Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
In spring 2002, as his 11th season in the National Hockey League was winding down, Mike Sullivan found himself in a place no professional hockey player wants to be—the stands.
Then a member of the Phoenix Coyotes, the former Boston University star wasn’t injured. It was worse than that. Game after game, he was what’s called a healthy scratch, able to play but told not to suit up. It was a humiliating sentence for a veteran player, one that means the coach thinks the team is better off with you in street clothes than in pads and skates.
Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Sullivan (Questrom’90) did what has been the hallmark of his long hockey career: he found an upside, a way to help his team in whatever way he could. He studied the Coyotes’ play closely from the press box, then shared his observations with his coaches. Soon he was adjusting the team’s penalty killing and sitting in on coaches’ meetings where lineups and game strategy were devised.
That approach to hockey—turning a negative into a positive—is what brought Sullivan where he is today: head coach of the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who have won the title two years in a row, in 2016 and 2017.
“Things are not always going to go your way, so you have to decide how you’re going to react,” Sullivan muses on a sunny afternoon after a noontime skate at the Penguins gleaming practice facility in Cranberry, Pa. “There are so many things in hockey that you can’t control. So it’s more important that you identify those things that will give you your best chance to have success, and focus on them.”
It’s a philosophy that has worked for his life beyond playing, too. “It’s an important element of having a good team,” he says, “and of having a good career—how you deal with the ebbs and flows.”
In six months, Sullivan took the Penguins from a struggling star-laden roster to a magical machine that hoisted hockey’s ultimate prize.
Coaching, with all its ebbs and flows, has been quite a journey for the Marshfield, Mass., native. There was a meteoric rise with the Boston Bruins, the hometown team he revered as a boy, and then bitter disappointment. A decade of wandering from one assistant coaching stint to the next, hoping for a chance at another top job.
Last year, after taking a gamble coaching Pittsburgh’s minor league team, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the tide turned. The Penguins were struggling to forge a cohesive team out of a star-laden roster and needed someone who could work the magic of turning bad into good. Just six months later, Sullivan and the Penguins hoisted hockey’s ultimate prize.
Bernie Corbett, the voice of BU hockey and a longtime friend of Sullivan’s, marvels at the team’s transformation. Listless when the new coach arrived, the players were part of the NHL’s hottest team by playoff time. “They’d win another game, and they’re playing their hearts out, and I’d text Mike, ‘What the heck are you doing to these guys?’” says Corbett (CAS’83).
The names of seven former Terriers have been engraved on the cup as players. Sullivan is the first BU alum to earn that honor as a head coach, and he’s only the sixth American-born coach to do it.
To those who know him, the achievement comes as no surprise. “I think everybody can see how intelligent he is about the game,” says NHL veteran Scott Young, a 1986–1987 BU linemate of Sullivan’s and currently a BU assistant coach. “He’s grown into this incredible hockey mind.”
It’s a mind that never seems to stop, as seen in the coffee table in the TV room in Sullivan’s Duxbury, Mass., home—the top is a whiteboard, festooned with the blue lines, face-off circles, and goal creases of an ice rink. When a game is on, Sullivan is likely to pull out a dry-erase marker and diagram a defenseman’s mistake or a winger’s poor breakout execution. “He’s constantly analyzing with Xs and Os,” says his younger brother, Brian Sullivan, a former college hockey player, for Northeastern University. “He eats it and sleeps it.”
The coach demands the same intensity of his players. Even star players like team captain Sidney Crosby and right winger Phil Kessel are required to block shots, win face-offs, battle for the puck, and hurry back to help in the defensive zone—back-checking in hockey parlance.
Such thankless jobs often go unnoticed, but Sullivan knows firsthand that they’re crucial to tipping the balance of a game. And players who aren’t measuring up are called on it. “He’s very honest. He doesn’t yell, he just tells you: I need you to win this battle in the corner or to get a box out on this play,” says Penguins defenseman Ian Cole. “He’ll tell you whether you’re a fourth line winger or an all-star.”
That honesty has earned him respect among his players, despite a sometimes less than reverential attitude toward his Boston accent. “Sometimes I hear them imitating me,” Sullivan says. “They don’t know I’m listening.”
Although he is necessarily demanding, Sullivan appreciates the value of connecting with his players. “It is the biggest challenge—getting your top players to buy into whatever you’re selling,” he says. “If you get them on board, then you have a chance to win.”
His ability to do that was crucial in last year’s road to the Stanley Cup. In the semifinals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, rookie goaltender Matt Murray struggled in a loss that left the teams knotted at two games each. Sullivan called the 22-year-old netminder into his office and started explaining his thoughts on the team, Murray’s play, and the situation in the series. “He talked for like 10 minutes,” recalls Murray. “I couldn’t get a word in.”
In the end, the coach decided to give veteran netminder Marc-Andre Fleury the start in the next game, a move that proved to be the turning point in the team’s cup run. “He explained why he was making the decision,” Murray says. “A lot of coaches wouldn’t give you the time of day. They’d just say, this is how it’s going to be.”
Sullivan was born in February 1968, the fourth of five children. His father, George, was an accountant at State Street Bank in Boston. His late mother, Myna, worked full time as a nurse, and scrambled to put dinner on the table when her shift was over. “They got up every day and went to work, rain or shine, feeling good, not feeling good,” Sullivan says. “There were no excuses.”
Their two-story home in Marshfield was a whirlwind of activity, with five kids and their friends coming and going, cookouts in the summer, and family gatherings around the holidays. George, a Red Sox diehard, made a pitcher’s mound in the backyard, which saw unending Wiffle ball games.
But it was the Bobby Orr era in Boston, and the Sullivan boys gravitated to hockey. Mike became a star forward at Boston College High School and seemed destined to go on to Boston College. He visited the school, but BC dragged its feet on a scholarship offer.
“I got wind of that and I called and said, ‘Hey, we have a full scholarship for you,’” says Jack Parker (Questrom’68, Hon.’97), retired longtime BU head hockey coach. To the best of Parker’s recollection, Sullivan was the only BC High player he ever coached at BU.
He arrived on Comm Ave with braces, but his youthful appearance belied his skill and maturity on the ice. He played on the team’s top line as a freshman. As a sophomore, he scored a key goal that helped BU win the Beanpot. As a senior, he was named captain of a team loaded with talent, including freshman sensation Tony Amonte (CAS’92).
Sullivan played on the BU team’s top line as a freshman. As a sophomore, he scored a key goal that helped the Terriers win the Beanpot.
Late that season, Sullivan was sidelined by a badly sprained ankle. Nevertheless, the team advanced in the NCAA tournament to a quarterfinal showdown with top-ranked Michigan State. Playing in Michigan State’s rink, with Sullivan still out, the Terriers lost the first in a three-game series. Desperate, Parker had Sullivan suit up for the second game. Toward the end of the second period, Sullivan took a pass from Shawn McEachern (MET’92) and deked the goalie. Ebb turned to flow. On the radio broadcast, BU’s then-sports information director Ed Carpenter exclaimed, “Gimpy Mike Sullivan, skating on one leg, gives the Terriers the lead!” The next night, BU won again and ousted the Spartans. The Terriers lost in the Frozen Four semifinals, but the upset at Michigan State stands as one of the great triumphs in BU sports history. “The resilience of that team, Mike’s team, to come back and beat the number-one team in the nation, was absolutely fabulous,” says Corbett.
In the NHL, Sullivan played for the San Jose Sharks, the Calgary Flames, and a year with the Bruins before spending four final seasons in Phoenix, appearing in 709 games. Along the way, he married his sweetheart from BC High, and they had two daughters and a son.
Over his professional career, Sullivan scored only 54 goals. But he specialized in the less glamorous jobs he now expects from his Penguins. “He did all the little things as well as anyone in the league,” says former Terrier Keith Tkachuk, a Coyotes teammate of Sullivan’s. “You can’t be successful without guys like that. That’s why he lasted as long as he did.”
Just after he retired from the Coyotes, the Bruins farm team in Providence, R.I., began looking for a coach. Sullivan called the Boston general manager and said he wanted the job. “Yes,” he said, “I know I have no experience.” The Bruins, impressed with his knowledge and determination, brought him on.
His first season in Providence was so good that he was named Bruins coach a year later. Sullivan led the team to a first-place finish in its division. It was a fairy-tale beginning, coaching the team he grew up idolizing, in front of family and friends. When the following season was wiped out by a contract dispute between the league and the players, he spent the year coaching his son’s youth team. “He was the highest-paid squirt coach in the country,” Parker quips.
When hockey resumed, the Bruins management stumbled in the new free-agency era. Key players departed. They traded their star, Joe Thornton. Gutted of talent, the team slumped. A new GM took over. For several agonizing weeks in spring 2006, Sullivan’s future was uncertain. When he was let go, it hurt.
“You won’t see him at any Bruins golf tournaments or charity events,” says a friend.
Sullivan landed with Tampa Bay as an assistant to the fiery John Tortorella, one of the assistant coaches he’d worked with in Phoenix. They were a contrast in styles. Tortorella openly sparred with reporters. Sullivan was more deliberate. He likes to control what he can control. The pair remained a team as Tortorella was fired by Tampa Bay, hired by the New York Rangers, fired again, and hired by the Vancouver Canucks. In 2014, after Tortorella scuffled with an opposing coach and was suspended, the Canucks ousted both him and his favored assistant.
For a guy to get knocked down and get back up, that’s perseverance. It’s an all-American story.
That assistant had been hoping that his tutelage under 2004 Stanley Cup winner Tortorella would bring a head coaching job, but in some NHL front offices, he’d been branded as more a part of Tortorella’s act than as head coaching material. When Parker retired in 2013, after 40 years at BU, Sullivan interviewed for his old coach’s job, which went to a friend, Colorado Avalanche assistant coach David Quinn (CAS’89), who’d served under Parker as associate head coach from 2004 to 2009.
When things aren’t going your way, how do you react?
To move forward, Sullivan took a step back. In 2015, he signed on to coach Pittsburgh’s minor league team, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Instead of charter jets and five-star hotels, it was nine-hour bus rides to Providence and Toronto. “That’s humbling,” says brother Brian. “But he knew that’s what it was going to take if he was going to be a head coach again.”
By Thanksgiving, Sullivan’s baby Penguins were riding a 10-game winning streak and had a record of 18 wins and just 5 losses, anchored by 21-year-old goalie Murray. In contrast, the big club was floundering. Stars like Crosby, Kessel, and Evgeni Malkin were struggling to score, and the team’s playoff chances appeared dim. On December 12, Pittsburgh fired its coach and called on their man in Wilkes-Barre to turn the season around. Accompanying him to the majors was the young Murray.
The mind-set Sullivan brought to the team was familiar. Come to the rink and try to get a little better every day. Do the thankless jobs. Work hard. “That was my message to the team,” he says. And all the chatter and controversy about the team’s stars and the coaching change? “Shut out the noise.”
His first four games behind the bench were losses. But soon it started to click and the team adopted a motto: “Just play.” Role players like former Terrier Nick Bonino flourished under Sullivan’s system.
The Penguins won 14 of their final 16 games. In the first two rounds of the conference playoffs, they eliminated the New York Rangers in five games, and the Washington Capitals, the regular season’s top team, in six. Then came the semifinals against Tampa Bay, when Sullivan decided to give his young goalie a mental break. Initially, that appeared to be the wrong move: the Penguins lost game five in overtime, putting them on the brink of elimination. But in the sixth game, a rested Murray came back and stopped 28 shots, including 17 in the third period, to preserve a 5–2 win. And two days later, he was in net for the 2–1 nail-biter that sent the Penguins to the championship round.
In the Stanley Cup finals against the San Jose Sharks, Murray gave up only three goals in the first two contests as Pittsburgh jumped out to a two-game advantage. Crosby, Kessel, and Bonino chipped in key goals. On June 12—six months to the day after being named head coach—Sullivan was crowned a Stanley Cup champion.
“For a guy to get knocked down and get back up, that’s perseverance,” says Brian Sullivan. “It’s an all-American story.”