Reporters avoid eye contact as Scotty Bowman passes. He heads down the Joe Louis Arena tunnel, alone, walking in a half-stomp, half-limp, a four-star general with a stone in his boot. Suddenly, he sees an arena worker carrying a large piece of pipe.

“Hey,” Bowman says, jutting out his chin. “What happened?”

There is a frozen moment before the worker answers. It is in this moment that the Bowman legend hisses. The way he asks the question. His squinty eyes. That jaw. You can almost hear the analysts now…

“Bowman is such a master of detail, he even knows which pipes are broken.”

“Bowman tries to get every edge he can — including piping in special air.”
“Bowman — who already controls the players, the front office and the media — also controls the stadium workers.”

Of course the one thing you won’t hear is that maybe Bowman was just making conversation. Maybe he saw a man carrying a pipe and wondered, “What happened?”

That would be too simple. True, perhaps. But too simple. By this point, Bowman’s shadow engulfs his frame. This is how people see him: one part Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” one part Dr. Evil in “Austin Powers.”

Players talk about him and whisper. Reporters talk about him and curse. Fans talk about him and shrug. But do they know what they’re talking about?

I don’t think so. I have watched a lot of coaches come and go. None has been as far off the radar as Bowman. Few people can read him. No one can predict him. The other night, after winning Game 1 of the finals in what soon may be his eighth Stanley Cup championship, he said this: “I didn’t think I had a very good game as coach.”

Who would have expected that?

The coach without a home

Then again, who would have expected this: Scotty’s favorite summers were the ones he spent on a farm outside Montreal, baling hay and taking care of cattle.

“Oh, we loved it,” he said Wednesday. “This was when I coached the Canadiens. We had a small herd, about 20 cows.”

Scotty Bowman, farmer? On the one hand, I can see him filling out the denim overalls. I can see him barking orders at the heifers. (“You! The fat one! Get on the bike!) On the other hand …a farmer?

“We had 290 acres — 100 tillable — and I had enough trees to get 200 gallons of maple syrup. Wait, lemme see, how many trees would that be? . . .”

Now, it really doesn’t matter to me how many trees it would be. But it matters to Scotty. That’s the thing. You can’t categorize him. And in the Stanley Cup finals, that’s what everyone is trying to do, fit you into a 90-second TV package.

Bowman doesn’t fit into packages. Here is a guy who seems to speak in tongues, who rarely finishes one sentence before melding into another, a guy who breathes hockey, yet loves his family so much he wouldn’t make them move from job to job. Despite being the NHL’s all-time winningest coach — and likely its greatest ever — Bowman is, at 64, living out of a hotel room during the finals. He had to vacate the house he rents from a Bloomfield Hills woman.

“I was only supposed to have it to May,” he said, shrugging.

So now Bowman keeps clothes in his office at Joe Louis, and in his hotel room, and in a storage locker in that rented house. He is as rootless as a local hero can be.

And yet — no categorizing, remember? — he has his habits. He goes to Greektown after games. He gets his favorite rice pudding from a market in West Bloomfield. Last year, fans recall, he walked under a strip of yellow police tape to get that rice pudding. Never mind that the cops were looking for thieves. Scotty had a mission; he was going to complete it.

Personally, I like that kind of devotion. Bowman reminds me of Robert Duvall in “Apocolypse Now,” walking through bombs as if he didn’t hear them. I still remember going to a Tigers game with him for an interview, and as he was talking, he dropped a Stanley Cup ring and it rolled under some seats. He stopped in mid-sentence, got down on the concrete and started crawling between fans’ legs looking for it.

How can you not like that?

The coach without a pink slip

“What do you think when you read all the analysis of you?” I asked Bowman on Wednesday.

“I’m amused by them,” he said.

“Everyone thinks you have some genius plan behind everything you say and do.”

He laughed. “I’m used to that. It’s like, a guy from the NHL asked me why I don’t let reporters watch practice from the Zamboni entrance. I never said they couldn’t. I just don’t want anybody shining a TV light on the goalie.

“But the attendant down there is telling people, ‘You can’t stand here. It’s The Scotty Rule.’ So the NHL guy comes and asks me. Ha! The Scotty Rule!”

Then again, he never objects to the idea.

That’s Bowman. Brilliant, distracted, gruff — and effective. For all the complaining his Red Wings players do behind his back — and they do plenty — you will never hear one say, “We can win more with someone else.”

Probably because they couldn’t.

“You know what I’m proudest of in my career?” he said, suddenly.

I’m thinking seven Stanley Cups, coaching five teams….

“That I never got fired as a coach,” he said.

Go figure. Or go try. Personally, I believe Scotty is embarrassed when people say he’s a God-like puppeteer, and he’d happily deny it if only you asked.

Then again, where did that guy with the pipe go?

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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