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Coach’s no-nonsense approach fostered by Jesuit high school

July 18, 2020 GMT
Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan makes his point with referee Kelly Sutherland during the second period in Game 6 of the first-round NHL hockey playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center, on April 22, 2018 photo, in Philadelphia. Where would the coach who turned around the Penguins’ 2015-16 season spend his day with the Stanley Cup? In the heart of Bruins country, at his old high school, Boston College High School. (Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan makes his point with referee Kelly Sutherland during the second period in Game 6 of the first-round NHL hockey playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center, on April 22, 2018 photo, in Philadelphia. Where would the coach who turned around the Penguins’ 2015-16 season spend his day with the Stanley Cup? In the heart of Bruins country, at his old high school, Boston College High School. (Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan makes his point with referee Kelly Sutherland during the second period in Game 6 of the first-round NHL hockey playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center, on April 22, 2018 photo, in Philadelphia. Where would the coach who turned around the Penguins’ 2015-16 season spend his day with the Stanley Cup? In the heart of Bruins country, at his old high school, Boston College High School. (Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — After his champagne-soaked suit finally dried and the last victory cigar burned out, Mike Sullivan had a decision: Where would the coach who turned around the Penguins’ 2015-16 season spend his day with the Stanley Cup?

He began making a list of the people and places that had a profound impact on his life, helping him reach the pinnacle of his profession. So this is how, in the heart of Bruins country, the coach of an Eastern Conference rival walked back through the doors of Boston College High School.

Sullivan greeted his former teachers as Mr. Peloquin and Mr. Argento, out of respect, even after they kept insisting he use their first names. OK, Mr. Peloquin. He posed for photos. Shook hands with students.

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Finally, he shared a message with the hockey players. BC High, he told them, is the kind of place that the longer you’re away, the more you appreciate it.

“That just shows you that he hasn’t forgotten his roots and where he’s come from,” said Jon Bartlett, who was a year behind Sullivan in school and now serves as the BC High athletic director.

Well, it’s been four years since that homecoming. Four more years for that appreciation to grow.

During this strange, injury-plagued, pandemic-paused NHL season, the lessons Sullivan learned at BC High are especially relevant. To understand how the Penguins weathered injuries to their biggest names and best players, go back to those years at BC High.

It’s a place where a lanky kid with a mouth full of braces became a budding hockey star with a booming voice. It’s where classmates became lifelong friends — and friends became brothers. It’s where “Men for Others” is more than a motto.

More than anything, it’s where a strict, regimented, Jesuit education shaped Sullivan into the no-nonsense coach who would add more banners to the Penguins’ championship tradition and, this season, enforce a disciplined brand of hockey that would make him a leading candidate for the NHL’s Jack Adams Award.

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Maybe it’s fitting, considering the way the Penguins’ regular season unfolded, that this story starts with an injury.

As an officer in the Spanish army, Ignatius of Loyola’s leg was mangled by a cannonball. During the rehab process, he discovered books about the saints that would inspire him to found the Society of Jesus in 1534. Soon, the members — commonly called Jesuits — opened a sprawling network of schools around the world, reaching Boston’s growing population of Irish-Catholic immigrants in 1863.

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The strict nature of the Jesuit education is befitting a soldier turned saint.

“It’s a no-nonsense school,” Sullivan said. “They aren’t warm and fuzzy by any stretch. They’re trying to teach boys who come in as freshmen how to become young men when they graduate.”

Any infraction – whether it be insubordination in class, tardiness or even something as minor as an untucked shirt that violated the dress code – earned offenders a detention-like punishment called JUG. Some say it’s an acronym for “Justice Under God,” which might not be 100% accurate, but it does channel just the right amount of Catholic guilt.

In the early days of BC High, offenders would be forced to march around in circles with their hands behind their backs. The punishments have become somewhat milder and more modern as the years have passed. In Sullivan’s day, an aging, frail priest named Father Joe Bennett would enlist JUG offenders to help with landscaping, or he’d hand them a trash bag and tell them not to come back until it was full.

“One of the funniest things, in the summer these kids would be up to their neck in a hole with a shovel,” said Bob Peloquin, who taught Sullivan Latin during his sophomore and junior years at BC High. “If we ever did this (stuff) now, boy, we’d be on the front page of the newspaper.”

It seemed there was no escaping the watchful eye of the JUG masters. As a new teacher fresh out of college, Nick Argento was walking through the hallway without his necktie when Father Joe Quinn, a priest with a great passion for physical sports, pulled him aside.

Why aren’t you in class?

“I started to say, ‘Father, no, I’m a history teacher here,’ ” Argento remembers.

“Don’t ‘father’ me son,” Father Quinn quipped back. “You’ve got to go to JUG.”

Some of that attitude must have rubbed off on Sullivan. Penguins players have almost universally pointed out their coach’s regimented approach since he took over an under-performing, star-laden team in 2015-16 and led them to back-to-back Stanley Cups.

This year, when the stars fell out of the lineup — reaching an almost comical point when defenseman Juuso Riikola was forced to play forward — Sullivan leaned on simplicity and structure, cutting down odd-man rushes as the Penguins became one of the league’s least-penalized teams. Sullivan summed up the approach concisely when he said, “Discipline in all of its forms is what makes a team hard to play against.”

When this style produced a number of tough-luck results early, including an especially rough 2-1 loss Nov. 15 in New Jersey, Sullivan was asked how he could persuade the Penguins to keep playing this way when they weren’t getting the results to reinforce it.

“Because they have no other choice,” he said, sharply.

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The strict nature of the school, coupled with the fact that it was all boys, created a sort of brotherhood at BC High. Within days of enrolling in 1982, Sullivan met two classmates who would become some of his closest lifelong friends.

Sullivan, like many freshmen eager to try their hand at every extracurricular activity, went out for the football team. The freshman football coach, Steve Hughes, remembers him as a rawboned running back who could put his head down and “pick up some hard yards,” which somehow sounds a little bit harder in a Boston accent.

Early in camp, they were working on handoffs and other backfield drills when Sullivan was paired with a quarterback named Derik Malone. Almost instantly, they clicked.

“He just has this ability to attract people to him,” Malone said. “And not by being loud or boisterous. He’s a guy that would laugh at your jokes. If you give him a hard time, he’s going to give you a hard time back.”

As luck would have it, it turned out they were in the same homeroom, along with Jim Meagher. But while Malone and Sullivan clicked immediately, for whatever reason, Meagher and Sullivan clashed.

“Maybe we were both a little stubborn, a little hard-headed,” Meagher said. “You’re not going to talk to me. I won’t talk to you. Go do your own thing.”

That youthful hardheadedness quickly faded. Before long, Sullivan, Meagher and Malone were almost inseparable.

Eventually, all three buddies purchased jalopy Ford Granadas. Sullivan’s car door didn’t shut quite right, so you had to hold it closed as you rode down the highway. Meagher’s had some floorboards missing, so you could see the road flying by as you were driving.

As their friendship grew, Meagher started to share more details of his personal story. His upbringing was rough. His father was out of the picture early. Then, when Meagher was about 12, his mother died of cancer. He went to live with cousins, but the relationship was always rocky.

To pay his own way at BC High, Meagher worked a full-time job at a fast-food joint after school, plus work-study jobs around campus. One of Meagher’s work-study jobs was in the principal’s office, which came in handy for Sullivan.

Sullivan lived out in Marshfield, Mass., a coastal town about 45 minutes from BC High. Fighting the rush-hour traffic each day, he was routinely late. Yet, when the list of absentees and tardy students reached the principal’s desk, somehow Sullivan’s name was never on it.

“I’d like to take a little bit of credit for keeping him out of JUG,” Meagher said. “I was able to take his name off the list more than once.”

Nonetheless, the importance of punctuality stuck. When Sullivan took over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, a player walked in late to one of the first meetings. Sullivan erupted during one of those first tone-setting moments: “Where is your watch?”

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Aside from the occasional tardiness, Sullivan was never much of a troublemaker. Well, there was this one time. …

BC High would hold dances and invite its sister schools. As the lights dimmed and teenagers awkwardly swayed to the music, Sullivan got a little too close to one girl from Notre Dame Academy named Kate. A priest tapped him on the shoulder.

“Leave a little room for the Holy Spirit,” he said.

Other than those minor dust-ups with authority, Sullivan was a stellar student, almost universally liked by the staff. If lunch lasted 45 minutes, Sullivan would finish in 20 and spend the rest of the time studying. Before hockey practice, he was studying. When he finally got home at 7:30 p.m., his mother made sure he was studying.

“His role in our group was the voice of reason,” said his high school classmate Pete Hughes, who is now the head baseball coach at Kansas State. “He always seemed a little more serious than the rest of us.”

Sullivan’s teachers remember “Michael” as a student mature beyond his years with pristine handwriting and incredibly detailed notes. Argento, who taught Sullivan a senior year economics class, still uses that note-taking as an example for his students.

While the teachers helped reinforce these behaviors, they know it started at home.

“Anybody who had Mike Sullivan, they knew Mrs. Sullivan,” Peloquin said. “His mother was really a force. When she spoke, people listened. I can recall her coming into parents’ night and, man, I’d stand at attention.”

His parents were raised in South Boston, a working-class part of town where people are tough out of necessity. Even though George and Myrna raised their five kids in Marshfield, the “Southie” mentality must have been a dominant gene in their bloodline.

Sullivan still considers his dad to be his first and best coach. He’s the one who built a backyard of a young athlete’s dreams, with a horseshoe pit, pool basketball hoop and a full Wiffle ball diamond, complete with lights.

But from Myrna, a nurse, he inherited his size, his emphasis on academics … and maybe something more.

“His mom would give you brutal honesty, and tell you exactly what she felt,” Malone said. “If you didn’t like it, then maybe you should look in the mirror.

“But also, she was one of the kindest women you’ll ever meet in your life. Huge heart. Very religious. Would do anything for you. And I think Mike is that way.”

Perhaps the story that sums her up is this: One summer, Myrna wanted Mike and his buddies to build her a bigger deck. Yeah, yeah, they said. They promised to get around to it on the weekend when they weren’t so busy with summer jobs and sports.

They came home late one night and couldn’t find Myrna. Finally, they looked outside and there she was, in the dark with a nightgown slung over her shoulders, slippers on her feet and a hammer in her hand, ripping apart the deck boards herself.

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Among the lessons at BC High, leadership ranked near the top of the list. BC High makes it explicitly clear in its mission statement that it wants to “form leaders of competence, conscience and compassion.”

“And leadership doesn’t necessarily mean being the president or being the king or being the head of it,” said Father Don MacMillan, a BC High grad himself who worked in the campus ministries office when Sullivan was in school. “It just means taking the lead toward justice, taking the lead toward truth, taking the lead and making sure that people are cared for.”

A major point of emphasis was the motto, “Men for Others.” Teachers would try to weave this message into their classes.

“That’s our whole purpose,” said Steve Hughes, the football coach who went on to become a principal of BC High. “If we’re not producing young men of courage, who know right from wrong and have the courage to do what’s right, there’s no real reason for us to be a school.”

It’s remarkable the number of successful leaders who came out of Sullivan’s same circle. Paul Carey would go on to hit a walk-off grand slam in the College World Series during his freshman season at Stanford. Mark Dennehy coaches the Binghamton Devils of the American Hockey League. There’s Peter Hughes at Kansas State. There are others, too.

“But Mike was at the top of the class,” Dennehy said. “You knew he was going to be in sports for a long time.”

A left-handed forward who relied on skill more than speed, Sullivan would rack up more than 100 career points. The production earned Sullivan MVP of the Catholic Conference and a spot on the Boston Globe’s 1986 All-Scholastic team.

It didn’t take a stat sheet or highlight reel to feel Sullivan’s leadership. Even then, you could hear it.

“You always knew where Sully was on the ice,” said Dennehy, a tri-captain with Sullivan during their senior season in 1986. “Even at that young age, it was almost like he reached puberty before everybody else. That voice of his, you could hear when he was open.”

In the yearbook from Sullivan’s senior year, there’s a photo. The three captains — Mark Dennehy, Brendan Flynn and Sullivan — stood at center ice, flanked by the coaching staff. There was Sullivan, front and center. Maybe it was more than just because he was the tallest.

“It’s somewhat emblematic, too,” Dennehy said. “The guys saw how hard Sully played and how badly he wanted to win. It was easy to rally around him.”

That senior season was special. BC High stormed through the Catholic Conference. They only lost one in-state game that season — against their archrival in the conference, Catholic Memorial.

In the playoffs, the stage was set for a rematch in the Boston Garden. BC High met Catholic Memorial once more with a trip to the state title game on the line. Given the strength of the eastern part of the state, it was virtually a given that whichever team won that day would be crowned the state champion.

Using an aggressive forechecking system handed down from CM alum and Boston University coach Jack Parker, the rival beat BC High, 5-1. It wouldn’t be long before Sullivan was on the other side of Parker’s expertise.

Parker didn’t win many recruiting battles for BC High athletes, many of whom went on to Boston College. The coach remembers visiting Sullivan’s home and sitting in the family living room, where he was peppered with questions from Myrna. He walked out of that meeting confident he had found a future star.

“No question he’ll be the captain of the team,” Parker remembers telling his assistant coaches. “And he was from the get-go. He didn’t need an ‘A’ or a ‘C’ on his shirt to be a leader.”

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The friendships forged at BC High and the “Men for Others” mentality came together in one afternoon that would reshape the Sullivan family.

Meagher and Sullivan were painting houses or doing some type of construction. Meagher was used to fending for himself ever since his mother passed away, but the already bumpy relationship with his cousins was devolving.

Sullivan had an idea. Why don’t you come stay with my family?

“Oh no,” Meagher said. “I couldn’t do that. Your parents would get sick of me.”

“They’re all for it,” Sullivan answered. “They told me to ask you.”

They got to Sullivan’s house in Marshfield and Mike’s parents didn’t know anything about their son’s invitation. Yet, when he essentially asked them on the spot, they agreed without hesitation.

“What that family did for Jim is amazing,” Malone said. “They basically took him in and he was like another brother to Mike.”

While Myrna showed the compassionate heart behind her tough facade that day, she made sure Meagher got the same tough love as the other five kids. When she found out Meagher didn’t exactly have a plan after high school, she made him a deal. If he was going to stay under her roof, he had to work toward going to college.

“Save up the money, do whatever it took,” Meagher said.

From that point on — Christmas, Thanksgiving, anything — Meagher would come back to the Sullivans’ house in Marshfield. On his wedding day, the traditional mother and son dance was shared between Meagher and Myrna. His best man, not surprisingly, was Mike.

So while they sent their son Mike to BC High to get an education and become a principled man of values, what they might not have expected was for him to also graduate school with another brother.

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A few weeks ago, Sullivan was once again back in Boston, this time for a round of golf with his old buddies.

Meagher and Sullivan on one team. Malone and one of his friends on the other. Four decades since they were together in the same homeroom, the boys from BC High remain some of Sullivan’s closest confidants — a testament to his loyalty.

And if you remember that girl Kate from the school dance, well, they shared a few more dances over time and now have three kids of their own, including a son, Matt, whom Mike encouraged to attend BC High.

Out on the course, Sullivan and Meagher led by two strokes with three holes to go. But the lead collapsed. On the 18th hole, Sullivan had a putt of less than 6 feet to nullify it all and finish the day tied. He pulled the putter from his bag and slowly strolled to the green.

“He kind of took his time, thinking I was going to give it to him,” Malone said.

Of course he didn’t. Sullivan drew back his club and smacked the ball, sending it spinning toward the hole along the undulating green — and wide.

But soon, with the lessons from BC High guiding him and the friends he made along the way behind him, Sullivan will take aim at another cup.

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Online:

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com