Life’s fortunes can change in an instant. Coach Mike Johnston currently has his Portland Winterhawks off to a 4-2 start. They’re closing in on the Everett Silvertips for first place in the U.S. division of the Western Hockey League (an odd division with only three teams). Ten months ago, Johnston had his Pittsburgh Penguins at 15-10-3 as the Pens looked up in the standings at the Washington Capitals, and the Pens’ power play was connecting only 15 percent of the time (26th in the league). Six months later, the Pens were Stanley Cup champions, having gone 33-16-5 since December, and the power play was now 16th in the league. The difference between the December Penguins and the June Penguins? Mike Johnston was no longer the head coach.
It’s not always easy to pinpoint where a team turns its entire season around, but it’s easy for the Penguins. It was Dec. 12, 2015. That day, GM Jim Rutherford decided to fire one Mike and hire another. The new Mike, Mike Sullivan, hadn’t been a head coach in the NHL for more than nine years, but he was tasked with turning an underperforming roster of high-salaried players into contenders. Not only did he make them contenders, Sullivan won the Stanley Cup with the same players that Mike Johnston couldn’t, although no one ever says it out loud. But a constant criticism of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was that he won only because he had Bill Cowher’s players, which isn’t completely true. But Sullivan actually had almost the exact roster Johnston did.
Being a guy named Sully in Boston is roughly the equivalent of being a guy named Donnie in Pittsburgh. They are almost ubiquitous monikers in a sea of rabid sports fans. But our Sully is the best. He brought Lord Stanley home to us this summer and then to his own hometown, including trips to his alma maters. He visited his oddly named Boston College High School, and then Boston University. Sully later took the Cup to a cancer center and a church; just in case you didn’t know, he’s a good guy as well. Boston is known for winning a lot of championships, but not in hockey. Sully’s hometown Boston Bruins have brought the Cup to Beantown only once in the past 44 seasons. Sully brought it home in six months.
Sully’s second chance as an NHL head coach came after living for years in John Tortorella’s maniacal shadow in Tampa, New York and Vancouver. Sullivan occasionally was the interim head coach in games when Torts was suspended. One time, Tortorella threw a water bottle at a Capitals fan and then tried to spear him with a hockey stick. It was a Capitals fan, so the coach gets a pass from us. Another time, Sullivan coached the Vancouver Canucks after Tortorella was suspended six games for going into the Calgary Flames’ locker room and threatening to beat up their coach. Finally, last December, Sullivan got a team of his own.
Sully was formerly head coach of the Bruins, leading the 2003-04 team to 104 points, but he lost to Montreal in the first round of the playoffs. The next year was the lockout, and then in 2005-06 he had a down season, which was enough to get him fired. Now he’s one of only six coaches to win the Stanley Cup after being a mid-season replacement. He is, however, the third Penguins coach to do it, after Scotty Bowman in 1992 and Dan Bylsma in 2009. The Penguins stars bought into Sully’s system that stressed faster skating, more shots and tighter defense. They immediately played with a newfound fervor and were hot for four months. They were like a talented band that just needed a good producer to get the best out of them.
Now Mike Sullivan has his Penguins ready to defend their place as champions. He is getting ready to prepare for his first three games, against the Washington Capitals, Anaheim Ducks and Colorado Avalanche. Meanwhile, Mike Johnston is studying game film of the Regina Pats, Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans. But good luck to Mike Johnston as well. Here’s hoping he can win with Jamie Kompons’ players.