Quietly, like a stagehand moving behind the curtain, Scotty Bowman has ascended to the throne room, sliding gingerly into the marble chair, waiting only for the crown to be placed on his head. He has been in the castle so long, few people even noticed.

Bowman will, when this championship is officially handed to Detroit — quite possibly Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena — be all alone in hockey history, more Stanley Cups than any coach before him, more NHL finals victories than any coach before him, more everything, pretty much, than any coach before him.

Top of the heap. King of the hill. The All-Time All-Timer.

“What do you think when you see your name now atop those all-time lists?” I asked the 68-year-old Red Wings coach Tuesday.

He shrugged. Then he said, “I think I hope to live long enough to see somebody break them.”

Classic Scotty. Just when you think he’s going to give you history, he gives you philosophy. Just when you think he’s going to give you philosophy, he gives you statistics. And just when you think he’s going to give you statistics, he gives you an actual . . . answer.

He is the master of imbalance, this barrel-chested drill sergeant who favors short-sleeved shirts and a quick step, impossible to pin down, hard to hug, difficult to comprehend. But has anyone considered how much Bowman and winning are intertwined in this city? Steve Yzerman gets well-deserved credit, but the Wings lost for years with Yzerman on the roster. Mike Ilitch is credited with spending his money, but he spent before Bowman and never won anything, either.

Where would this whole Red Wings story be without Bowman, this stout machinist, tinkering with the knobs and valves, lost in his own world? He is a puzzle, easily imitated (and you can find more than handful of guys who do a wicked Scotty impersonation).

But whatever he’s doing, it has worked and it’s working. He has a system. He has an eye. True, he relies on his assistants, but they have stayed on with him for years when others would have left. True, he has an all-star roster, but so do the New York Rangers, and where did they go this year?

Face it. With Bowman at the helm, barking orders, you get used to feeling like things are going to work out. It’s like living under the Reagan administration.

Eye of the storm

Tuesday afternoon, during the most difficult yet giddy wait of all, the wait for a victory that they know will bring them the Cup, I asked Yzerman to describe the thing that impresses him most about his coach.

“Well, as the situation grows more important, he gets more relaxed,” he said.
“That’s really it. He can get on you sometimes in the games where you take a breath, where things aren’t quite so critical. But in the really intense, big situations, he makes everyone feel comfortable. He’s just been through so many of them.”

Remember that Yzerman didn’t always get along with Bowman. Like everyone on this team, he had a moment in the Bowman doghouse. He had his time when he tried to figure the mental games Scotty was playing with him. But that has become a rite of passage on the Red Wings. Everyone goes through it, sort of like Professor Kingsfield razzing the first-year law students at Harvard. It still stings, but once you meet other guys who say, “Don’t worry, he does that to everyone,” it’s not quite so bad.

Besides, with this 2002 group, Bowman doesn’t need to be quite so ornery. As he said earlier in the year, “There’s not a lot that I can tell Brett Hull about the game. I can tell him I know his father, and what he was like. That’s about it.”

In sickness and in health

Doesn’t it seem like forever ago that the stoic Bryan Murray was coaching this team, and sadly explaining why things didn’t work out — again?

Doesn’t it seem like another life since the emotive Jacques Demers was clowning and exploding and ultimately choking back tears when he explained why things didn’t work out — again?

Aren’t those years like grade-school memories? Clear, but long ago? Bowman has now run the Red Wings for nine years. He took them to their first Cup in 42 years, their second Cup in two years, and pretty soon, their third Cup in six years.

He has gone through anger, he has gone through grief, he has lost relatives and he has seen team members critically wounded in a car wreck. He has gone through physical pain that once made him limp like a man carrying a refrigerator on his back, and he went through a heart scare that momentarily made everyone who read a newspaper in this city a cardiologist.

Now, here he is, at 68, seemingly more fit and at peace than ever. It’s as if he has entered the fire and come out the other side, sailed through the Perfect Storm with ship intact. Which makes me wonder if it wouldn’t be the best thing if he hung up his skates after this Cup.

He says he’s made up his mind on that but isn’t saying which direction he’ll go. But why not retire? There are no numbers for him to chase. He owns them all. There are no legends to pull down from the ladder. They are all behind him — including the revered Toe Blake.

From this next Cup forward, he would only be doing it to stack the deck, to pile on his own legend. Is that what motivates a Scotty Bowman?

Who’s to say? He holds in his mind a secret that could change the whole picture around here — imagine what kind of shake up that would mean on the staff — but don’t expect to learn it until this whole thing is wrapped up.

Meanwhile, we are left with a man who now says when he looks at his own statistics, he only hopes he can live long enough to see them broken.

It’s so . . . mortal. The Scotty Bowman we know in the press is often quite the opposite, a barking guard dog that you have to get through. Everyone has an incident, from the Free Press reporter who was shoved by Bowman earlier this year — resulting in a $10,000 fine to him — to me, several years ago, when Bowman, angry over something I said on the radio, called into a show from wherever he was — might have been Buffalo — demanded to be put on, and started screaming.

He went on, ripping me apart, for several minutes. I couldn’t get a word in. But then he ended by saying “the only thing I will say about you was that you wrote a good book, and if you ever wanted to write a book about me it would be a good thing!”

And then he hung up.

Only Scotty could say something complimentary and still scare the crap out of you.

He is in the throne room now, and they already know his head size, he’s been measured for this moment for so long. Some night soon, perhaps Thursday, he becomes the all-time king.

How would you feel if he weren’t here? Don’t sweat it, but think about it. And maybe savor Thursday night’s game, because it could be the last time you see him. Scotty Bowman, history now declares, pushes buttons like nobody’s business, but nobody stays in the button-pushing business forever.

GOING TOE-TO-TOE: BOWMAN VS. BLAKE

If the Red Wings beat Carolina on Thursday night, Scotty Bowman will set the record for all-time Stanley Cup titles as a coach, passing Toe Blake, his mentor. A look at Bowman and Blake:

……………………………BLAKE…………. BOWMAN

Stanley Cups …………..8…………………… 8

Where won Montreal (8)…………. Montreal (5),
…………………………………………….Pittsburgh (1),
…………………………………………….Detroit (2)

First year won 1956 ……………….1973

Last year won 1968……………… 1998

Consecutive Cups 5……………… 4
………………………..(1956-60)….. (1975-78)

Years as coach …13…………… 30

Playoff record…… 82-37……….. 222-130

Finals record…… 34-14……………… 35-22

Regular season 500-255–159 ……1,244-583-314

Hall of Fame ….1966………………… 1991

Actual first name Hector……………. William

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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