Today, on the dawn of the most-anticipated hockey playoffs in modern Detroit history, I come to praise Scotty Bowman, not to bury him. Oh, I know it is not fashionable for media members to say anything nice about Bowman, because he frequently treats us like Kitty Litter.
But I am neither prosecutor nor defense attorney today. I am merely a witness.
And I have witnessed the obvious:
The Wings had coaches before Bowman, you recall, coaches who came in with their “programs.” Jacques Demers had a program. Bryan Murray had a program. In each case, things picked up, and then they died. But with Bowman, they kept picking up.
The previous coaches all made trades: Demers gave away Adam Oates for (ugh) Bernie Federko. Murray gave up Tim Cheveldae and Dallas Drake for (ahem) Bob Essensa.
Bowman traded for Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov and built the strongest Russian front since Stalin. He got rid of guys like Shawn Burr and Ray Sheppard — moves we said would badly affect team chemistry — and instead, the chemistry is better than ever.
Demers and Murray had talented foreigners; they didn’t make the finals. Bowman has talented foreign players; he made the finals. Demers and Murray had short-lived takes on “motivation.” Bowman’s motivation can, at times, be described with one word — if that word is “psycho” — yet his team plays better than any other team has in decades.
The fact is, you can’t watch these Wings and not keep going back to Bowman. The players may be stallions.
But Scotty runs the rodeo. He sees everything I recently sat down with Bowman and asked whether he felt that keeping his players on edge is part of his success.
“Well, I don’t spend a lot of time holding their hands,” he said. “I never played the game. A lot of guys get into coaching after playing, and they want to maintain the friendship they had with the players. It doesn’t always work.
“I don’t have bad relationships with my players. But I don’t get into long conversations with them, either.”
Even so, they know he’s watching. Legend has it that Bowman used to ask players for a light, just to check the matchbooks to see what nightclubs they’d been in. You ask about this now, he just laughs. But on a recent West Coast trip, when the Wings’ curfew was removed for a night, Bowman spotted fans in the hotel lobby, late at night, getting sticks autographed.
“I asked them which signatures came at which time,” he admits. “They volunteered to stay there all night, until the last player came in, and then call me.”
Well? Did he take them up on it?
He laughs and changes the subject.
I do not know what makes the 62-year-old Bowman tick. I’m not sure anyone does. But I do know this: What he has done with this Red Wing team can be outshone only by his own history; he broke the NHL record for wins in a season, and it was his own record.
And that was 19 years ago!
Name me another guy who’s even coaching from back then. Russians are case in point
Now, I know he doesn’t smile much. In fact, Bowman, behind the bench, has the look of a man passing a kidney stone. When I asked him about this, he grimaced tightly and said, “If you put a video camera on a surgeon during surgery, I don’t think you’d see him smiling.”
Fair point. But although Bowman may not enjoy the game like a fan, he appreciates the minutiae, the way a jeweler appreciates the insides of a watch. So maybe Bowman counts numbers in his head, maybe he plays percentages with goalies, and maybe, if you say hello, he brushes past without a word, as if on a mission.
But Bowman has a pulse on his team, make no mistake. He reads everything. He knows who’s talking to whom. Consider the two ways he handled his Russian players this season. On the one hand, he felt young Sergei Fedorov needed a kick in the pants, so he acquired Larionov, 35, an esteemed, soft-spoken Russian — and a guy Fedorov adored — to turn Sergei around.
This worked beautifully. A little Russian-to-Russian therapy. But when Bowman put five Russians on the ice as a unit, he sensed a division within the locker room. “I was hearing a lot of Russian spoken. And a little resentment from the other players. That’s not going to help build a team,” he says.
So he mixed the unit up, despite its enormous success, to preserve the delicate chemistry on the team.
Does that sound like a guy who’s out of touch?
I believe Bowman is nervous as this series begins. He doesn’t have to be, his place in history is secure, but sometimes, when you’re trying to get over that last mountain, that’s when you feel pressure the most.
He has the best team. He has the best players. And he is the best coach Mike Ilitch ever hired.
Only one thing remains.
“If you get this Cup, will you finally be, as one of your former players once said, the best coach in the history of the NHL?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, grimacing again, “I’ll have the numbers to back it up.”
Numbers lie. This team doesn’t. Stanley meets Scotty in June, it says here. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even see him smile.