SCOTTY ON THE SIDEBOWMAN FIRST-CLASS GUEST ON PLAYOFF RIDE

Tonight, when they drop the puck, he’ll be in a Red Wings box at Joe Louis Arena. And this weekend, when the Wings fly west, he’ll be on the plane, in
“one of the seats up front.” He won’t say much, he claims. But he’ll be with them for the entire playoffs. It is that time of year, mid-April, when other cities think “warmth” and Detroit thinks “ice” and folks around here crowd onto the same magic carpet. Scotty Bowman, now retired, may be the greatest coach in NHL history, but starting tonight, in his own unique fashion, he joins the rest of us here in Hockeytown.

Along for the ride.

“Ken Holland asked me to come,” Bowman said. “I don’t want to get in the way. I’ll be another set of eyes, that’s all.”

Scotty Bowman? Another set of eyes? Right. And Steven Spielberg’s just another guy with a camera. You want to know why other cities envy Detroit hockey? What other team gets the king of the coaching record books as a traveling consultant? Dave Lewis has a question? He can lean over and ask Scotty. Sure. That’s fair. Like a college kid in a philosophy exam leaning over and asking Socrates.

“When I was in Montreal, Toe Blake did the same thing,” Bowman said. “He was with us for my first Stanley Cup in 1973. We were up three games to one, and then we lost a crazy game, 8-7. In the locker room, (goalie) Ken Dryden was talking to reporters for a long time and Toe was listening. He came to me later and said, ‘Hey, if the press writes some of what Ken was saying, the defensemen are gonna be pretty upset. You might want to talk to him. Have him take them out for lunch or something.’

“Sure enough, the papers came out the next day and Ken was in them, slamming the defensemen. I spoke to him. He took the guys to lunch, smoothed things over.

“And we won the next game.”

Say thanks for your big Toe.

Nice having Scotty around

Of course, the man who’s wiggling the foot this year — and who deserves the most credit in Bowman’s return — is Dave Lewis, the first-year Wings coach who would hardly set a precedent if he didn’t want his ex-boss around. Wouldn’t a new guy be intimidated by the audible breath of the old guy — especially if the old guy is the defending Stanley Cup coach?

“I’m not like that,” Lewis said earlier this week. “I’m happy to have Scotty. We worked together a long time. Besides, I want the same thing that he wants and that everybody in this thing wants — to see the team win.”

It feels good knowing Bowman is around, doesn’t it? Sort of like knowing Gandalf the Grey is with the “Lord of the Rings” gang.

Bowman, a paid consultant for the team, may have seen only about half of the Wings’ games this year — between his time in Detroit, Buffalo and Florida, and his visits to his kids — but after 50 or so years in hockey, he has forgotten more than most coaches will know. His instincts alone are worth a plane ticket — let alone having him on the team jet.

“I miss hockey less than I thought I would,” Bowman said. “It’s been busier than I figured it would be. There hasn’t been one night where I wondered what I was going to be doing the next night.”

Still, when Holland made the offer, Bowman accepted. He’s even offered to fly ahead and scout the upcoming opponent. How about that scenario? Scotty Bowman at a Colorado Avalanche game, sitting in the press box, and someone says “What are YOU doing here?” and he says, “Oh, you know, just checking your team out.”

What other franchise has this?

It’s nuts, right?

Not too shabby without him

Of course, Bowman’s presence, while reminding fans of the terrific hockey tradition in this town, also points out how far the Wings have come without him in one year. Under Bowman, there was Dominik Hasek in the net, Steve Yzerman leading the way, Fredrik Olausson as a veteran defenseman, and a couple of new guys, Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull, looking for their first Detroit Cup.

Now, Hasek is retired, Olausson is on the opposing team, Yzerman missed most of the year, Curtis Joseph is in the net, Mathieu Schneider is the new veteran defenseman, Hull and Robitaille are Detroit fixtures, and a Swedish rookie named Henrik Zetterberg, who never played under Bowman, may be the wild card of this postseason.

Oh, and Detroit still collected 110 regular-season points, one shy of the best record in the West.

“I think we’re set up well,” Bowman said, never losing the possessive pronoun.
“Steve coming back is good influence on the room and gives everyone an additional motivation. Joseph and Schneider have motivation as well, being new.

“Dallas will be tough and Colorado is always a challenge. It’ll be interesting. But I like the way our team is molded.”

Bowman plans to be there every step of the way — even if he has to miss the U.S. Open golf tournament, which takes place in June. There is, however, one day he has to put aside: May 17. He is due to get an honorary degree from Canisius College, near Buffalo. “For a guy who barely handled high school,” he said, that’s not too shabby. He’s proud of the honor.

“So,” he concluded, “I won’t be available that day.”

But wait. What if that was Game 7 against the Avalanche?

He paused.

“I guess I’d get a private plane.”

Along for the ride. It begins tonight, Round 1, against Anaheim, the Red Wings’ quest to repeat, with a courageous captain, a new goaltender, a rising coach and a familiar professor emeritus in the field of puckology. All aboard that’s going aboard. The magic carpet is about to fly.

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

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