Hockey’s winningest bench boss never told his players how good they were
I’VE HAD ENOUGH OF COACHING’
Hockey’s winningest bench boss never told his players how good they were
IT ISN’T JUST the Detroit Red Wings who are conspicuously missing from the Stanley Cup playoffs these days. Scotty Bowman is absent, too. After the Wings captured last season’s Stanley Cup, the winningest coach in hockey history stunned everyone by retiring. He had just won his ninth Cup, eclipsing Toe Blake’s all-time coaching record of eight, with what some regarded as old-fashioned methods. Players accused him of being manipulative, remote and tyrannical—and those were their kind comments. The only way to get along with the enigmatic coach, Detroit captain Steve Yzerman once said, was to “show up, work hard, keep your mouth shut and play well defensively.” That’s what most of Bowman’s players did, and they have all those Stanley Cup rings to show for it.
He’s not behind the bench, but Bowman, 69, isn’t out of hockey. As he explained to Maclean’s Assistant Managing Editor James Deacon, he still has a hand in the game.
First things first: what was your reaction to Anaheim’s upset of Detroit in the first round?
Well it’s tough to take, I can tell you. And people up in Detroit have very high expectations, as they should. That’s been a good team for a long time and they had a great season. But those things happen—it’s hockey.
It was pretty much the same team that won last year.
Yeah, but last year we had a big lead and we got to rest a few of our older players toward the end of the season. This year they had to battle right to the end of the regular season. They looked a little tired.
What finally convinced you you’d had enough?
It was no one thing in particular. For the last maybe five years, I was thinking about what I would do if I wasn’t going to coach. Then last year, during the Olympic break, I went to Disney World with my family, just had a nice four or five days, and that’s when I made up my mind. But I didn’t want it to be a distraction for the team, and I didn’t
want any kind of a media circus, so I didn’t say it to anybody, I just kind of filed it away in my mind. And it was good to leave on a winning note.
Do you miss the rhythm of hockey life?
You are on a schedule in hockey, that’s for sure, and I often wondered if there’d be days when I’d be asking, “What am I going to do today?” But I’ve been pretty busy, going to a lot of dinners, doing a lot of functions, travelling quite a bit. I have two sons in Chicago, a daughter in New York City and another daughter in Augusta, Ga. And I have two grandchildren. I like golf but I’m not a guy who’s going to play more than twice a week. I’ve still got a hobby, a couple of old cars that I work on, and I took one of my older ones down to our place in Florida and left it there. So I kind of tool around with that, and this winter I got to a lot of games in town—I have a place an hour from Tampa, so I saw the Fightning play about a dozen games this year.
You didn’t exactly quit cold turkey.
I do some consulting work with the Red Wings. It’s a different capacity, but that’s been the most enjoyable part of retirement. I think it would be more difficult— much more difficult—for me if I wasn’t involved with a team, if I had just retired from hockey. And if my schedule is lousy, it’s my own fault.
You started coaching a Junior B team at 18, right after you finished playing junior hockey in Montreal. What prompted you to go behind the bench that soon?
When I was growing up, the most enjoyable months were December, January, February, part of March, when we had outside rinks. I like the summer, and I played summer sports, but I had a passion for hockey. I always thought I was going to be a hockey player, and then all of a sudden my dreams were crushed, I couldn’t play anymore, I couldn’t make it. I wanted to get into
hockey so badly that when I got my first full-time coaching job in ’56 with Ottawa [juniors], I never, ever considered it a job. I just enjoyed doing it.
You had some remarkable role models.
When I played junior in Montreal, the coach was Sam Pollock, who went on to become a big executive with the Canadiens. I worked very closely with him from 1956 to 1966, so I had a decade of being able to see what he did. He was the guy who said, “Here’s a job for you. You should go to Peterborough.” I went to Peterborough [to coach the Petes] in ’58, came back in ’61. He said, “Now here’s a job as a scout.” And when I coached the Junior Canadiens in Montreal in the mid-’60s, Toe Blake was the coach of the Canadiens, so I was able to get to know Toe at that time. And when I came back to coach Montreal in 1971, he was sort of doing what I’m doing now. He was with the team, they used to bring him in during the playoffs, and I really looked forward to the times I could speak with him. So I would say Sam Pollack and Toe Blake were the two people.
Your teams had great leaders-Bob Gainey and Serge Savard in Montreal, Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh and Steve Yzerman in Detroit, to name a few. Were there other similarities that contributed to nine Stanley Cups?
The good teams had guys with a lot of character. Their leadership came from their ability to perform. We generally had excellent goaltending, too, which is probably the number 1 factor in any winning hockey team. And then the owners of those teams were all very committed to excellence. The players get a feeling when it’s filtering down to them, that it’s all for one, one for all.
You pushed players hard and weren’t always popular in the dressing room. Are there players with whom you have since become friends?
Yeah. Doing the job, you never have the urge or opportunity to tell them how good
they really are, you know? But you know, I see some of them at different functions, and we can always look back and enjoy what really happened.
What concerns you about the game today?
It’s different now because the playing field isn’t level. It’s tough on the Canadian teams with the exception of Toronto. And there are some markets in the States that are just trying to get through the next year or two, hoping for better days. But there’s only a year to go on the collective agreement with the players, so nobody knows what the future holds.
How did it feel last spring, on the ice with the
Cup, knowing you could walk away from the Wings a winner?
That’s what I was looking forward to more than anything. It was great. I didn’t want a farewell tour or anything like that, and it’s better for the team that way. They know it’s over and they can get on with it. And I could really enjoy the ride off into the sunset more than if I was undecided.
A senior league official recently told me he thought you could be talked out of retirement. Would you ever coach again?
No. I look at my age and what I’ve done and where I’m going. Maybe if I wasn’t with the Red Wings... But I’ve been fortunate—I structured my contract to be a consultant for
three years, and really, if I was going to coach anywhere I would have stayed in Detroit. But I’ve had enough of coaching. I’ve got things on the horizon that I can do and enjoy. What I enjoy the most is that I don’t have a day-to-day routine. And yet I’ve kept busy.
When you watch Red Wings games on TV at home, are you breaking them down like coaches always do? And do you holler at the screen sometimes?
I still analyze the games that way. That’s kind of bred into you. But I think I knew going out that we had a good team in Detroit, so I didn’t feel any pangs, I didn’t have that second-guessing thing, that I was leaving a team that wasn’t in good shape. lifl
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