By Chris Block
Blackhawks have hired another Player Development Coach.
Recently the team hired Mike Sullivan, who last served as an assistant on John Tortorella’s staff in Vancouver. Tortorella and Sullivan were each fired by the Canucks on May 1, 2014.
Sullivan joins Yanic Perreault, Adrian Aucoin and Mark Eaton on the Blackhawks Player Development staff. This group reports to Barry Smith. Their primary role is to assist in the development of prospects. Keith Carney was also apart of that team, but he’s currently on voluntary sabbatical from the organization.
Aucoin and Eaton are former NHL defenseman, Sullivan a forward, while Perreault a center who was one of the league’s best faceoff men in his day. Aucoin and Perreault both had stints with the Blackhawks in their playing days.
This new hire does bring a wide-range of experience, but also some baggage.
Sullivan, 46, was an NHL player from 1991 to 2002. Originally a draft pick of the New York Rangers in 1987, but the Rangers did not sign Sullivan after his four years at Boston University ended.
He spent one season in the International Hockey League (IHL), with the San Diego Gulls, before getting a call from the NHL.
Sullivan began his career with the San Jose Sharks in August in 1991. He played there for three seasons before being placed on waivers in January of 1994 and getting claimed by Calgary.
He went on to play for the Calgary Flames (94-97), Boston Bruins (97-98) and Phoenix Coyotes (98-02) over his 709 regular season game career. Sullivan was a Nashville Predator property for a few days in 1998 after he was taken by the Preds in the expansion draft of ’98. Nashville wound up trading him to Phoenix four days later, however. He retired in 2002 after eleven NHL seasons.
After retiring, Sullivan went straight into coaching, latching on with his hometown Bruins’ organization immediately following his retirement in 2002.
Sullivan went on to become the head coach of the Boston Bruins in the summer of 2003 at the age of 35 after a whirlwind rookie coaching season that began with Providence but ended as an assistant on the Boston bench.
His two seasons as Bruins’ bench boss bookended the lost 2004-05 NHL lockout season. He was relieved of those duties following a 29-37-0-16 (.451) season in 2005-06. In his first NHL head coaching season, Sullivan led a Bruins’ squad that dropped out in the first round of the postseason in seven games to Montreal after a 41-19-15-7 (.634) regular season and a Northeast Division title.
From that point forward, Sullivan had been tied to John Tortorella. Sullivan served as Tortorella’s assistant in Tampa Bay in 2007-08. Then Sullivan followed Tortorella to New York, where they were together from 2009-2013. When then Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis offered Tortorella the Canucks’ job over the summer of 2013, Tortorella took Sullivan with him to British Columbia.
Sullivan acted as interim head coach of the Canucks last January while John Tortorella served his 15-day, six game suspension for attempting to attack Calgary head coach Bob Hartley outside the Flames’ dressing room during the first intermission of a game in Vancouver. Under Sullivan, the Canucks went 2-1 in the first two games while Tortorella was banished from the team. They did go on to lose the next three, and then went 1-7-1 in the first nine games in Tortorella’s return.
As a bench coach, Sullivan is well-known to be a gruff, drill instructor type, an approach that hasn’t crossed well with some players he’s coached.
The Globe and Mail had a story last month about Canucks’ defenseman Alex Edler. In the story, author David Ebner noted that last season Sullivan would constantly berate Edler when mistakes were made, which apparently didn’t do much to help build Edler’s confidence or turnaround a struggling season for one of Vancouver’s top defensemen.
Over his tenure in New York, it was reported that Rangers players had more issues with Sullivan than they did with Tortorella. That could be engrained in a “good cop, bad cop” approach. But a lot of times the assistants are there to be the good guys since they’re more hands on with players than most head coaches are. Everything that came out of New York two summer’s ago was that Sullivan had alienated as many or more players on his own and even Larry Brooks wrote in a column suggesting Tortorella not bring Sullivan along with him to Vancouver.
Brooks wrote, “If Tortorella truly does intend to become a new man, then bringing Mike Sullivan to Vancouver with him as assistant coach isn’t likely to help the transformation process,” Brooks continued in his NY Post column on June 30, 2013. “Truth is that Sullivan, who only reinforces Tortorella’s us-against-the-world mentality, had alienated more Rangers by the end than the head coach.”
These reports from his New York and Vancouver stays contradict the things those covering Sullivan in his Boston days had to say about him. With the Bruins, Sullivan was supposedly too lenient with his players and was seen as a ‘player’s coach.’
So, perhaps somewhere there’s a happy coaching middle Sullivan can find.
Sullivan has international experience, coaching the U.S. Men’s team at the 2007 IIHF World Championships, held in Russia that year. He was also an assistant at the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy.
The Marshfield, Massachusetts made the immediate jump from player to head coach in 2002 when he took the Providence Bruins (AHL) head coaching job. He was successful in his first season, but didn’t get to complete it as Providence head coach.
In late March of 2003, the Boston Bruins fired their head coach, Robbie Ftorek. Then Bruins GM, Mike O’Connell chose to add to his slate and take over the head coaching position on an interim basis. At the same time, O’Connell promoted Sullivan from Providence to an assistant with the Bruins for the final weeks of the 2002-03 season. Sullivan replaced Jim Hughes, who was fired along with Ftorek. The Bruins wound up making the playoffs but were bounced by New Jersey 4 games to 1 in the opening conference quarter-finals series. Former Blackhawks’ netminder Jeff Hackett backstopped Boston in the final three games of that series and picked up the lone Bruins victory in Game 4. The Devils shutout Boston in Games 3 and 5.
–Mike O’Connell is originally from Chicago. He’s notable for a couple reasons.
First being, O’Connell was the first Chicago born player to ever play for the Blackhawks. He was actually raised in Boston. Mike O’Connell was drafted by the Hawks 43rd overall in 1975. He made his NHL debut in ’78.
Also, O’Connell was the player traded to Boston on Dec 18, 1980 for Al Secord.
Mike O’Connell’s father Tommy O’Connell was born in Chicago and became a professional football quarterback whose career began with the Bears in 1953 after being drafted by Chicago in 1952. Tommy O’Connell attended South Shore High School in Chicago before going to school and playing football both at Notre Dame and the University of Illinois. His son Mike was born in 1955. At Illinois, Tommy led the Illini to an undefeated season (9-0-1), Big Ten Championship in 1951 and a 40-7 Rose Bowl win over Stanford on New Years Day 1952. The Fighting Illini has not completed an undefeated season since 1951.
Tommy O’Connell’s best NFL season came when he helped lead Cleveland to the NFL title game in 1957. Jim Brown’s first season was also in 1957. Cleveland lost to Detroit in the Championship game 59-14. O’Connell’s first season in Cleveland was 1956, the Cleveland Brown’s first without legendary quarterback Otto Graham (who was from Waukegan and went to Northwestern). Tommy O’Connell split time in ’56 with two other QB’s before taking the starting job in ’57.
Tommy O’Connell passed away earlier this year in Florida at age 83. Mike O’Connell is now serving his seventh season with the Los Angeles Kings. His current position is Senior Advisor of Pro Development.
–The Mike Sullivan hire is interesting now because he’s the only development coach with real coaching experience. As noted above, Sullivan has either been an assistant coach or head coach at the NHL level for over a decade.
With Kevin Dineen and Mike Kitchen, the staff in Chicago is set alongside Joel Quenneville. Both are Quenneville guys, too. So, Sullivan won’t be headed there anytime in the near future. Quenneville has had command of that staff since Mike Haviland was moved out in May of 2012 after the Hawks were ousted by Phoenix in the first round of that postseason. To replace Haviland, Quenneville brought in Jamie Kompon, who left this past off season to take the Portland Winterhawks (WHL) head coaching gig.
In December, IceHogs assistant coach Mark Osiecki is taking a leave from his Rockford duties to coach the United States team at the Under-20 World Championships.
Someone will step in to assist Ted Dent during Osiecki’s absence. Sullivan would be the most obvious person to fill those shoes now.
When Ted Dent was suspended two games in January of 2013 after the IceHogs were involved in the bench-clearing brawl that Kyle Beach started with Grand Rapids, it was Barry Smith – who heads the Player Development department – who stepped onto the bench in place of Dent for those two nights. Though, the team claimed Smith was just overseeing things on the bench and assistant coaches Ben Simon and Steve Poapst were actually running the forwards and defense as they normally would. Simon and Poapst were let go by the organization following that season.
After six seasons with John Tortorella, and stories of rough dealings with players, Mike Sullivan could be coming through Chicago for some image repair as well.
Sullivan served as captain on the 1989-90 Boston University Terriers. That year rookie forward Tony Amonte led BU in scoring. That team was eliminated in the semi-finals of the NCAA tournament by Colgate, who would go on to lose to Wisconsin in the championship. One of the top defenseman on that winning Badgers team was Mark Osiecki.