“’It was a great feeling as a player, and to watch these guys, the way they hung in there….I’m very proud of them. It’s an incredible feeling.’”

 

Back in February, the Pittsburgh Penguins were just trying to salvage their season. As 2008 turned into 2009, the team that only the previous spring had vied for the Stanley Cup was in trouble. Facing adversity.

The words are Mario Lemieux’s.

The Penguins owner was on the Joe Louis Arena ice Friday night, taking in all the Stanley Cup-winning revelry surrounding him, when I sidled up.

I wondered how difficult it was for Lemieux to render the ziggy to coach Michel Therien, who was presiding over mediocrity when summoned to his boss’ office.

“Whenever the team is struggling, changes have to be made and it’s easier to change the coach than all the players,” Lemieux said, grinning a little sheepishly—as if he had stumbled onto a winning formula, which he had.

It wasn’t a grinning situation when the Pens were still struggling to keep ahead of the traditional mediocrity standard of .500, even after over 50 games had been played.

“I think Michel is a very good coach,” Lemieux said. “But when you’re struggling, changes have to be made.”

So Mario made one—a big one.

Enter Dan Bylsma.

Therien was cashiered in mid-February, the trade deadline approaching and the final turn of the season looming ahead.

If Lemieux was going to pull the trigger, it was then.

“I think it was a turning point,” acknowledged Super Mario of his swapping Therien for Bylsma as Pens’ head coach.

Lemieux used the word “adversity” when discussing his team’s rocky season, and few know its meaning better than he—what with his battle with Hodgkin’s Disease and the Penguins franchise being threatened to be moved out of Pittsburgh—only a few years ago.

But then Bylsma was promoted from the minor leagues and things changed.

“We got more aggressive,” Lemieux told me. “We changed up the power play…the penalty kill. Dan’s very positive. He’s been great for the guys on the ice and off the ice. Then the players started buying in.”

That’s an understatement—maybe of the year.

Soon after Bylsma took over, the Penguins ripped off a 16-game streak in which they won 13 times and lost only thrice—twice in shootouts.

They were the hottest team in the league heading into the playoffs.

Lemieux, as a player, is part of one of only two teams to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since 1988—the 1991-92 Penguins. So when he says he felt good about the team’s chances as the post-season dawned, he’s not some guy off the street.

“I think the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in sports to win,” he said with unabashed bias. “And to come in here (in Detroit), win a Game Seven, after all the adversity…it’s very gratifying,” he added.

But what’s it like as an owner?

I put it to him.

“Well, it’s great,” he said as he surveyed the scene from our location on the ice near the benches: champagne being shot from bottles into the air, players still skating the Cup around, their families very much a part of the whole thing—wives and girlfriends, and children with miniature versions of their father’s jerseys on their small torsos.

“It was a great feeling as a player, and to watch these guys, the way they hung in there….I’m very proud of them. It’s an incredible feeling.”

The coaching change in mid-season isn’t usually something that has a happy ending. The NHL was a treasure trove of fired coaches this season, but nowhere did things end up working out like they did in Pittsburgh.

Not very far from where Lemieux held court, I found Bylsma—just before he headed into the dressing room to enjoy the Cup with his players.

Was this moment ever, I asked, on his radar when he took over from Therien in February?

To my surprise, it kinda was.

“Actually,” Bylsma said, giving it some thought. “You know, there was a moment where I thought that this team could have a mural on Mellon Arena—a picture with them raising the Cup. But that was fleeting. We were more worried about just getting some wins.”

The coach agreed with the owner: the players “bought in” to the new system, the new way of doing things.

“This isn’t my victory,” Bylsma said. “It’s theirs,” he added, nodding toward the few players still on the ice.

The Penguins’ captain, Sidney Crosby, skated off in terrible pain after a hit early in the second period. It looked to be a knee injury—or something to do with the leg.

The score was 1-0, Pittsburgh. And there went arguably the team’s best overall player, doubled over in pain.

What was going through the coach’s mind at that point?

The deliciousness of the moment wasn’t lost on Bylsma.

“I just thought,” he said, truly giving his answer some time to formulate, “that it just made for a better story. That we didn’t have to rely on just one or two guys to win it.”

Bylsma adjusted his new Stanley Cup Champs hat.

“This is good stuff,” he said. “Good stuff.”

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