Back behind bench, sort of
With no NHL, Sullivan helps pass the time by coaching son's team
The coach of the Bay State Breakers has taken up yoga.
You can't believe how much this has helped. When you invest most of your years skating as if your life depended on it, your quadriceps tend to become overdeveloped, while your hamstrings go the other way, and that leaves your body decidedly out of whack. The bottom line is that Mike Sullivan's back is killing him, and if he was in the throes of his regular job as coach of the Boston Bruins, he would have been required to suck it up, strap on a brace, and soldier on. Yet his present position allows him enough time to cross his legs, breathe deeply, and work toward healing his body -- if not the league that pays his bills.
Let's just say the responsibilities of the Bay State Breakers are a little less taxing than his other job.
"They are 10-year-olds," Sullivan explains. "They are a great group of kids. I love coaching them."
It would be an understatement to say Sullivan is overqualified for the job, but his son, Matt, doesn't seem to mind, and neither do his teammates. The Breakers' parents can't believe their luck, but the kids figure it's just another father donating his time.
"We went to a tournament in Albany, N.Y.," Sullivan reports. "After the game, the other team was asking for autographs. My team kind of laughed at that. That's when I realized, `I'm just Matt's dad.' That's exactly what I want to be."
In a perfect world, Sullivan would be Matt's dad and the active Bruins coach, juggling Christmas shopping with line changes and charter flights to Edmonton. Sullivan knows the increasing likelihood is there will be no NHL games this season, and he has trouble fathoming how it has come to this.
Coaches are the true nomads in labor strife. They are not owners, who are fighting to establish a reasonable bottom line for their team. They are not players, who have suddenly been stripped of their millions. They are Switzerland, a neutral party promoting harmony. In this case, Switzerland is feeling the pinch, too. As long as this lockout drags on, Sullivan receives only half of his salary.
"I won't say it's no issue at all," he says, "but we don't live an extravagant lifestyle. I'm fortunate that I spent a fair amount of time in the league as a player and a coach. I can afford to weather the storm. The people you feel for are those who can't."
He feels for the the bull gang, which has been reduced to putting down ice for the holiday Disney show and the occasional skater off the street. He worries about merchants who own businesses surrounding the FleetCenter and are laying off people.
He also frets about his team, which has dispersed to various nooks and crannies throughout the world, and has not had a chance to collectively put the painful memories of an excruciating loss to Montreal in the playoffs last season behind it. When a grim Sullivan left the ice after watching his team squander a 3-1 series lead to its heated rival, he was convinced the only way to put the horrific memory behind him was to move on, play the next game, and start anew.
It is almost Christmas. The next game hasn't come. The sting of the collapse against Montreal lingers.
"It's tough," Sullivan acknowledges. "I feel like we have some unfinished business. That's a feeling I lived with all summer."
He fills his days working out at the gym, and standing in the back of his yoga class trying to be as unobstrusive as possible. Sometimes, he convinces himself he's barely noticed, until someone saddles up after class and asks, "Are they ever going to play?"
Joe Thornton is playing in Switzerland. Sergei Gonchar went all the way to Russia just to get knocked out with a concussion. Sullivan has heard some of his players are skating over at Harvard a couple of days a week with other NHL locals. He wonders about Andrew Raycroft, his exciting young goalie, who became a restricted free agent before all things hockey were frozen in time until further notice. Raycroft has not signed with a European team, in part, you can be sure, because he doesn't have an NHL contract. How can you put in an escape clause to return to your NHL team if you aren't officially on a team? Raycroft is young. He needs to play. What will this lockout do to him? How will it affect the Bruins? Sullivan cannot find the answers to those questions by scanning the Internet.
"I talk to some of the players periodically," Sullivan says. "I try to stay in touch, but at this point it's more of, `How's your family?' than anything else."
He has not spoken to Thornton since the summer, when the coach reviewed the postseason debacle with his top player, and discussed how both of them could have prevented it.
"Any time you go through what we went through, it's a learning process," Sullivan explains. "You are doing yourself an injustice if you don't reflect upon it and improve from it. I've asked all the players to do that."
In the absence of an NHL routine, Sullivan wanders down to the team's AHL affiliate in Providence. He has enjoyed charting the progress of Brad Boyes, the center who came over in the Jeff Jillson trade.
"He's a very intelligent player," Sullivan says. "He's a great playmaker. He has the ability to make something out of nothing. I think he has a chance to come up to Boston and join us."
Perhaps Boyes will have to wait until next season. Perhaps Sullivan will, too. In the meantime, he oversees the Breakers three nights a week, with an occasional skills session thrown in for good measure. His team doesn't win a lot, and this is confusing to some parents, who just assume a professional coach will produce professional results. Coach Sullivan is patient, and his message is not always popular. He pleads with parents to keep their child's athletic pursuits in perspective. He offers the same advice to the elite teams he addresses for USA Hockey.
You could say the lockout is the coal in Mike Sullivan's stocking -- until he digs deeper and discovers the precious gift of being able to spend more time with his family, to coach a flock of young, impressionable, and lovable boys, to stand in the back of a room and do something for his health and well being.
It's nice -- all of it. Just as long as it's temporary.
"The hardest part is waiting," said Matt's dad, the coach of the Bay State Breakers.
Mike Sullivan, coach of the Boston Bruins, is out indefinitely.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.