On this Independence Day weekend, it’s worth pointing out that no team in the NHL has quite the star power of American leaders as the Pittsburgh Penguins have over the years.
Dating back to 1990, seven of the last 13 head coaches to serve for the Pens have been Americans. Of the five Stanley Cups the team has captured in this span of just 31 years, four of those times the bench boss has been an American.
Pittsburgh’s USA coaching turn started when then-newly named general manager Craig Patrick (himself a US hockey legend and also a future Penguin coach) hired the great “Badger” Bob Johnson.
Badger Bob, whose legendary “it’s a great day for hockey” slogan is still an active part of franchise lore, brought an unflappable sense of optimism to the Pens. Johnson got the team their first ever Stanley Cup in his one and only season as Pittsburgh’s coach. It was huge step to get them over the top and become a championship organization that can’t be under-stated. Tragically, that would be the last hurrah of Johnson’s professional life. He suffered a brain aneurysm just two months after winning the Cup in August 1991, and would pass away from brain cancer that November, but not before forever changing the Pens’ organization and leaving a truly indelible mark that still resonates and helped set the stage and get the ball rolling for the NHL’s most successful franchise since 1991.
While Johnson coached Team USA in the 1976 Olympics, the Pens’ next iconic American coach was his predecessor as the coach of the gold medal winning 1980 USA Olympic team. The one and only Herb Brooks.
Brooks’ tenure as the Penguins’ coach only last just over half a season with 57 regular season games. It was the weird mid-Mario retirement era of a very imperfect Pittsburgh team, but Brooks still got them into the playoff position after he took over. As the No. 7 seed the Pens upset the second seeded Washington Capitals in the first round of the 2000 playoffs. Like only Brooks could, he rallied the troops including a memorable incident in Colorado. His time in Pittsburgh was brief, but as always Herb Brooks was one of the most colorful characters that the sport has ever seen.
The next memorable American coach for the Pens was the stoic Dan Bylsma, whose influence as a mid-season replacement in 2009 culminated in the first Stanley Cup of the Sidney Crosby era of the franchise. Bylsma coached the Pens through 2014 and still owns the best points% of any Pittsburgh coach (.668%) and had 252 regular season wins along the way.
The current dean of the Pens, Mike Sullivan, is now the second longest tenured coach in all of the NHL (that seems weird, doesn’t it?). Sullivan has been in charge since December 2015 and like Bylsma won the Stanley Cup in his very first season. He would follow that up by being the only Penguin head coach to win two Cups in two years with a second championship in 2017. Sullivan is the Pens’ career leader in coaching wins (297 and counting) and at 509 games will soon pass Eddie Johnston (516 total games coached) as first in franchise history in that category as well.
On this 4th of July weekend when you have a hot dog and set off a firework or celebrate however you choose, maybe tip a Budweiser or IC Light be sure to give a cheers to the litany of tremendous American coaches past and present that the Penguins have been fortunate enough to employ over the years.
The Pens have achieved great success and gotten to unparalleled heights over the last three decades, and a lot of that can be traced back to the incredible American coaches that have been behind the bench along the way.