Off-ice, on-book with Firebirds’ Bylsma

Photo: Mike Zitek

by Judd Spicer | AHL On The Beat

As the Coachella Valley Firebirds ready to pen the final chapters of the 2023-24 regular season, head coach Dan Bylsma is following the narrative word for word.

Literally and, well, literarily.

Long a voracious reader, Bylsma’s influence on the Firebirds is a pairing of words both spoken and written.

Hockey scars considered, the bespectacled Bylsma does project something of a bookish appearance, and such an image has been well-manifested across the pages of time; between 1998 and 2003, he co-authored four books with his father, Jay Bylsma: So You Want to Play in the NHL, So Your Son Wants to Play in the NHL, Pitcher’s Hands Is Out! and Slam Dunks Not Allowed!

Outside his office, Bylsma has a highly curated bookshelf of about 100 books available for checkout for players and staff. Call it the “Bylbrary.”

“I felt like when I got done with college (Bowling Green) and started my pro hockey career, my mind was idle,” said Bylsma, eyeing the shelves. “So, I picked up reading quite heavily on the road and during my down time.”

Noting that he had recently donated 10 boxes of his favorite books that he’d long kept across his playing and coaching journey, Bylsma has something of a categorized shelving system for today’s succinct collection, breaking down the books between best sellers, biographies, leadership/coaching and inspiration/motivation.

With John Hayden, Jimmy Schuldt, Shane Wright and Connor Carrick as the roster’s biggest bookworms, Bylsma’s collection proves an impressively diverse list of titles, with the fulcrum perhaps shedding some light on the head coach’s own mantras – personal betterment and success.

“I just think we all should be in the process of making ourselves better, and this is a way for me, and also the players, to do that,” Bylsma said.

Both authors and subjects matters upon the shelves trend far from merely the blue lines. Paging from history to self-improvement to fiction and sport, certain spines bear the names of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Military books on West Point and the Navy SEALs find Bylsma’s Best, as do titles on/by/about Malcolm Gladwell, Zen perspective, fishing, baseball and Mother Teresa.

A pair of hockey books by performance specialist Saul L. Miller, including Hockey Tough, were spared the donation pile.

“I read these when I was playing, learning about my own mental strength and toughness,” said Bylsma.

Additional sporting books include titles by or about Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Ken Dryden, along with hoopsters Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain. As one might imagine, the coaching section is flush, with selections by Pat Riley, Nick Saban, Bill Walsh and Vince Lombardi.

At the coaching forefront are a trio of books by or about 10-time NCAA men’s basketball champion John Wooden (scaled down from the dozen “Wizard” books he once had), whom Bylsma considers the best coach. In any sport. Ever.

“People ask, ‘What kind of coach do you want to be, or who did you learn from,’” Bylsma said. “I never met the man, but I think it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t the greatest coach of all-time. His detailed approach, his through approach, his pyramid of success built on all the things a team should have and a player should have. It’s something that I learn from and try to model.”

For some added insight into the Bylsma book mind, here are a trio of titles he holds in particularly high esteem:

  • Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life, by James Kerr (2013)

    This year, Bylsma gave every player a copy of this book about the iconic New Zealand rugby club, considered by many the world’s greatest sporting team.

    “My copy is a little older,” Bylsma said, “and this is what I carry in my bag right now, all the time. This book, in recent years, is one I’ve really learned from and what I’ve taken from it is what I’m trying to bring to the team: leadership, how we want to act, how we want to play and perform.”

    Retaining words of particular note is nothing new for the head coach.

    “I have a quote journal that I keep, and I’ll put these quotes into that,” he added. “And I have thousands of quotes.”

  • Life’s Greatest Lessons: 20 Things That Matter, by Hal Urban (2003)

    Another title Bylsma has bestowed upon the Firebirds’ players. “It’s not a religious book, though sometimes I say it’s my daily bible, because I revisit it every year,” he said. “It’s about how to live your life, about what’s important.”

  • Move Ahead With Possibility Thinking, by Robert H. Schuller (1967)

    Thumbing these well-frayed pages gives Bylsma some pause when considering the “when” and “why” he read (and no doubt re-read) the title.

    “From the days when I was trying to be these guys,” he says, referencing his players, “and wrestling with life and profession and work. This book right here is really old… back from when I was searching and trying to become a better person. And I still am trying.”