Bowman May Lack Zen but Not Winning Touch

They couldn't be more different. Laker Coach Phil Jackson, the NBA's Zen Master, trendy soul patch sprouting under his lower lip, and Detroit Red Wing Coach Scotty Bowman, irascible Mr. Spacely from "The Jetsons" cartoons come to life, chin pointed skyward, eyes seeing and mind resolving problems that haven't arisen yet.

One is Gandhi. The other is Stephen Hawking. Both are brilliant, and both are apt to leave listeners feeling they've been in the presence of genius but not quite sure what they'd just heard.

Although their personalities stand in stark contrast, Jackson and Bowman share several traits beyond being lucky enough to coach teams led by superstars. And those traits make them uniquely suited to succeed in an era when the hammer of authority is firmly in the grasp of players, not management, and the playoffs are a two-month grind tacked onto a seemingly interminable season.

Tonight, a day after Jackson tied Red Auerbach's record of nine league titles as a coach, Bowman can win his ninth Stanley Cup championship as a coach, breaking the record Toe Blake set with the Montreal Canadiens.

Is it an affront to Auerbach or Blake to mention Jackson and Bowman in the same breath, or do they deserve the same reverence?

We often view Auerbach, the brash New Yorker, and Blake, the self-made man who coached as intensely as he'd played during a standout career, through the prism of nostalgia (and clouds of cigar smoke).

Their mystique is undeniable but impenetrable, because 24-hour news channels, tell-all Web sites and sports-talk shows hadn't been invented yet to dish dirt and argue arcane points. It's tempting to exalt them and disdain the familiar, but that would be wrong.

Bowman, like Jackson, is a master of head games. Both know when to stroke and when to go to the whip, when to prod and when to praise. In Montreal, where Bowman won five Stanley Cup titles in eight seasons, he was blessed with boundless talent, as was Jackson with the Chicago Bulls. But like Jackson, Bowman has the knack of managing oversized personalities so well that players don't see the puppeteers' strings.

Auerbach still bleeds Celtic green in his 80s and snipes at Jackson while downplaying the Laker coach's achievements. Blake died of Alzheimer's disease in 1995 and can't deliver a sermon from the hockey mount. But it's likely he would applaud and appreciate Bowman's ability to adapt to the times while holding onto his core convictions.

When Blake took over for Dick Irvin before the 1955-56 season, he inherited a Montreal team with 10 future Hall of Fame players. He won eight Stanley Cup titles in 13 seasons, five in his first five seasons, and 500 of 914 regular-season games.

But there was more to Blake's success than sending majestic center Jean Beliveau over the boards or avoiding goaltender Jacques Plante on game days.

Blake had to balance sense and sensibility, heeding French and English sentiment in a culturally divided city. As the great players of the 1950s aged and the Maurice Richard era ended, he had to break in the youngsters who would lead the team in the next decade, such as Jacques Laperriere and J.C. Tremblay.

Blake worked wonders with Richard, convincing the aging firebrand that he need not carry the team by himself and persuading him to let teammates share the load. He won Richard's loyalty, no small feat, and the support of French and English critics.

Brusque and self-assured, Blake was something of a tyrant, which wasn't unusual in that era. Coaches had more power over players in a six- or 12-team league, before agents lobbied to get clients playing time and long-term contracts. For the player given a my-way-or-the-highway ultimatum by a coach, that highway often led to Nowheresville.

Bowman had an authoritarian streak for many years, and a short fuse. That's not surprising.

He was a student of Blake's Canadiens, having played for Blake at the junior level in Montreal and later having coached in the Canadiens' system. Bowman also coached the St. Louis Blues in 1968, losing the Cup finale to Blake in the master's last triumph before retirement.

In his early years with St. Louis and especially in Montreal, Bowman distanced himself from his players. He was a mystery to them, revealing too little instead of too much. They might not have known what he did in his spare time, but they knew he spent nearly every waking moment looking for an angle that would give them a better chance to win. That's one aspect they never questioned.

He had Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson--Hall of Famers all. But Bowman got more out of his role players than those players knew they had. He believed in them, though he didn't show it in conventional ways. They had no choice but to believe in him, and with good reason.

Bowman displayed a new sensitivity in Pittsburgh, where he succeeded the eternally sunny Bob Johnson when Johnson became fatally ill during the 1991-92 season. Bowman, who had been the Penguins' director of player development, knew that cracking the whip might have fractured the team. Yes, he had Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis, but other coaches hadn't won with that trio. The Penguins won a second successive title for Bowman, and haven't come close since.

Blake would have appreciated how Bowman transformed Steve Yzerman into one of the NHL's best all-around players. Bowman showed Yzerman that by sacrificing points for sound defense, he and the team would gain in the end.

Blake would also have appreciated Bowman's relationship with brilliant Russian Sergei Fedorov.

Bowman has moved him from center to wing to defense, cutting his playing time then abruptly wearing him out, knowing Fedorov would learn and grow from each new situation.

The Red Wings don't have the NHL's highest payroll, but they might have the smartest, in terms of hockey sense.

It has taken Bowman 29 seasons and five teams to reach the summit where Blake once stood alone. But in an over-expanded league, and the entry draft and limited revenues mitigating against the establishment of dynasties, Bowman's accomplishments are no less impressive.

By nature of its lower profile, anything that happens in the NHL happens in relative obscurity. But for every glowing word tossed at Jackson, save one for Bowman too. And lift a toast to Toe Blake, watching from heaven's Hot Stove league.

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