Ienter the Red Wings locker room and come to the head coach’s office. I tense my shoulders. I clench my fists. I am prepared for a lecture. I am prepared for an argument. It is the new hockey season, and I am ready for whatever flames come flying from the famous coach’s mouth.

I poke my head in the door. I close my eyes.

I open my eyes.

Nobody here.

“No Scotty?” I say.

“No Scotty,” someone says.

Maybe in the training room. No doubt hovering over some wounded Red Wings, yelling at the masseur, “FASTER! GET HIM READY!” In the training room is where he must be. In the training room I go. I poke my head in.

I poke my head out.

“No Scotty?” I say.

“No Scotty,” someone says.

Hmm. I know. The workout room. Where the players ride the stationary bikes? Sure, that’s where he is. Cracking the whip like some Tasmanian devil, yelling
“C’MON! DO YOU WANT TO WIN ANOTHER CUP OR NOT?” I sneak into the workout room. But the bikes are really stationary.

No players. No coach. No whip.

“No Scotty?” I say.

“No Scotty,” someone says.

Were they serious about this? No Scotty? Are the Red Wings really going to start the season without their head coach, without the legend that led them to back-to-back Stanley Cups? How can that be? Isn’t that like starting “Hamlet” without his father’s ghost? Like starting “The Brady Bunch” without Mr. Brady? No Scotty?

“He’s hiding, right?” I say to the locker-room attendant. “That wall is a two-way mirror. It’s one of his motivational tricks?”

Will he or won’t he return?

That must be it, right? I mean, over the summer, we heard talk about Bowman not returning. But we hear that talk every summer. Then summer turned to September, September turned to training camp, training camp ended and he still wasn’t there, and he still hadn’t said whether he was coming back.

And here we are, the day before the season opener. And he still isn’t here, and he still hasn’t said whether he’s coming back.

How strange is this? Can you remember any team in any major sport starting a season with no idea who its head coach was? Can you? No Scotty?

“I know. He’s in the shower, right?” I say to the locker-room attendant. “I’ll just wait here.”

I wait. I look at my watch. How long can he take? It’s just a shower. Then I notice something. There is no water running.

“No Scotty?” I say.

“No Scotty,” someone says.

How can this be? What’s the real story? You hear his assistant coaches say,
“He’s coming back. We’re just keeping the seat warm.” But if that’s true, then why hasn’t he said so? And when is he coming back? And which one is keeping the seat warm?

You hear confidants say, “He’s not coming back. The knee operation. The death of his brother. He doesn’t need the aggravation. He wants out.” But if that’s true, then why doesn’t he say so? Wouldn’t it be better for the Wings to know?

Not that anyone wants to hear he’s not coming back. Nuh-uh. Never mind his occasional bursts of temper. Never mind his darting eyes, gnashing jaws and impossible-to-follow conversations. It is no accident the Wings hadn’t won a title in 42 years until Bowman arrived. It is no accident that he has more Stanley Cup rings than any other coach in history, except Toe Blake, with whom he is tied.

It is no accident that his emphasis on defense, his line shifts, his sharp eye for personnel — even the mind games he plays with his players — are responsible for their amazing success.

How integral is Bowman to the hopes of this team? Well, consider this: Would you still pick the Wings to repeat if you knew Bowman was out?

Would you have picked Green Bay without Lombardi?

A strange season kicks off

“Is he out on the ice?” I ask the attendant. “That’s it, right? He’s doing his normal white-glove checkup?”

That must be it. Who is more supercilious than Bowman? Don’t sweat the small stuff? Bowman invented the small stuff. This is a guy who measures the benches. This is a guy who knows how fast a puck goes frozen, versus chilled.

I run onto the ice. I glance left. I glance right. I …WHOA!

I fall down.

“No Scotty?” I say.

“No Scotty!” someone yells.

Not on the ice. Not in the shower. Not in his office. Nowhere. Well, isn’t this something? A hockey season with no head coach. Somewhere in Buffalo, Bowman ponders his future, and thereby the future of this team, while the Wings themselves begin their title defense with two “co-coaches,” Barry Smith and Dave Lewis. Nice men. Good teachers. But they’re like two guys holding the door open saying, “After you,” “No, after you . . .”

There was never that problem with Bowman. He was in charge. He was the General, stomping around like some Flintstones character, jut-jawed, rock-solid, narrow-eyed — you could feel his presence from behind a wall.

But you can’t feel it from another state. And so the Wings begin with no promises. No assurances. No Scotty?

Wait. Down the hall. I hear something. Stomping feet. Heavy breathing, It’s coming my way. See? I told you. I leap through the doorway. I yell, “AHA! SO YOU’RE BACK!” — then my face sinks.

It’s Al, the Zamboni guy.

This is gonna be a strange season.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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