Former Lincolns’ star has now been involved in pro hockey for almost 30 years Part 2 of a two-week feature
By Pat Payton
Taking the road from Grand Haven, Michigan to St. Marys, Ontario was a good one for Dan Bylsma.
He arrived in the Stonetown some 35 years ago to play Junior hockey with the Lincolns. After two seasons with the Lincs and four more in college in the U.S., he has spent almost 30 years in pro hockey — both playing and coaching. He credits the Lincolns for giving him his start in the game that he loves.
Today, Bylsma, 50, is an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings. They’re the NHL team he cheered for while growing up as a youngster in his home state of Michigan.
“Absolutely I feel like pinching myself some days,” Bylsma said in a recent interview with the Independent. “I went to Bowling Green University for four years, then 12 years of playing pro hockey, and I made it to the NHL, and now it’s been 16 or 17 years of coaching hockey at the pro level.
“You start to feel old when you talk of 12 years of playing pro and 17 more coaching. Add four more years at Bowling Green and playing college hockey, and it puts me back in St. Marys about 35 years ago.”
Bylsma fondly reminisced about the two seasons (1986-88) he spent with the Lincs. It was during his time in St. Marys that he earned a NCAA Division 1 scholarship at Bowling Green in Ohio. Following his freshman season with the Falcons in 1989, the big winger was drafted in the sixth round by the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets.
“After Bowling Green, it was a long way to the top and the NHL,” he said. “It didn’t quite materialize after college to sign with Winnipeg. I went to their training camp in the American League (in the fall of 1992), but it didn’t work out to sign a contract with the Jets.”
Perseverance pays off
For Dan Bylsma, perseverance paid off. It’s a strong character trait that he has always possessed. Starting near the bottom rung of pro hockey, he joined the Greensboro Monarchs of the East Coast League. “I battled in the East Coast League for about a year and a half,” he recalled.
A 25-goal, 60-point season in 1992-93 earned him a spot in the American League the next year with Moncton Golden Hawks. That season, Moncton went on a long run in the post-season as the Hawks played 21 playoff games. They reached the Calder Cup final, before losing in six games to the Portland Pirates.
Bylsma spent the next two years with Phoenix Roadrunners of the International League. Over the two seasons, he had 41 goals and 84 points with Phoenix and it earned him a tryout with the Los Angeles Kings. In the fall of 1996, he cracked the Kings’ NHL roster, coached by Larry Robinson. He spent the next four seasons with the Kings and their IHL affiliate, the Long Beach Ice Dogs.
In 2000-01, Bylsma signed with Anaheim as a free agent. He was immediately made an assistant captain, and spent four years with the Mighty Ducks. He finished his NHL playing career with 429 games and 62 points. “It was a long and winding road through cities, leagues, playing in the south and back to Canada, and then back down to California where I played with both L.A. and Anaheim,” he said.
Altogether, he would end up playing 12 pro seasons on 11 different teams.
Following the 2003-04 season, Bylsma began his pro coaching career with Cincinnati, Anaheim’s AHL farm club.
After one season as an assistant with New York Islanders, he joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins — Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate. After two years as an assistant, he was promoted to head coach early in the 2008-09 season.
For Bylsma, it was an unforgettable season — one that would leave him on top of the hockey world. Late in the season, the NHL Penguins fired Michel Therrien and brought in Bylsma as their bench boss.
“I was 38 years old at the time, and I got the call to coach the Penguins,” he said. “I was coaching guys who I had played with and against.”
In their final 25 regular-season games, the Pens went 18-3-0-4 — losing only one home game. Pittsburgh carried that strong momentum into the Stanley Cup playoffs — defeating Philadelphia, Washington and Carolina to earn a berth in the final against Detroit.
Red Wings won the first two games, but after six games it was all even at 3-3. Bylsma will never forget the night of June 12, 2009 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit when Penguins defeated the Wings 2-1 in Game 7.
Joe Louis Arena was a special place for Bylsma, he pointed out. “It was the first NHL building I had ever watched a game in. I played college hockey there, in the CCHA finals, and then I find myself behind the bench coaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.”
Penguins led 2-0 after two periods, but the Red Wings scored with just over six minutes remaining in the third. The final minute of play was simply bedlam, he recalled.
“Most of the last few minutes were played in our end of the ice. I remember standing behind the bench, and looking up at the rafters and watching the clock tick down. It was such a surreal feeling.
“I was holding my breath, knowing it was a chance to win the Stanley Cup. I remember Marc-Andre Fleury making that save in the dying seconds off (Nicklas) Lidstrom. It was a spectacular save and a spectacular finish, and then I remember the light beyond the net going to green.”
‘A moment in time’
Bylsma described it as “a moment in time” that he’ll never ever forget.
“It felt like 35 years wrapped up in one moment,” he said incredulously. “All the memories of life through hockey that you lived and experienced, and you remember the people who graciously have given you the chance to play and to coach. I had all those memories and emotions at the final tick of the clock. It was just an unbelievable feeling.”
Bylsma spent five more seasons with the Penguins, winning the Jack Adams Award as top NHL coach in 2010-11 after a 49-win, 106-point season. He was relieved of his duties in Pittsburgh in 2014. That same season, he became the fastest NHL coach to reach 250 wins. He didn’t coach for a season, then was hired by Buffalo in 2015 and spent two seasons as the Sabres’ bench boss.
In 2018, Bylsma served as an assistant coach with the U.S. national team, which won bronze at the World championships in Denmark. The head coach of the U.S. team was Detroit head coach Jeff Blashill.
Bylsma was hired by the Red Wings later that year, and has served as an assistant under Blashill for three seasons now. He says he still has aspirations to be a head coach again in the league.
–When Bylsma played Junior in St. Marys, his dad Jay told this reporter that Dan would someday be a better coach than a player. His words many years ago proved prophetic.
–As an NHL head coach, the former Lincoln has 320 regular-season wins and 43 playoff victories to date (363 total wins). He was the 13th rookie coach in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup, and just the fifth-ever American-born coach to hoist the Cup.
–Jay and Dan Bylsma have combined to write four sports books, including: ‘So Your Son Wants To Play In The NHL.’
–Dan and his wife Mary Beth, who he met at Bowling Green, have one son, Bryan. In the off-season, the Bylsmas live in a small town in western Michigan.