"Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after."
- Henry David Thoreau
PITTSBURGH - It is the contemplative aspect of angling that appeals to Dan Bylsma, so it doesn't bother him that no one can corroborate his definitive fish story.
"A couple years ago I was by myself, caught the two biggest brown trout of my life, and I caught a salmon on the same day," Bylsma recalled during a recent respite from the breakneck pace he keeps as Penguins interim coach.
"I'm a catch-and-release guy, and there was nobody around to take a picture."
The memory prompted Bylsma to cite the above passage. OK, so maybe the bookworm misremembered the author as Ralph Waldo Emerson, but the ideals still come shining through.
Intelligent and well-rounded, Bylsma, 38, enjoys life's journey, whether it's the solitude of fishing or the craziness of hockey, but he is hardly the type to cast about without a well-planned purpose.
Still, what he terms his "quick rise" has all the earmarks of being a whopper of a tale. Bylsma started this season as a first-time head coach with the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, then was promoted Feb. 15 after Michel Therrien was fired. The oldest player on this star-studded NHL team, veteran winger Bill Guerin, is the same age as Bylsma. With all that, Bylsma led the Penguins out of midseason doldrums to climb from 10th in the Eastern Conference to fourth heading into the playoffs this week against the Flyers.
"I would use the term wild. It's wild to see," said close friend Davis Payne, coach of Peoria of the AHL, who played and roomed with Bylsma at Greensboro of the ECHL in the early 1990s when they were fresh out of college. "He's coaching world-class talent. The Yankees know that sometimes that doesn't work. It's awesome for me to see it work with him."
Bylsma's tweaks to the Penguins' system - adding an aggressive edge and tapping into the squad's speed and drive - have been well received. That's due in large part to the people skills of a man who, with his father, Jay, has written four books aimed at children and families and heavy on values, sports and his experiences.
"He communicates well with everybody whether it be a serious matter or a joking matter," team captain Sidney Crosby said. "In meetings, he keeps everyone on their toes and gets people involved through questions or hearing other guys' thoughts."
Bylsma was a blue-collar, penalty-killing, shot-blocking winger who played 429 NHL games.
His coaching mentors include Detroit's Mike Babcock, St. Louis coaches Andy Murray and Brad Shaw, and Anaheim assistant Todd Richards.
But he is also a mentor. Todd Reirden, who was promoted to Wilkes-Barre head coach when Bylsma joined the Penguins, was a freshman when Bylsma was a junior at Bowling Green.
"It was tough love," Reirden said. "In the beginning, he latched on to me for the purposes of making sure I understood what being a freshman was all about. But I think he saw someone back then with potential who needed a little bit of direction. No one told him to help me out on the ice and in class.
"He challenges players in a unique way. It's not abrasive. It is a way where they are evaluating themselves on a day-to-day basis, and they don't want to let him down."