SECRET WEAPON? SCOTTY, OF COURSE

Look, Philadelphia. I don’t want to ruin your day. But while you’re talking about how big and tough your hockey team is, you might consider that the coach of the Detroit Red Wings, 63- year-old Scotty Bowman, not only has a jutting jaw, a thick neck, three decades of experience, seven Stanley Cup rings, and more victories than anyone else in the history of this game, but he also — and I am not making this up — walked right through a crime scene to buy rice pudding.

That’s right. Rice pudding.

Don’t mess with a man like that.

You want the facts? I’ll give you the facts. Bowman happened to be in West Bloomfield the morning two jewelry store robbers committed their latest heist. And after the crime, a certain area was marked off by police.

But Bowman that day was heading for the store where he gets his rice pudding. He likes his rice pudding. He wanted his rice pudding. This place makes it fresh, once a week, and today was rice pudding day. He wasn’t going to let something like yellow police tape get in his way.

So he parked. And he walked toward the store. And a cop who recognized him waved him through, because he knew something the Philadelphia Flyers better learn: You don’t stand between a man and his pudding.

“The funny thing is, when I got inside, the store owner wasn’t very happy because they weren’t letting anyone in and he didn’t have customers,” Bowman recalls. “He said to me, ‘I got 12 chickens. You want to buy a chicken, too?’

All moves went right

Now I can hear some of you Philly fans snickering. I can hear you singing the old, familiar chorus: “See, it’s like they say, the man is nuts.”

But it’s funny, isn’t it, how Bowman goes from nuts to genius as the victories pile up?

When he put Sergei Fedorov on defense, he was nuts. When he picked Mike Vernon over Chris Osgood, he was nuts. When he broke up the Russian Five, he was nuts.

And now, of course, all those moves are considered part of this brilliant, chess-like strategy that has brought the Wings back to the Stanley Cup finals. Fedorov is a better player because of the humility he learned as a defenseman. The Russian Five are more effective when they come at you by surprise. Vernon may be the single biggest reason the Wings are where they are.

“The truth about the Vernon situation,” Bowman says, “is that as soon as we drew St. Louis in the first round, we felt it would be hard for Chris to go against Grant Fuhr in the opposite net.

“It’s tough for a young goalie to go against a Hall of Famer, and our conference is full of them. If it wasn’t Fuhr, it might have been Curtis Joseph in Edmonton, or eventually, Patrick Roy.

“So that’s why Vernon started.”

Hmm. Interesting. And whether you agree or not, you have to credit Bowman for considering the emotions of his players, not just the X’s and O’s. This wasn’t Sparky Anderson going with the lefty over the righty based on percentages. This was a man playing a hunch on personalities.

He did the same thing in Game 4 against Colorado, when he tried to calm down Avalanche coach Marc Crawford — who had gone ballistic — by saying, “I knew your father before you did, and I don’t think he’d be very proud of how you’re acting.”

Wow! How many coaches can pull that line out of a hat?

And then there was the Game 6 clincher. Not normally a man who makes Knute Rockne speeches, Bowman recalled Herb Brooks and the 1980 Olympic hockey team.

“Herb said, ‘This is your moment, you belong here.’ And that’s pretty much what I told our team. I said, ‘You don’t want to look back on 1997 and say we had a chance to go to the finals and blew it.’ “

He also took a few key players aside — including Brendan Shanahan — and gave them a private pep talk.

“It was the best 30-second motivational speech I have ever had from a coach,” Shanahan says. “He told me Colorado was purposely not trying to get me angry, because they were afraid of how I’d play. He said I had to play as if I were already angry.”

Whoa. Scotty. Going psychological.

A most puzzling man

Maybe this is Bowman’s eclectic personality. His players often complain about him. Some coaches despise him. And he drives the media mad with rules that seem to come from the Prison Warden’s Handbook.

Ah, but winning washes all dirty laundry, no? Even Keith Gave, the Free Press hockey writer, recently wrote, “God help me, I’m starting to like this guy.” And there were times when Keith and Scotty in the same building required a demilitarized zone.

Bowman knows he is about to be profiled to death by the media. And he knows they’ll come back to the word “enigma.”

“Are you an enigma?” I ask.

“No, I’ve got good friends in every city, my family supports me and I support them.”

Which is a pretty enigmatic answer.

But never mind. The important thing here, Philadelphia, is that this could be Bowman’s last season, and he wants one more Stanley Cup, badly. So before you hand yourself the championship, you’d better ponder one haunting question:

If Bowman would walk through police tape to get rice pudding, what would he do to get another ring?

Be scared. Be very, very scared.

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