Wild coach Yeo renews friendship with Pittsburgh's Bylsma

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 19, 2013 - 12:24 AM

The Wild coach is back in Pittsburgh to face his old boss, Dan Bylsma.

Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach Mike Yeo raises the Stanley Cup after the Penguins beat the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 to win Game 7 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup finals in Detroit, June 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Photo: Paul Sancya, DML - ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Every trip to Detroit is a reminder for Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.

If the visiting locker room at Joe Louis Arena is small, the coaches’ room is claustrophobic. It was June 12, 2009, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against Detroit. Pittsburgh held a 2-0 lead after two periods. Bylsma and his assistant coaches were crammed into that tiny room, about to go out and talk to the team.

“You can imagine the energy and anxiety of that situation,” Bylsma said. So he turned to assistant Mike Yeo and asked him what key points, what reminders, they should give the team.

“Mike went through a litany,” Bylsma said, laughing. “Just a litany of, like, 25 things. ‘Get deep, sticks down, stay out of the box, short shifts,’ one after another. Finally I just said, ‘Mike, Mike, I got it. I can only give ’em three or four!’ I will never forget that.”

Bylsma laughed again. This memory was fresh, as his Penguins won in Detroit just last Saturday. And you can bet he will be ribbing his former assistant about that night when they talk Thursday.

Yeo, in his third season as the Wild’s head coach, will coach Minnesota against the Penguins on Thursday night in Pittsburgh. It will be his first regular-season game as a head coach in the city where he helped coach the Penguins to that 2009 championship. And while the arena might have changed, the memories are strong.

“I had the opportunity to work for two coaches there, and both taught me an awful lot,” Yeo said of Michel Therrien and Bylsma, who took over the Penguins in February of 2009, only months before that tense, exciting Game 7 in Detroit. “As much as anything else, both Mike [Therrien] and Dan gave me so much opportunity that, when I came here, I didn’t feel like a rookie coach.’’

Strong Penguins roots

Time has made this return to Pittsburgh less emotional than it would have been earlier in his career with the Wild. Still, Yeo had deep ties to the Pittsburgh organization. He was an assistant there for four seasons, winning one Stanley Cup. Before that he was an assistant coach at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins’ AHL affiliate. Yeo, who ran the power play and the defense for Bylsma, had a strong relationship with Penguins star Sidney Crosby. Yeo’s children also were heavily involved in youth hockey there.

Yeo left the city to assume the head coaching job for the Wild’s top minor league team. After a year coaching the Houston Aeros, Yeo was named head coach of the Wild before the 2011-12 season. Anybody who watches Yeo coach the Wild sees the attention to detail, the intensity, the work ethic. Folks who were around him in Pittsburgh saw it first.

“A very smart, hardworking guy,” said Ray Shero, Pittsburgh’s executive vice president and general manager. “And he always was looking to improve as a coach. He always asked the right questions. He was a hard-nosed player, and he was intense as an assistant coach.’’

Bylsma said he leaned heavily on Yeo’s experience after taking over the team late in the championship season. Bylsma inherited an underperforming team and led it to an 18-3-4 record in the 25 games to close the 2008-09 season.

“I could not have done the job anywhere near as well as I did without Mike’s experience and familiarity with the team,” Bylsma said. “Every day, with Mike, you see the work ethic.”

Mutual admiration

Yeo, meanwhile, learned a lot from Bylsma, who again has the Penguins flying high despite a slew of injuries.

“He’s extremely smart, and I think he’s ahead of the curve,” Yeo said of Bylsma. “He had a great confidence and demeanor. The way he was able to present things and communicate with the players was great.’’

Perhaps Yeo will feel some extra emotions when his team hits the ice Thursday.

“I was fortunate with the people I worked with and the players I had a chance to coach,” Yeo said. “The city itself. It was a good time for me.”

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