by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Scotty Bowman loses it. Not his temper, his ring. He had been playing with it, rolling it around, and it flew out of his hand and rolled under an orange seat in the Tiger Stadium mezzanine. Next thing you know, the 61-year-old coach of the Red Wings — the man some call a genius, others call a dictator, but none, absolutely none, calls warm and fuzzy — is poking under the seats like a kid, amidst the peanut shells and hot dog wrappers, trying to get his ring back.

“It went over here,” he tells some fans, who quickly join the search. “You see it? . . .”

The ring is from the Hockey Hall of Fame, where Bowman has his own plaque. Most people with that honor are retired, or dead. Bowman, the serious son of a Scottish blacksmith, is neither. He has won more games than any other coach in the history of hockey, six Stanley Cup championships, about to try for another, a virtual living legend — who, at the moment, bending over the seats in the fifth inning of a baseball game, hardly looks the part.

“You see it? . . . No? . . . How about over there? . . .”

Bowman has that short but powerful stature that goes well with tough coaches, a frank face, thin lips, jutting chin, straight brown hair that has vanished up front. He wears muted colors, even in casual dress, and on his barrel-chested body, clothes fit as if ordered to stand at attention.

Nothing sags on Bowman. He is a straight-line guy. He sees point B from point A and figures how to get there. He will not share his angst, nor spill his beans, he will not call a radio talk-show psychiatrist for advice. His dream relationship with the media is summed up by a coach he knew years ago, who used to write the press releases himself.

“He would write, ‘So and so is hurt today,’ or ‘Such and such’s father is visiting from out West, they’re going fishing,’ ” Bowman recalls. “Then he handed the reporters the news, and he was done with it.”

Oh, if it were only that easy! Then Scotty Bowman could control everything!

But it is never that easy. People talk about Bowman — especially this week, with the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals against New Jersey — and you hear the same old Bowman folklore, tales of rigid discipline, explosive temper, a devious mind that used to ask players for matches — even though he didn’t smoke — so he could read the matchbook covers and see where the team was hanging out after hours.

And yet Bowman, like most serious, private people, has reasons for what he does, and incidents that provided those reasons. He is a paradox. This is a man who seeks maturity in his players, yet loves model trains and collects trading cards. A guy they call old-fashioned, who used videotape before other coaches knew what it was. A guy who takes heat for still living in Buffalo, yet who never talks about the handicapped son he doesn’t want to uproot.

This is also the man, you might recall, who began his career in Detroit by benching popular forward Shawn Burr — and now Burr is one of Bowman’s biggest supporters.

“Scotty gets your attention,” Burr says.

That he does. As the search for the ring continues, a vendor slides over, points to Bowman’s back, and whispers, “You think he can win the Cup? You think he can get it done?”

Bowman? He finishes what he starts — no matter how long it takes. The incident

He was lying on the ice at the Montreal Forum, a piece of his skull lying next to him. The crowd was pointing in hushed disbelief. A defenseman named Jean-Guy Talbot — who had already committed four penalties in this Junior A playoff game — now stood over young Scotty Bowman. Seconds earlier, Talbot, frustrated at his team’s imminent defeat, had chased Bowman on a breakaway and clubbed him from behind, smacking him on the cranium, slicing his head open.

This was 1951. No one wore helmets. Bowman was unconscious. Talbot had blood on his stick.

“There were only 30 seconds left in the game,” Bowman says now. “I think about that sometimes. What if the game had been 30 seconds shorter?”

Instead, Bowman was rushed to a hospital. They stitched his skull back together and inserted a metal plate that is still there. He spent three weeks in the hospital and the whole off- season fighting headaches. He tried a comeback. It didn’t take.

He had been a promising forward, with a dream of making it big.

At 18, his playing career was over.

Yet it is the mark of Bowman’s life that years later, as a coach, he hired Talbot to play for him in St. Louis. No grudges. No revenge. Finish that chapter. Close the book.

“Jean just lost control,” Bowman says, shrugging. “He wrote me a long letter explaining it, pouring his heart out. I figure he just started me on my career 15 years earlier than planned.”

Does this sound like a man who believes in fate? Well. Consider this: When he was a child, Bowman’s mother took him and his siblings back to Scotland for a visit. They were supposed to stay a month, but, because of illnesses, wound up staying a year. Finally, they returned to Canada on a boat called the Athena. On its return to England, the Athena was blown up by German torpedoes.

“I timed that out pretty well, eh?” Bowman says. The coaching

With his playing days gone, Bowman — whose father never missed a day of work in 31 years of pounding sheet metal — was training to be a paint salesman when his first real coaching chance came along with the Junior Canadiens. “I was learning all the numbers of paints, all the combinations. It wasn’t bad, a steady job.”

Instead, he began to dot the hockey canvas, moving up the ranks from kids to juniors to assistant in the NHL with the expansion Blues. Bowman had an eye for detail and a feel for the bench. One night, he suggested that St. Louis coach Lynn Patrick not use a certain defenseman on a shift. Patrick used him anyhow, and the opposing team scored.

The following morning, Patrick called Bowman and said, “I think this coaching business has passed me by.”

Bowman took over the next game and led the previously dismal Blues to the Stanley Cup finals — not in five years, not in three years. That year. The finals? In his first try?

So began an amazing pro career in which Bowman soared to the top, making three straight finals appearances in St. Louis, winning five Stanley Cups as coach of the Montreal Canadiens — finishing what he started at the Forum all those years ago — winning another as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and now, bringing the Wings to a place they haven’t been in 29 years. It would take all day to list Bowman’s accomplishments in the NHL — or the number of times he took himself out from behind the bench, only to return again. Ironically, it was 10 years ago this week that Bowman stepped down as coach of the Buffalo Sabres and told the press corps: “As a coach, I’ve reached the level I wanted to reach.”

Yet here he is, back again.

The most interesting part of Bowman’s coaching career, however, isn’t the statistics, or the five-year absence to be a TV analyst, or the unpredictable moves he has made during games, or the combative relationship he has had with the press. It’s the touch. He seems to swing a hammer, yet the effects are very subtle. He took a Wings team known for high-powered offense, and molded it into a defensive jewel. Like a serious potter, he doesn’t stop until the clay is shaped.

He finishes what he starts.

“When I come in, I’m trying to get a team to believe in one another,” he says. “That’s what matters. It’s OK if they don’t like the coach. They can not

like the coach or the general manager — but if they like one another, they got a chance.”

Bowman doesn’t seem worried whether they like the coach. Ken Dryden, the former Montreal goalie, once wrote of him: “He is not someone who is easy to like. He has no coach’s con about him. He does not slap backs, punch arms or grab elbows. He is shy and not very friendly. . . . He is complex, confusing and unclear in every way but one. He is a brilliant coach, the best of his time.”

Bowman probably liked that praise because it goes in several directions and then hits you with the point — much like his coaching.

For example, Bowman once thought his players were getting too self-bloated, so he scheduled practices around rush-hour traffic, “just to remind them what life is like for regular people.” He frequently made forwards

play defense in practice, and defensemen play forward, just to give them a better understanding of each other. Bowman had his guys keeping their own plus-minus statistics in little notebooks, long before the NHL did it on computers. And he admires the coach who once was so frustrated with his team’s inability to score that he brought the net into the middle of the locker room and put a puck on top of it, to remind them of how small one was compared to the other.

Legend also has it Bowman once got so mad at a player that he told him to go to the airport and then call him because “by that point I’ll know who I traded you to.”

He laughs at that, says he doesn’t remember it at all. The home life

An evening breeze blows through the stadium seats, where a couple of kids have joined the search for the ring. Bowman goes to Tiger Stadium now and then, on his own, just as he goes to his regular restaurants and coffee stops. He is a loner, but in typical complex fashion, he is a loner because he is a family man.

Many people don’t know this. They see a gruff old coach whose family and house are in Buffalo and who commuted to his job in Pittsburgh and who now rents a home in Bloomfield Hills during the season. They see this and they say, “The guy is not committed. He’s a mercenary.”

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Bowman, who is married and has four healthy children, also has a 23-year-old handicapped son named David, who was born with hydrocephalus, better known as water on the brain.

“He was 7 weeks old when we found out,” Bowman says. “Today, they’d pick it up while the baby was still in the womb.”

Instead, the operation to relieve the pressure — “it was probably two days too late,” Bowman said — also cost David his eyesight. His life has been a difficult series of treatments and special schools. Bowman remembers one night during the playoffs when David had to undergo an operation.

“Here I was, worried about this hockey game, and then I thought about what he had to go through. I said to myself right then, this game is not about life and death.”

Over the years, with David in a special New York school for the blind, Bowman did not want to uproot the family. So he commuted during his years as a TV analyst with “Hockey Night in Canada” and he commuted when he got the job in Pittsburgh and, yes, he goes home when he can with this job in Detroit.

But when he is here, he leads a somewhat nomadic life, often leaving his rented house in the morning and not returning until late at night. “I stay at the arena all day sometimes, eat there, watch the out-of-town games.” At other times, he has a late dinner by himself at Big Daddy’s Parthenon, a Greek restaurant in West Bloomfield, where the owners set him up with a private table near a TV set. He has a regular cup of coffee at Art Moran’s car dealership, and he lunches every day with a Birmingham investment guy named Lenny — just out of habit. Bowman believes in streaks and omens and luck, so when he finds a restaurant — and company — that coincides with a winning streak, he keeps going back.

“Beau Jacks has worked for us, and so has this place called Boodles.”

How about that? Six Stanley Cups, and he thinks a restaurant has something to do it. The future

Bowman says this is his last coaching job. “No more after this. Mr. Ilitch told me when he hired me: ‘When you’re done coaching, I’d like to have you in the organization.’ That would interest me.”

So, of course, would one more Cup. When asked how a private man like himself would celebrate another championship, he shrugs. Says he plans to go to Scotland this summer, but then, he’s doing that r


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

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.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!