BOSTON (AP) _ Mike O'Connell was the struggling coach of an independent minor league team in San Diego more than 10 years ago when he called Boston University coach Jack Parker looking for players. Parker sent out Mike Sullivan, one of his former captains who hadn't attracted much interest from the NHL.
``He saw that (Sullivan) was a character guy,'' Parker recalled on Monday. ``Once you know him, you know it's a guy you want to keep around.''
Now the general manager of the Boston Bruins, O'Connell called on Sullivan again Monday, this time to make him the team's head coach. The 35-year-old former Bruin is the youngest head coach in the NHL, 13 months younger than Carolina's Paul Maurice.
``I know I'm still a little wet behind the ears when it comes to the coaching ranks,'' said Sullivan, who only retired as a player a year ago and went straight into coaching with the Bruins' American Hockey League affiliate. ``I can't say enough about the experience I had in Providence. Hopefully it will prepare me for what lies ahead.''
A 10-year veteran of the NHL who played for Boston, San Jose, Calgary and Phoenix, Sullivan was heading into the AHL playoffs in his first season there when O'Connell fired Boston coach Robbie Ftorek with nine games left in the regular season and took over behind the bench himself. A little rusty on some of the finer points of coaching, O'Connell asked Sullivan to help out.
``I had a chance to work with Mike for a month or so,'' O'Connell said after giving Sullivan a three-year contract. ``It came very easily to him. It was remarkable for such a young coach to have that ability.''
The Bruins lost to the New Jersey Devils in the first round of the playoffs, and O'Connell stepped down as coach.
From then on, speculation focused on Sullivan for the job. The team even sent out a news release last week to announce a Wednesday news conference; it was canceled a half-hour later because of what O'Connell said was a problem getting everyone's schedules to mesh.
``Mike was the front-runner,'' O'Connell said. ``But you want to make sure you touch all the bases.''
Sullivan spent his time in the NHL as a center, finishing with 53 goals and 80 assists in 667 games. He played 77 games for Boston in 1997-98, scoring five goals and adding 13 assists, and some of his former teammates are now on his roster.
He coached Providence to a division title and a 47-17-9-4 record in his only season there.
``I feel very fortunate to have not only played for the team and worn the Bruins jersey, but also to stand behind the bench,'' he said at a news conference attended by dozens of family members, including his parents, in-laws, wife and children, brothers, sisters and uncles.
``I'm just a regular guy that grew up in the area that loved the Bruins and loves hockey,'' said Sullivan, a native of the Boston suburb of Marshfield. ``I can't tell you the emotions I feel right now.''
Sullivan was captain at BU in 1989-90, and becomes the second former BU player to become an NHL head coach since the regular season ended. Steve Stirling was hired by the New York Islanders on June 4.
Pat Burns coached three full years in Boston before being fired eight games into the 2000-01 season. He was replaced by Mike Keenan, who finished the season but did not have his contract picked up after the Bruins missed the playoffs.
Keenan was replaced by Ftorek, who led the team to the playoffs in the 2001-02 season. However, the Bruins were knocked out in the first round.
Last season, O'Connell fired Ftorek after the Bruins dropped from an NHL-best 19-4-3-1 on Dec. 8 to 33-28-8-4. Sullivan was reluctant to leave Providence while his team was in a playoff race of its own.
``But when the boss asks you to help,'' he said, ``you want to do what you can.''