For His Health

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One day, Scotty Bowman will wake up and know he's ready to retire.

"In hockey, there's a lot of years when you wonder if you're in the right job. I can't do it for much longer, I know that," said Bowman, who tied Toe Blake's record of eight Stanley Cup coaching victories in June when he led the Detroit Red Wings to their second successive Cup triumph.

"Two years ago I signed a two-year contract, and that's up after this year. A lot depends on how I feel and how they [Red Wing executives] feel. I know enough now not to plan much ahead."

Despite enduring a series of emotional and physical upheavals last summer, Bowman wasn't ready to hang up his whistle. Coaching still intrigues him, still makes him feel vital and alive. And although the Red Wings carry a four-game losing streak into today's game against the Mighty Ducks at the Pond of Anaheim, Bowman doesn't regret his decision to return for his 27th season behind an NHL bench.

"It's a big challenge to win again because other teams have improved and you don't know whether you can maintain what we have," Bowman said Saturday after directing practice from the bench instead of the ice, a concession to the knee replacement surgery he underwent in August a month after undergoing angioplasty to clear a blocked artery.

"You have a formula you know will work, and you try to apply it. Our team hopefully is as hungry as they were. Nothing is surfacing to indicate this team doesn't want to win. I keep reminding them that other teams use our team as a benchmark for their performances. . . . We're going through an adverse condition right now, but we're better than our record indicates. It's a new challenge."

It's the quest for a new wrinkle, a new slant on an old situation that keeps him on the job at 65.

Bowman could have left the Red Wings in the steady hands of associate coaches Barry Smith and Dave Lewis, who guided the team to a 4-1 record before he returned on Oct. 23. No one would have blamed Bowman for stepping aside, not with his health a concern and the deep emotional jolt of having lost his 61-year-old brother, Jack, to a heart attack a week after the Red Wings swept the Washington Capitals in the Cup finals.

Those who know him as well as he allows anyone outside his family to know him believed the cumulative blows would push him toward retirement.

"It's hard to read his mind. Yes, I was surprised, actually, when he came back," said center Igor Larionov, perhaps the closest to Bowman of all the Red Wings. "The unexpected loss of his brother was such a tough situation for him. Having won two Cups in a row, I thought maybe he would retire. He's a human being and a family man."

King Coach Larry Robinson played for Bowman on five Cup-winning teams in Montreal, but until he became a coach, Robinson never understood Bowman or grasped the enormity of Bowman's accomplishments. Even with his new insights, Robinson was surprised Bowman returned.

"I think he took Jack's death very, very hard. I think he kind of saw himself there a little bit," Robinson said. "But then you look at it another way--we're all the same. Hockey's been our life and we really don't know anything else."

Bowman jokes he came back because he didn't know what he'd do in the winter if he weren't behind a bench, where he has been--except for three years spent scouting and as the Pittsburgh Penguins' director of player development--since he left his job in a paint factory to coach a junior team in Montreal in 1956.

In truth, he wants to be there--and he's still at the top of his profession. No one has his eye for detail or memory for games, situations or statistics; few are as adept at motivating players and getting the most out of his resources.

He had great players in Montreal, certainly. He has outstanding players in Detroit in Larionov, Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Larry Murphy, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov and others. It's his ability to prepare players for any situation that distinguishes him from the interchangeable passengers on the coaching carousel, the coaches who imitate his gruffness but forget his fairness and willingness to offer second chances when players merit it.

"I know his best players always play hard and are usually the best players every night," said Duck Coach Craig Hartsburg, who played for Bowman in a Canada Cup tournament and coached against him while with the Chicago Blackhawks. "To me, that's the sign of a good coach. Shanahan, Fedorov, those guys every night are working for him. Just the way they play, at such a high tempo, means they work and play hard. A lot has to do with the players, too.

"I'm glad he did come back. You talk about star players and the need for them in this league--as far as coaches go, he's had so much success. He's important to the game."

The game is important to Bowman, too. So is his health.

His brother's unexpected death spurred him to take a much-delayed stress test, which found the blocked artery. He was also told to consider the knee replacement and forget the miracle he had hoped would end two years of constant pain. With a new knee, he is exercising more easily, which helps his heart and has reduced his weight about 20 pounds.

"I made up my mind I was coming back as long as it didn't jeopardize my health," he said. "I got the [heart] procedure done and the doctor advised me to take care of my knee. I can now walk or go on a treadmill, which I couldn't do for two years. It's coming along good. Every day it gets a little better. I keep working on my rehab, which is important. It's pretty easy to do when you're around the team because you're around the trainers and the training room.

"I wanted to stay with the team. I wouldn't want to just scout. It's tough, when you've coached all your life, to be a scout. But I wouldn't have taken a shot at it if I hadn't been given a clean bill of health."

Although the Red Wings are struggling as they delve into a stretch of 18 consecutive games within the Western Conference, Bowman has stayed calm. He knows winger Vyacheslov Kozlov, who has gone 12 games without a goal, hasn't lost his skills. He knows what Fedorov can do, even though Fedorov hasn't had a point in four games. And he knows defenseman Uwe Krupp, idled by a knee injury, will soon return to get the puck up quickly to the forwards.

"The games have been pretty tight," Bowman said. "It's been tough on our young defensemen, but we're playing pretty good defensively. Any time a defenseman goes down, you see the effect it has on a team. You see what a guy like [Rob] Blake does for L.A., [Ray] Bourque in Boston or [Chris] Pronger in St. Louis."

In the meantime, Bowman keeps juggling his lines and his thoughts. He's where he wants to be and belongs.

"I think I would have had an empty feeling if I hadn't come back," he said. "I did it once in Montreal [leaving to become general manager of the Sabres in 1979 after four consecutive Cup triumphs]. I don't regret it, because I improved myself, but you still wonder, could we have won five in a row?"

This time, at least, he doesn't have to wonder what might have been.

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