Lincolns, St. Marys a stepping stone for Dan Bylsma

To a long and successful hockey career; now an assistant coach with the NHL Red Wings

Part 1 of a two-week feature

By Pat Payton

For Dan Bylsma, St. Marys Lincolns proved to be his first big stepping stone to a long and successful hockey career.

The Grand Haven, Michigan native has great memories of the Stonetown and playing for the Lincs as a teenager — now three and a half decades ago. Today, Bylsma, 50, is an assistant coach with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings.

In a recent telephone interview with the Independent, Bylsma fondly reminisced about the season and a half he spent with the Lincolns in the mid-to-late 1980s. “I have a lot of good and positive memories of St. Marys . . . and it was almost 35 years ago,” he said.

First impression a good one

The big left winger came to St. Marys from the Oakville Blades midway through the 1986-87 season and joined a talented Lincs team. Bylsma first met with the Stratford Cullitons, and then drove to St. Marys. His visit left a good impression.

“I can still remember driving into St. Marys and seeing that big town sign, ‘Welcome to St. Marys,’” he said. “I went home to Michigan and came back a week later.”

He recalled meeting coach Scott Graham and GM Angie Nigro, who both played a big role in bringing him to the Lincolns. “My first introduction to the team was meeting Scotty and Angie. They gave me the opportunity to come to St. Marys and play for the Lincolns.

“I was a little bit in awe of coming to a new team and a new town. I remember meeting the Parkinson family (Gary and Jane), who I billeted with. (Teammate) Scotty Garrow and I lived with the Parkinsons. They were my family away from home; it was a big deal for me.”

As a 16-year-old, Bylsma made an impact right away with the Lincs — clicking for 14 goals and 42 points in 27 Western League games.

“We were a really, really good team, and we didn’t lose a lot of games that first year,” he said. “We had an older team that season.” Lincolns had a lot of firepower, scoring 323 goals in 42 regular-season games.

He remembers teammates such as captain Jeff Shipley, Trent Andison, Scott Driscoll, rookies Owen Lessard and Brett Seguin, and goalies Richard Cassar and Steve Coultes from that first-place ‘86-87 squad.

St. Thomas series a gong show

However, the good regular season (31-7-4) was wasted when Lincs were eliminated in the first round of league playoffs by the St. Thomas Stars.

“That series was a bit of a gong show,” Bylsma said, vividly recalling a tumultuous battle. “We were in St. Thomas and there was a big brawl on the ice before the one game. Someone on our team got mustard on their jersey from the fans getting involved. I think we lost that series in six games, and it was considered an upset with St. Thomas beating us.”

The next season (1987-88), Bylsma led St. Marys with 30 goals as he and linemate Garrow battled all year for the team scoring title. “It came right down to the last game between Scotty and I,” he noted. Bylsma finished with 69 points in 40 games to edge out his close friend by a single point.

“My second year, we had a bit of a younger team, with guys like Brett Seguin, Bob Boughner and Jamie Vargo,” he said. He noted that Seguin was just 15, but a dominant player in the league even at that young age.

Seguin, Boughner and Vargo were all high draft picks in the OHL following the season. The rugged Boughner, from Windsor, went on to have a long playing career in the NHL and is now head coach of the San Jose Sharks.

Some of the other veterans on that ‘87-88 team included: Cassar, Driscoll, Dave Doyon, captain Pat Jackson, Jeff Page, Andre Prevost, Mike Stewart, Jeff McClenaghan and the late Richard Hawkins. Lincolns advanced to the semi-finals that year, losing a hard-fought seven-game series to Sarnia.

Working on Graham chicken farm

Bylsma played for Scott Graham both seasons he spent with the Lincs. “Another fond memory I have of St. Marys is working on Scotty’s chicken farm, moving chickens from barn to barn,” he said with a laugh. “We got our hands dirty and got some chicken manure on our shoes. But that is a fun memory for me.

“I’ve run into Scotty a couple of times over the years. He’s good friends with Jacques Martin, who I coached with in Pittsburgh. Scotty came down to Pittsburgh with his boys a couple of times and we had a few laughs together.”

Coach Graham said Bylsma was one of the most “prepared” players he ever coached.

“The biggest thing I remember about Danny was his consistency and his preparation to play every game,” Graham said. “At that time, he wasn’t the greatest skater in the world, but he made up for it with his grit and determination.

“Danny was just a character guy and also an unassuming leader. He always gave 100 percent, with him you never had to worry about that. He always had himself prepared to play every night.”

In his final season in St. Marys, Bylsma boarded with the Goads, Nelson and Heather, who he describes as “great people and a great family. I still keep in contact with them; once or twice a year we have a nice chat,” he said.

Bylsma also reminisced about attending DCVI and playing power forward on the Salukis Senior boys basketball team.

“It’s a long time ago, but I still remember all the great people that I met in St. Marys, and the players, coaches and the families who were part of the St. Marys Lincolns’ family. Families like the Stephens and Goads and Parkinsons, they helped make it a great experience for me and I thank them for it.”

Bylsma reiterated that playing Junior hockey in St. Marys paved his way to obtaining a NCAA Division 1 scholarship at Bowling Green University in Ohio.

“The opportunity I got to come and play hockey in St. Marys was a huge springboard for me getting a scholarship at college,” he said. “It led to bigger and greater things, and eventually pro hockey.

“In my second year with the Lincolns, I remember we had a game early in the season in Strathroy. Jerry York, the head coach at Bowling Green, came to that game and I recall picking up several assists that night. I felt it cemented my chance of getting the scholarship at Bowling Green.”

Four years at Bowling Green

The 6 ft. 2 inch, 215 lb. Bylsma spent four years (1988-92) with the Falcons, a member of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA). In his career at Bowling Green, he collected 37 goals and 87 points. He is one of the few players in CCHA history to score a goal while his team was two men short.

With the Falcons, Bylsma was twice selected to the CCHA All-Academic team and he received the Howard Brown Coaches’ Award for excellence in his Senior year. He also left with an accounting degree.

After Bowling Green, Bylsma was a member of five pro teams over four seasons, before he made it to the promised land — the National Hockey League. A dream came true when he cracked the Los Angeles Kings’ roster in the fall of 1996.

“Throughout my career, starting in St. Marys, I always tried to wear No. 21,” he said. “In L.A., I wore No. 42 — double 21. Tony Granato wore 21 and I would never dream of taking a jersey away from a veteran player. The trainer gave me 42 and I ran with it.”

(Look for Part 2 of the Dan Bylsma interview in next week’s Independent)