Bowman Has a Cupful Of Stories
There are so many stories, myths and dramas surrounding Detroit Red Wings Coach Scotty Bowman that it is sometimes hard to sift through them to the truth. Usually, such tales grow taller after a person has left a sport, but Bowman is fortunate to be a legend in his own time, and he has the opportunity to clear up the rumors before they grow too far out of control.
Unless, of course, he is fueling them, and no one tells the stories that shape his notoriety better than Bowman himself.
"I was in St. Louis and had given the guys a curfew," Bowman said recently, going back to the beginning of his NHL coaching career, in the late '60s. "I didn't do a bed check or anything, and I had guys that tramped a lot. So once I gave the bellman at the hotel we were at $10 and a hockey stick. He stood in the lobby, and when the players rolled in at one, two in the morning, he had the guys sign the stick. Every guy who cut curfew, his name was on that stick in his own handwriting. I just walked into the room the next day and held it out. 'Look what I've got.'‚"
The tale is classic Scotty. But then again, so are so many of the other yarns that have been floating through the NHL since Bowman first made a name for himself by guiding the expansion Blues to Stanley Cup finals appearances in each of his first three seasons. He has since won eight Stanley Cup rings seven as a coach and the common thread through every story that has evolved along the way is his determination, his absolute will for his teams to succeed.
It is no coincidence that his team is leading the Washington Capitals, three games to none, in the Stanley Cup finals. Talented players and their hard work are the reason the Red Wings are just one win away from their second consecutive championship, but Bowman is the reason so many talented players find themselves on one team and working so hard.
"You know, what makes us such a great team is definitely him," right wing Darren McCarty said. "There are no rifts anymore. He's got the guys here that want to play for him and who want to play hard. He doesn't accept mediocrity, and he's instilled that in us."
Bowman just wants to win. Everything, every time. His nephew Steve, a scout for the Capitals, can remember playing golf in a club championship with his uncle six or seven years ago. Bowman had been allowing the pair they were playing with to skip gimme putts all day, but when it came down to the last hole, he stood his ground. His opponent needed to make a putt from about a foot and a half out to tie the score and force a playoff, and Bowman made him take the putt. The man missed and was so upset with Bowman that he drove off with his partner in a huff, refusing to shake hands with Bowman or his nephew.
"The prize was some crystal or something, and he [Bowman] wanted that crystal," Steve said, smiling warmly. "It's amazing the guy has eight Stanley cup rings, and he could buy all the crystal he wanted. But he wanted to win, period."
When it comes to hockey, the man whose physical profile resembles Alfred Hitchcock's is as familiar with all the angles as the great director, pushing just the right buttons at just the right time. He has been known to trash his own players in front of their teammates or scratch stars from the lineup with no explanation. He was one of the first NHL coaches to use videotape, and in one series he showed a bunch of tapes to the media, pointing out the way his team had been the victims of poor officiating in a loss. Just as Bowman had intended, the referee became the story, while his team's performance was never really discussed.
Even when his teams are victorious, he is always thinking about positioning for the next game. The Red Wings won Game 1 of this series, but Bowman's first words in his post-game news conference were self-critical, noting that he had done a poor job coaching because he used too many line combinations. The message to Washington Coach Ron Wilson was clear you may already be down one game, but you haven't seen anything yet.
Wilson, no stranger to such tactics himself, was told of the remark, but he made no attempt at a catchy response. In fact, Wilson has been unusually quiet during this series, perhaps because the Capitals have been losing but also because he is smart enough not to try and duel with the master.
"I have an enormous amount of respect for Scotty Bowman," Wilson said before this series began. "There are some teams where you can say some things off the ice, like Buffalo or Ottawa, because they have a young dressing room, but not the Red Wings."
It may serve as some comfort to Wilson that Bowman was swept in each of his first three finals appearances, just as Bowman is threatening to sweep Wilson in his first showing. Like the story of the bellman and the curfew, Bowman can still quote details from those early St. Louis teams, much the way he can quote details on just about any hockey subject.
He is involved in every aspect of his teams, most recently doling out instructions to a crew at Joe Louis Arena when he saw they were stringing new netting onto goals incorrectly. Several of his players are convinced he has a photographic memory, and his appetite for information is voracious. He reads almost everything available and seems to catalog it in his brain for use at just the right time. Before the finals started this year, he began reciting exactly what Washington had done in certain games in certain situations in the Capitals' previous three series, prepared in case those situations came up against the Red Wings.
When Game 2 went into overtime, he looked at the ice times of each of the Washington players and sent his players to attack those who he thought would be the most tired.
"The thing I always remember about coaching against Scotty is that he seemed to know your team almost better than you did," former Capitals coach Gary Green said. "It was like a mental telepathy. I remember during the '80-'81 season, we were playing Buffalo, and I hadn't used my fourth line all period. I mean, there was no way he could know I was going to stick them out there. But as soon as I called the guys' names, I look up, and the French Connection line is already out on the ice. It was like he knew exactly what was about to happen."
Bowman was actually offered the Washington job in 1979 before owner Abe Pollin found Green. Bowman picked the Sabres over the Capitals, who were offering more money, because he wanted to be closer to Canada, although in Green, Pollin found a Bowman protege.
Both Green and Bowman and later Mike Keenan coached the junior-level Peterborough Petes, and Green can remember when he was still with the Petes and Bowman was coaching in Montreal. On the same weekend, Peterborough was in the Memorial Cup finals and the Canadiens were in the Stanley Cup finals against the New York Rangers. The phone in Green's hotel room rang at around 6 a.m., and it was Bowman. With no comment on the early hour, Bowman launched into a discussion of hockey.
The story doesn't surprise Steve Bowman, who has heard almost all of them, although he believes his uncle is a different man now than he was in those days. He sees the way Bowman loves his son, David, who is paralyzed and mentally handicapped, and the way David has spurred Bowman to participate so heartily in children's charities, often making anonymous donations. He believes the transition from St. Louis to Montreal to Buffalo to Pittsburgh and finally to Detroit, a 30-year journey, has finally landed Bowman in a place he can show his more relaxed side.
"He has this reputation of being and ogre, a taskmaster and I think in his early days in St. Louis and Montreal, he was much that way," Steve said. "But with this team especially, he has changed. Maybe because he really feels it's his team that he put together, and he has become more of a player's coach."
That does not mean Bowman has begun palling around with his players that is simply not his way and he often leaves tasks of communication to his associate coaches, Barry Smith and Dave Lewis. But there is no question that he has found a comfort level with this Red Wings team, which is made up of players he wants on the ice.
Before this season, when Ken Holland was elevated to the post of general manager, Bowman served as director of player personnel for Detroit as well as coach. As Holland put it, "he was the guy whose philosophy everyone had to buy into. If they didn't buy in, they weren't here for very long." Players such as Dino Ciccarelli, Paul Coffey and Ray Sheppard were cast off, moves that were sometimes unpopular but certainly necessary to Bowman.
Bowman even had some problems with beloved Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, and the situation almost came to a boil in 1995 with rumors that Yzerman was going to be dealt to Ottawa. But the two worked out their differences, both on and off the ice, and Yzerman has become one of Bowman's supporters.
"I found that you really have to prove yourself with him, regardless of your past record," Yzerman said. "It just took a while for me to adjust to what he was trying to do, but it went pretty smoothly after that. He's really driven. Winning is important, and during the season, he demands that guys come to practice and play every day."
If the Red Wings can close this series, there is a movement to name Yzerman the playoffs' MVP, although Bowman also will be getting his individual honor. Because one of his eight rings came as director of player development for Pittsburgh, he is still one Stanley Cup away from tying legendary Toe Blake's mark of eight rings as a coach.
Decades from now, that will be the achievement that will stand out in the record books, the feat people will associate with Bowman. The record books won't reflect 30 years worth of glorious tales and troubled times, of the triumphs and the tirades. But that is why it is not just Scotty who is fortunate that he is a legend in his own time. With him still around, the stories are all still there for the sifting.
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