by | Oct 16, 1998 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

If that ’60s expression “today is the first day of the rest of your life” ever rang true, it rings true today for Scotty Bowman. By the time you read this, Bowman will be starting tests at Beaumont Hospital to determine whether his heart — which has always been in hockey — will allow him to be a part of it any longer.

“What happens will determine if I come back to coaching,” Bowman said. “If they give me the green light, I’ll be back as soon as next week….

“But if I can’t be 100 percent, then I won’t coach anymore.”

This is major news for the Red Wings and their fans, who have been wondering since the summer whether the leader of this would-be Detroit dynasty would ever return to it. Bowman, who has the most coaching victories in NHL history and is arguably the best to ever blow a whistle, has been away from the team since mid-summer, the worst summer of his life. A stress test revealed a potential heart problem, and he underwent an emergency heart procedure. Later, he underwent knee-replacement surgery. And, worst of all, he buried his younger brother, Jack, who died of heart problems.

“I said after winning our first Cup in Detroit that it was hard to enjoy because of what happened to Vladdie and Sergei,” Bowman said from his home in Buffalo before leaving to fly to Detroit for today’s tests, “but this one hit even closer to home. Losing my brother was such a shock. And then everything else….”

Bowman has undergone months of grueling rehabilitation, hours spent by himself, doing exercises and weights, away from the Wings. He has done lots of soul-searching as to whether coaching is worth the risks — especially because his brother’s death was heart-related.

“I was prepared to give it up,” Bowman said. “I told Kenny Holland (the Wings’ general manager) that if I wasn’t 100 percent, I wasn’t going to take the risk to come back.

“I also told him, when Slava Fetisov was going to join New Jersey, that if he wanted to keep Slava in the organization and make him an assistant coach, and promote someone else to head coach, I could live with the decision.

“But Kenny said no, they would wait. Kenny’s been very considerate. So I told him I would have a decision by the end of October. I don’t want to keep the team waiting. That’s not good for them. As soon as they give me the results I’ll make up my mind.

“It’ll either be right away or not at all.”

He’ll need to live balanced life

Bowman is expected to be at the banner-raising ceremonies tonight at Joe Louis Arena. He would like to attend, but doesn’t know how exhausted the hours of testing will leave him.

Wings fans would go through the roof if he showed up. Because Bowman has clearly been the difference between years of frustration and years of glory. But fans should understand that if Bowman does return to the job, he will do so with a new emphasis on balance in his life.

“For two years, basically, I haven’t been able to exercise because of my knee,” he said. “The stress of the job is one thing, but to have stress without being able to exercise is too much for my heart.

“I want to make sure going back to the team is conducive to good health. I want to make sure I can resume a hockey life, traveling, eating late at night, all that.”

He will have to work with trainer John Wharton on a regular rehab and exercise program. He may need to swim in hotel pools to keep his leg in shape. He says he is walking pain-free now, a noticeable difference from his severe limp during last season’s playoffs.

As for his mental state?

“I’m ready to return,” he said. “It won’t take me long to get back into it. This is pretty much the same team we had last season. I’ve talked to Barry
(Smith) and Dave (Lewis), not every day, but often. I saw the first two games on TV.”

What if the news from today’s tests — likely to come early next week — is not good? What if the risks will be significant? Will the best coach in hockey really give it all up?

“Yes,” Bowman said. “I could live with that decision.”

If OK by doctors, it’s OK by wife

While Bowman has been away, friends have speculated that his attitude about the game has changed, that somehow hockey didn’t matter as much after this difficult summer, and that his wife, Suella, all but forbade him to return.

“That’s not true,” Bowman said. “She’s fine with whatever the doctors say. If they say it’s OK, then it’s all right with her.

“We both trust the people who are advising us. I’ll listen to them.”

Still, Bowman admits he is nervous going into today’s session. He has worked the knee into good condition. He has lost weight, stayed away from hockey work, done all the things he was advised to do. Now a series of stress performances and blood tests will determine his future.

It’s funny. A lot of folks have complained about Bowman over the years — from the players to the media. But given a choice, opinion seems unanimous: Virtually everyone wants him to come back.

Tonight they raise the Wings’ latest championship banner. Pretty soon, we find out if it’s Bowman’s last. Cross your fingers.

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


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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