Dan Bylsma seems to understand the responsibilities that come with being head coach of the U.S. Olympic hockey team and the legacy that could await him.
But that doesn’t mean the 43-year-old native of Grand Haven, Mich., isn’t a little nervous as he awaits what he calls the greatest challenge of his coaching life.
“We’re talking about the greatest players in the greatest tournament and an opportunity to win a gold medal for your country,” Bylsma said. “It’s going to be, without a question, the biggest moment of my career.”
With great opportunities come great expectations and for Bylsma, who won a Stanley Cup in his first year as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, the expectations are great.
His job is to take a collection of NHL all-stars and mold them into a team for a tournament that begins on Wednesday, Feb. 12 and ends onSunday, Feb. 23. The U.S. begins play on Thursday, Feb. 13 against Slovakia.
With that in mind, Bylsma said he turned to former Capitals coach Ron Wilson, who coached the 2010 U.S. Olympic team to a silver medal, for advice.
“I’m going to be looking at a bench that I’ve never coached before, one day after we’ve had one practice,” Bylsma said. “There’s a lot to learn and Ron was insightful sharing some of the combinations he used.”
Of the 25 players selected for Team USA, 13 earned silver medals in the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Bylsma admits that, yes, he has thought about multiple line combinations and defense pairings in the months since being named head coach of Team USA.
“Yes I have, and yes I will, and yes I do,” he said with a smile. “There’s some juggling. Where does Patrick Kane like to play? I think we all can see him playing on his offside, coming down, pulling up and making that play.
“If we play him on the left side I’ve just made a mistake. And if I find that out on Feb. 25, I’ve really made a mistake. So, yes, I’ve done some juggling.”
Bylsma said it’s imperative to keep players in their natural positions and he said it makes sense to keep together NHL teammates who play together.
“If we move Zach Parise to center and take him out of his optimal position, now he’s not Zach Parise,” Bylsma said. “If we take Kane and put him at center, he’s not in his optimal position. I would hesitate to do that.”
Bylsma said he would not hesitate to use New York Rangers teammates Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan to kill penalties together. Same goes for David Backes and T.J. Oshie, who kill penalties together for the St. Louis Blues. Bylsma could also see Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin playing together as a unit.
“Kane played with [Phil] Kessel four years ago and Ron [Wilson] told me they were a good combination,” Bylsma said.
As for what style the Americans will play on a wider ice surface, Team USA assistant coach Peter Laviolette said that was discussed when the team gathered at Kettler Capitals Iceplex back in late August.
“When we have our meetings, the one word that keeps coming up is “smart.” We want to play a punishing North American game, but there is a skating element to it that’s fast. “When we can go, we go. But when we can’t, we can’t. We have to make sure we can play a game that fits that ice and fits the opponent without losing our own North American identity.”
Laviolette said the coaching staff’s greatest challenge is quickly establishing each player’s role on the team and getting them to play better in each game.
“I think getting together gave us a better idea of who we want to be and our identity and how we want to play,” Laviolette said. “A lot of these guys know each other, but a lot don’t. Our time is pretty limited and we need to build something quickly. The team that can come together and figure out the team-building part of it in a two-week period and become stronger every game is the team that will come out on top.
“When we all get there we’re on a level playing field. None of us have more time to prepare than anyone else.”
Bylsma said it’s important that he respect the talent of every team in the tournament. Otherwise, the Americans could be going home early.
“I think you’d be remiss to say you’re looking at Canada, Russia and Sweden as the only great teams over there,” he said. “That’s just not the case. What Switzerland did in the last Olympics [taking Canada to a shootout] was significant. They gave a lot of teams a scare. Slovakia[Team USA’s first opponent] has won games.”
Bylsma has never been to Russia and this marks his first opportunity to coach a U.S. national team at any level. He said he’s relishing the chance to walk in the footsteps of Herb Brooks and Ron Wilson.
“I’m looking forward to hearing our anthem in the Olympic Games,” Bylsma said. “These are the greatest players in the greatest tournament. The opportunity to win a gold medal is going to be, without question, the biggest moment in my career. It’s a huge honor for me, a huge privilege.”