years before he was hired by the Kraken to be an assistant coach for the Charlotte Checkers, where he helped the team to a Calder Cup championship with many of the Kraken’s minor league players who played in Charlotte this past season while Acrisure Arena remained under construction in the Coachella Valley. Some of those players will play for Bylsma next season with the Firebirds.
“The head coach of our American Hockey League affiliate plays a critical role in developing future Kraken players," Kraken General Manager Ron Francis said. "Dan worked with our prospects this past season in Charlotte and brings a wealth of NHL and AHL experience to our new AHL club. We look forward to Dan guiding our team.”
Bylsma said that he went through this season with the Checkers hoping to prove to Francis and the Kraken front office that he was the right person for the Firebirds head coaching job. He said that while the players he coached in Charlotte went about playing to prove something to NHL executives, Bylsma had a similar approach.
Bylsma eventually met with Francis and Kraken executives, and Francis said it was evident to them that Bylsma was the right fit for the job. Bylsma said that there's something uniquely special about the opportunity to help shape a young NHL franchise with the kind of players and culture he can now establish at the AHL level.
"To be able to develop that from the ground up in the Coachella Valley is truly exciting for me," Bylsma said.
Bylsma will presumably play a role for the Kraken in the 2022 NHL Draft, which will be held July 7-8. The Kraken hold the fourth pick.
A week following the draft, free agency begins and Bylsma could also play a role there. Troy Bodie, the Firebirds’ director of hockey operations, said that free agency will offer desert hockey fans a glimpse at who could be playing in Acrisure Arena later this year.
The 10,000-seat, $300-million arena remains under construction and is scheduled to be completed and ready to open by the end of the year. The Firebirds will play some early season home games in Seattle until the arena opens.
Bylsma said that he's looking forward to playing a role in all of that, to help build a hockey team from the ground up and to curating a product on the ice that will be "a proud representation of the people, spirit and passion" of the valley.
"My wife and I are looking forward to getting out to the valley as quickly as we possibly can," Bylsma said. "It's not going to start until the fall but we feel like it should start tomorrow."
Andrew John covers sports for The Desert Sun and the USA Today Network. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and find him on Twitter at @Andrew_L_John.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Coachella Valley Firebirds hockey: Dan Bylsma hired as head coach