After All the Success, Bowman Finds Peace : Hockey: The Red Wings’ coach has mellowed as he closes in on becoming the NHL’s first to win 1,000 games.
In 1971, Scotty Bowman, who had resigned as general manager and coach of the St. Louis Blues rather than dump defenseman Al Arbour and assistant general manager Cliff Fletcher, was disillusioned about his NHL coaching future.
To be a general manager, only a general manager, would be perfect. Then he could relax, drop the aloofness he had worn as a cloak since he was a young coach trying to hide his insecurity. Unburdened by players’ daily complaints, he could sit in cold, dim junior rinks and project how many goals a prospect would produce in five years or how an obscure Quebec League center would match up in the NHL.
That chance came to him twice--in interviews with Charlie Finley, owner of the old California Seals, and Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Kings. Exploring hockey’s newest frontier intrigued him, yet he shied away.
“I was going to move West, but I just thought it would be tough for me, being an Easterner,” he said. “I always wanted to watch junior games and I didn’t know how the proximity would be, whether there was any amateur hockey out there.”
Think of it. Scotty Bowman, general manager of the Kings. Perhaps coach at some point. How many times would he have resisted trading his draft picks for aging veterans, and instead found kids who became 50-goal scorers? How many Stanley Cups might the Kings have won by now?
We’ll never know. Because instead of venturing to California, he went home to Montreal. The rest is hockey history, a tide that has carried Bowman, winner of five Stanley Cups with the Canadiens and one with the Pittsburgh Penguins, within 10 victories of becoming the first NHL coach to win 1,000 games.
“I’d like to be the first one that did it,” said Bowman, who left Pittsburgh last summer for Detroit and a two-year coaching contract potentially worth $2 million. “Everybody has a little pride. It’s not that I’m being selfish and I want to win games for my own record.
“I’m a little disappointed I didn’t coach for five years (after he was fired by Buffalo), now I look back. I did lose five pretty productive years. But maybe I’m refreshed to go back and do it. Had I stayed on all that time, I may not have been able to keep coaching.”
Past 60, his place in hockey’s Hall of Fame already won and his plans no more definite than coaching a few years, Bowman is no longer the distant, imperious figure he was in Montreal.
“I’m surprised,” Red Wing General Manager Bryan Murray said. “He’s got a great sense of humor. The guy loves to kid.”
Murray, who yielded his coaching job to Bowman after Detroit was upset by Toronto in the first round of last spring’s playoffs, added: “He does play with the players a little bit, but he does put the pressure on them. You don’t want to be buddy-buddy, you want respect and you want them to play hard. Scotty will make them know that.
“I don’t know that they’ll know him real well, but I sense he’s a little more open than he was years ago. When you’re younger, you hammer guys. When you’re older, that’s not always the case. Your perspective might be a little different.”
His perspective was also shaped by the pressure of coaching the Canadiens, whose fans consider the Stanley Cup their birthright.
“Montreal was a very demanding place to live and play. Scotty always believed if you couldn’t tolerate him, you couldn’t be successful in Montreal,” said Doug Risebrough, a defensive standout for Bowman’s Canadiens in the 1970s and now Calgary’s general manager.
“He absorbs everything, retains everything and he’s totally prepared to manage the game. There’s not many who can manage like he can, switching lines, switching players to find players who are right for different situations. I always used to consider him like the card counter. He knew exactly who was coming up, and when, for the other team, and who he wanted to put out against them. He’s probably the best bench coach in the game.”
He still has little patience for small talk and his eyes settle sooner on a chair or a wall than on an interviewer, but he has become more tolerant of human foibles. Rick Tocchet, who played for Mike Keenan in Philadelphia before being coached by Bowman in Pittsburgh, considers Bowman the more humane of the NHL’s two celebrated taskmasters.
“Scotty was really good about giving you a second or third chance,” Tocchet said. “With Mike, you’d probably get two, never more than that. Scotty would give you a third one. He’s not the type of guy who’s going to put a hug around you, but I think a lot of his (cold) reputation is unfair. I’d have no problem playing for him again.”
Said Pittsburgh wing Kevin Stevens: “He’s not a guy who communicates with you all the time, but as you get to know him you find he has a sense of humor that’s different from other people. I learned a lot from him.”
Particularly in the last few years, Bowman has learned a lot about adjusting his style.
Hired in 1990 to be the Penguins’ director of player development, he was asked to replace Coach Bob Johnson when Johnson was found to have a brain tumor only months after Pittsburgh’s 1991 Cup victory. He took over a team that was shattered by the loss of its father figure and chief booster, a team that in the best of times flouted every defensive principle Bowman held dear. And these were far from the best of times.
“It was a tough time, a real tough time,” Stevens said. “The guys had to adjust to him, and he to us. Our team is not the easiest team in the world to coach, believe me. Scotty did a hell of a job.”
Stifling his impulse to rant about the Penguins’ defensive shortcomings, he steered them toward making high-percentage offensive plays. If they scored, fine; if not, they’d at least be less vulnerable on counterattacks. He was brusque at times, but he knew to give a veteran-laden team a good amount of freedom.
The ring from that Cup championship is the only one he wears. Someday, he will give that ring and the others to his five children and his wife.
“You change with the teams and the times, but you don’t lower your standards,” said Bowman, who can become the first coach to win the Cup with three different teams. “I demand a lot from players. I expect them to conform to team unity and I expect them to show up and work and I don’t think anybody else would do it different.”
Bowman made his first point to the perennially underachieving Red Wings by benching eight-year veteran Shawn Burr to start the season. That prompted Burr to request a trade. But instead of a plane ticket, Bowman gave him a shot at redemption, and he became one of Detroit’s best defensive forwards until a wrist injury sidelined him earlier this month.
“I think actually, with him, I’ve worked harder than I thought I could,” Burr said. “I started to see how he’s won over the years, all the little things he stresses in practice. Most coaches would let them go, but he’ll blow the whistle and stop and make you do it right. In the long run, those are the things that get you to win.”
His regular-season winning percentage of .636 (853-393-228) is the best among those who have coached 600 or more games, and his 137 playoff victories are a record. He wonders, though, whether he enjoyed those triumphs as much as he could have. He wonders if by turning players away with his stony face, he not only kept them from knowing how unsure he was, he kept them from knowing he cared. If by avoiding eye contact, fearing they would see his insecurity, he never saw who they were.
“You think in your mind that you never told your great players how great they were when you were with them,” he said. “Now, I look back and I see what some of those guys actually went through because of the process and what some of these guys today maybe wouldn’t go through. . . .
“There’s a lot of demands on a young coach because he has to perform and he has to have results. I think it’s a confidence factor. I know as a coach now, I went into (a recent game) confident the team would play a good game. I don’t think I’d be like that when I was younger. When you first start coaching there’s more uncertainty, and you do things because of that.”
A native of Verdun, a suburb of Montreal, the young Bowman was a promising forward for the Junior Canadiens, Montreal’s feeder team. His career ended at 18 when his skull was fractured by a stick swung by Jean-Guy Talbot--who later played for him in St. Louis--and he turned to coaching.
Bowman moved quickly through the junior ranks, and became an assistant coach of the Junior Canadiens when he was 23. He was promoted to coach, but the Blues hired him in 1967 to be an assistant to Coach Lynn Patrick.
He replaced Patrick early that season and led the Blues to the Stanley Cup finals in each of their first three seasons. They haven’t come close since. A first-round playoff loss in 1971 and friction with Sid Salomon III, son of the Blues’ owner, led to his exit and, eventually, a trip back home.
“I didn’t actually have a long-range goal,” Bowman said. “I went to Montreal to be coach for one year. I was looking to move into management again. I was pretty friendly with Sam Pollock (Montreal’s general manager), and he said, ‘This is a good place to step off from. Just come for a year and maybe something will open up in the managerial end.’
“The first year, we didn’t win, but we were starting to rebuild the team, so I just decided to keep going.”
Already in place was goaltender Ken Dryden, who had excelled as a rookie in Montreal’s 1971 Cup victory. Within three years, Pollock’s brilliant drafting produced Larry Robinson, Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey, Risebrough, Mario Tremblay and Yvon Lambert, the foundation for five Cups in seven seasons.
Couldn’t anyone have won with those teams? All he had to do was send Robinson over the boards to steady the defense in a close game, open the door to the ice so Lafleur could score a game-breaking goal, tap Risebrough on the shoulder and tell him to win a crucial faceoff in the defensive zone.
His players insist it wasn’t as easy as it looked.
“Had we not had Scotty Bowman, we might have fallen short,” Risebrough said. “You look back at that record: That team lost 29 games (from 1975-76 through 1977-78). How do you motivate guys who lose only 29 games? One year we were 51 points ahead (of the second-place Red Wings, in 1977-78). He instilled a standard we all acquired.”
Said Gainey, now general manager and coach of the Dallas Stars: “What set him apart was utilizing his assets properly and being uncompromising in certain areas that made an impact, such as the standard of play, standard of effort, commitment to being prepared to play. When I run into problems and confront situations, I find I can go back and pull out of my memory things that happened when he was coach--what he did, and how he tried to solve things.”
Denied the general manager’s job, Bowman left Montreal in 1979 to become general manager and coach of the Sabres. Like Pollock, Bowman made superb draft picks: He plucked defenseman Phil Housley out of high school in 1982 and put him in the NHL, and did the same a year later with Tom Barrasso. He found Dave Andreychuk, Daren Puppa, Calle Johansson, Uwe Krupp and Benoit Hogue--an impressive assembly that never quite meshed. Bowman hired and fired three coaches and went behind the bench himself each time, but he did no better, not with the general manager job to do, too. He was fired in November of 1986.
“I think what happened in Buffalo is they became impatient and panicked,” he said, “and then management was inexperienced and they panicked and traded all the young players. It takes a bit of time. We had terrific drafts, but they just thought you’re going to punch a button and turn it on.”
He had offers after that, including the New York Rangers’ general manager job in 1989, but was reluctant to uproot his family from Buffalo, where his youngest children are high school seniors. He joined the “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcasting crew, but Bowman--supposedly the coldest of men--found he missed the emotional connection of working for a team.
“You always cheer for something, and that was the toughest part of the media job, not having that,” he said. “The game’s over and you don’t even think about the result and you don’t think about who your next game is against until you look at your schedule. It wasn’t the same as being with a team as a player, coach or manager. You’re not on the roller coaster every day.”
He’s enjoying the ride, even though it has been bumpier than he anticipated. Tim Cheveldae’s knee injury in the season opener threw the goaltending into disarray, and the disk injury that has sidelined center Steve Yzerman forced Bowman to add another youngster to the half-dozen already in the lineup, but Bowman’s experience and patience have paid off. After a 3-7 start, the Red Wings are 16-6-2, including a 7-1 surge that has lifted them to fifth in the Western Conference playoff rankings.
Sergei Fedorov has been brilliant during Yzerman’s absence, and on Thursday, just before the Christmas break, he overtook the Kings’ Wayne Gretzky for the NHL scoring lead. Cheveldae has returned and Yzerman is expected back next week.
To be sure, Bowman isn’t completely happy. Detroit’s defense ranks 21st in the league, with a 3.51 goals-against average, and he has forged truces with Paul Coffey, whose defensive lapses irked Bowman early in the season; Dino Ciccarelli, whose production is down markedly, and left wing Keith Primeau, who has complained he’d prefer to play center. Still, Bowman has managed to ride out every crisis.
“I’m sold on the fact that you have to keep getting better because it doesn’t matter how good you are, somebody else is going to catch up,” he said. “Either you get better or you get worse, and I look for this team to improve as they get used to each other.
“We have a team that if our offense is churning on all eight cylinders and making the right plays, we will be good enough defensively. We have good depth. I like that factor, What I hope is we’re experienced enough. I know we’re fast enough and we can play well enough defensively.
“It’ll come. Whether it will come quick, I don’t know. . . . I’d like to end my career with a team that has a chance to win, and I think this one does.”