While most coaches who’ve been eliminated from the playoffs are probably taking a few weeks off to get away from the grind of the season and unwind in a tropical paradise (with the exception of Bruce Boudreau who’s most likely spending his afternoons at the local Haagen-Dazs inside of the Mall of America), Mike Sullivan’s writing nearly 2,000-word thank you letters to the city of Pittsburgh expressing his gratitude for Penguins fans’ unwavering support of the team. Totally unnecessary, yet almost predictable. Mike Sullivan’s exactly the kind of person any sports franchise dreams of having at the helm to lead their team. He’s direct, honest, and humble – regardless of whether or not he’s winning or losing (although he’s mainly winning). And on top of that, he happens to be a pretty damn good coach, too. We’re a pretty lucky bunch to have him.
Give it a read.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Nine days. Just over one week. It seems longer, yet I can still hear the overwhelming applause from the 18,000-plus following Game 6 like it was yesterday. I always knew we had the best fans, but last Monday I realized why you are truly so special. Your support of our team in both good and bad times is remarkable. There’s a lot of talk about new franchises, loud buildings and teams experiencing success for the first time, but no fans compare to Pittsburgh. Perhaps the rich history of Pittsburgh sports success has given you a different view. You are each an example of what it means to “win with dignity and lose with grace.” The class you displayed on May 7 will stick with us forever.
I was thrilled for our players at your outpouring of support. I couldn’t help but take a minute to soak it in myself. It was an unbelievable way to transition from fresh disappointment to overall pride. And we’re so grateful that we made you proud. We fell short of our team goal, but it helped in that moment to know our fans appreciated what we had already achieved. The final moments of the season told me a lot about Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh is special. The city represents so many facets of what our team believes. We believe in hard work. We preach humility. We depend on each other. We take pride in our accomplishments. There’s appreciation for those around us in the community. This community rallies and shows resiliency in the face of adversity.
I can’t say enough about how many times our group responded the right way to adversity. They almost became too confident in late comebacks and their resilient nature. They made life exciting – well, for you – for me, they probably took a few years off my life. More than anything, though, they came to the rink every single day with an unwavering work ethic and an insatiable appetite to win. I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again because it is the truth: The coaches respect and admire these players so much.
No one played more hockey over the past three years than this group, a lot of high-pressure playoff hockey, no less. I take comfort in knowing that even during the most challenging times, our players kept going. Those players squeezed every ounce of energy they had to keep the three-peat hope alive.
We can’t make that happen now. But we can take a little extra time this offseason to think about what is next, and that’s important. For some guys in the room, it is new territory. The young guys know how sweet the reward can be, but this is their first experience with the sour taste of defeat.
I hate losing. Sometimes I think that I hate losing more than I enjoy winning. So you can imagine how I have felt over the last week as I’ve tried to digest a different type of losing, one that leaves you with an empty feeling. We’ll learn from it, certainly, but I also want our guys to remember and savor all that they’ve accomplished. It hurts now, but when I’ve had a chance to sit outside on my deck, cigar in one hand and a Guinness in the other, I’ll absolutely appreciate what these players and coaches have achieved over the past few years.
I’m big into reading, and the quote below from legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi is one of my favorites:
“If we chase perfection we may catch excellence.”
All season, I kept reminding the group that we had a chance to accomplish something special. I constantly asked our players to embrace the challenge. We weren’t perfect, and we didn’t reach our ultimate goal. But I’ve come to appreciate the many ways our team has accomplished excellence.
Our team enjoys a great commitment from our ownership group, led by Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, a duo willing to provide us all the resources needed to win. Their vision is executed by Jim Rutherford and his staff on the hockey side, and David Morehouse and Travis Williams on the business end. All of those great leaders put our players and coaches in the best possible position to be able to win on a consistent basis, which isn’t easy to do in this era of salary-cap parity.
But excellence isn’t just measured by winning and losing games on the ice. Excellence as a franchise includes a commitment off the ice to help make your community a better place. I really believe that our group has done this. All teams face a grueling schedule each year, yet I can’t state how proud I am as their head coach whenever I turn on the TV or go online and see our players taking the time to give back to our community. I cannot say enough positive things about what our guys do off the ice to give back to the Pittsburgh region.
We’re fortunate here in Pittsburgh. Fortunate as coaches, and fortunate as fans, to have a core of players that provide the foundation to give us a competitive advantage. I say this all the time – and this is something that I don’t think I can say enough – but that competitive advantage starts at the top with our captain, Sidney Crosby. As you saw almost nightly during the playoffs, he’s an inspiring guy, someone that the rest of the group can look up to.
Luckily for us, Sid is not alone. Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are both coming off terrific seasons. Having Sid and Geno, plus a healthy Derick Brassard allows the strength of our team to remain down the middle. I’m glad we were able to get Patric Hornqvist signed. His energy and presence is such a huge boost for our club, the players feed off him. Jake Guentzel is a cerebral player who knows how to navigate the tough areas to score goals, which we saw often in the playoffs. Kris Letang is going to benefit from a healthy offseason, I have no doubt he’ll return even stronger. Matt Murray battled a ton of personal adversity this year to give us a chance to win each night. He is a two-time champ who I believe is one of the best goaltenders in this league.
Moving forward, because rosters change and teams evolve, we’re going to once again need our young players to step up and supplement our core. One way that will happen is some of the younger players that have been a part of our success must take that next step into bigger leadership roles for our club. We’re also going to need the next crop of players from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to come up and impact our lineup. I know Coach Clark Donatelli, along with his staff and our development team, have done an excellent job preparing those players for that transition.
Successful as it is, I can assure you that this organization is not satisfied. My belief is that being eliminated this year will provide motivation for our team to want to win even more. I’m sure some of the media folks get tired of hearing me say every day it’s hard to win in the National Hockey League because every team has good players. But that isn’t just coach-speak, or me giving a stock answer; it’s something I truly believe. It really is hard to win in this league.
After this year’s playoffs, we learned that lesson the hard way. I can’t reiterate enough that nobody hates losing more than me. Just ask my coaching staff. Or my wife. This is the first time since I’ve been here that we haven’t wrapped up our season with a parade down the Boulevard of the Allies. Many of our players just experienced losing a playoff series at the NHL level for the first time. But this is a group that will continue to chase perfection.
The coaches will be doing everything we can over these summer months to find ways to help improve our team. I know I can speak for our entire staff when I say that we will work to find ways to maximize the potential of this group of players. We fully embrace that part of the process.
When our team returns for training camp in September, they will know the goal. It will be the same as every team in the NHL: to win the Stanley Cup. We’ve been fortunate to experience the pure joy that comes from accomplishing that goal. This summer, we now know the pain of being one of the teams on the other side, one of the 30 that doesn’t get to celebrate with the Cup.
Reaching an ultimate goal like we were able to do in 2016 and ’17 requires more than just great players. What I am most looking forward to when our team returns for training camp in September is having the opportunity to play before the greatest fans in hockey, in what I’ve come to learn is one of the great sports cities in America. There is no better feeling than knowing every time we take the ice, we do so behind the unwavering support of this fan base. Trust me, we’re very grateful for that. It’s something we don’t take for granted. It reinforces our commitment to want to make this city proud.
On behalf of the entire Pittsburgh Penguins organization, I want to thank you for once again being the greatest fans in hockey! We can’t wait to see you in September. 120 days. Just over 17 weeks. It seems long, but the echo of your cheers will be loud enough for me to hear until we meet again.
P.S. – If I’m being completely honest, this is the line that sold it for me:
“It hurts now, but when I’ve had a chance to sit outside on my deck, cigar in one hand and a Guinness in the other, I’ll absolutely appreciate what these players and coaches have achieved over the past few years.”
Mike Sullivan’s the best.