First, can you let readers know about your coaching job with Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL- how you got started and what you like most as a coach?
Towards the end of my career I knew I wanted to stay involved in the game. I loved teaching and wanted to pass on my teachings to younger players. That was my thought process to getting involved in coaching.
I got a coaching job right after I retired from the game and then signed on with Grand Rapids and have been here since.
As a coach, who are some of the players and coaches that most influenced your coaching style today, and how so?
It’s a lot different than being a player. As a player you worry about yourself. As a coach you worry about twenty-five players. But I enjoy being a part of the game. And being in the AHL, seeing a player in Detroit that came through the system is a shot in the arm, knowing I had something to do with their success. It feels good seeing guys like Helms and Abdicator have success and sign on for big money.
I was fortunate to have real good coaches throughout my career, even as a kid. I have always taken what fits my personality and used it to create a good formula for myself.
Bob Johnson was a fantastic man – as a coach and person. My junior coach – same thing. I jokingly give him crap now for getting me into coaching (laughing). It’s what they taught me as a person – that translates to being a good coach.
Scotty Bowman was great behind the bench – he was always able to deflect distractions. And Rick Lee was direct as a coach. He told you the way it was. Players want that – especially at the NHL level. Don’t beat around the bush – just tell me what I need to do…
You read today about the struggles many NFL players face in transitioning from football to a post-sports career. Is the problem as prominent with NHL players?
It’s funny because I just had a conversation with the coach on this yesterday. I don’t have any definite conclusions – it depends on the individual I think. We live in a fantasy world as a player. We’re treated so well, make lots of money. It’s not 9-5… It’s a fantasy – being in the limelight and being respected because of our talent.
But what happens when it’s all gone. It’s a tough transition.
It goes to how you are raised, ultimately. If you were raised to be grounded – with morals. Some are more fortunate and some get distracted in life.
And people will try to help you outside of hockey. The NHLPA has programs to help with the transition. The league does a lot, but how much is enough? There’s enough out there – you should be adult and go look for it. At the end of the day it really does fall back on how you were raised. I thank my parents immensely for their support and beliefs. We’re a product of our parents.
You were drafted by the Penguins in ’85 and started with the Penguins in ’90. Who helped you adjust to the NHL – both on and off the ice – as a rookie? And how did they do so – any examples?
That’s the importance of veterans. I had great teammates. They had me over for dinner and helped me – guys like Larry Murphy and Troy Loney. They’d tell you to do this or don’t do that.
That’s vital for kids – to be surrounded by veterans. And we haf a great bunch of guys on those Pens teams. That helps you adapt. Again, we live in a fantasy world. You’re twenty years-old, making incredible money and you want to live it up. But careers don’t last forever. You start preparing now, but live the life. I tell people to play as long as they can – there’s no other lifestyle like this. Play until they take you out!
I couldn’t skate (laughing)! They stuck me back there because I couldn’t skate. Now, it’s all changed. But it stuck with me.
You won to Stanley Cups very early in your career with the Penguins. Were you able to fully appreciate the rarity of doing so and what was the team’s mindset going into the first cup series?
My first few years of winning championships and having success – I was like, “Great! This is easy – bring on the next one!”
But it took me ten years to win another one. Once you taste it and see how long it takes, you appreciate it more. It takes chemistry. That was a special time – it takes everything to go just right.
How important is it from your perspective on being both the first Korean-born hockey player to ever play in the NHL and the first of Korean descent to have his name engraved on the Cup?
It was a great honor to have that. Being born Korean and to be first was a real honor. The Korean community in Toronto and in Korea too – where they really aren’t big on hockey normally – the way they received me was fantastic. I appreciated that a lot. But it’s a dream to win the Stanley Cup as a hockey player, not as a Korean. I was a hockey player striving for the Cup.
Who were some of the biggest characters on that Penguins team and what made them so? Any examples of the hijinks/personalities on that team?
Kevin Stevens had that loud voice. The whole team had that chemistry. The role players, skill players, characters and hard workers…
Any hijinks happen to you you can share?
Ok – this is going to embarrass myself! A lot happened to me. Bryan Trottier was the biggest character – he used to sit beside you and tell you stories. He didn’t care if you were a veteran or a rookie.
Well, in training camp, we were there when DeBartolo also owned the NFL 49’ers. One year he took us all to see the 49’ers facility. We’re all on the bus and all of us fell asleep afterwards after a long day. Everyone got up, but Bryan told everyone not to worry about me, to let me get some sleep. Well, I woke up, startled. No one was on the bus – it had gone back to the depot with me still on it (laughing)! Panic set in, but the bus driver finally took me back to the hotel.
And even though it happened to me, that’s the kind of stuff that helps a team. It lightens the mood.
You were traded in ’93 to Los Angeles. How difficult was that for you and in general for players, when most have to deal with a lot of movement between the minors and pros and between teams?
I wasn’t used to that – I was in the Penguins organization for so many years before the trade. It was difficult – but also exciting. The other team wanted me – that was exciting.
I was always told to bleed and sweat for your team. Team loyalty. So that wasn’t there anymore – you don’t have that now. So that was hard – it was a hard transition.
But, I got traded many times after that. And I got it to a system where I could pack my things in twenty minutes (laughing). It’s all part of the growth and maturity of a person.
What are your favorite memories of your time in Pittsburgh?
I have so many great memories. I was just recently there for the 20th anniversary a short while ago. At the end of the night, Wendell Young asked me if I ever talked about hockey. And we didn’t. It was all about the stuff you did off the ice.
The memories of the people outside of the game. The guys in the dressing room, friends on the team, friends and fans in the city. It was fantastic how the fans received me in Pittsburgh. Those are all great memories. And it call comes back to you – those little stories that mean so much…..