Scotty Bowman’s eyes were moist, his shirt was soaked and his hair was sticky from sprayed champagne. It had been only two hours since he and the Red Wings recaptured the Stanley Cup, but somehow, in that brief time, something had changed. His voice. It was missing its normal edge. It was gentler now, more reasoned, more resigned, like a drill sergeant who had gone from giving orders to soldiers to taking them from his wife.

“I wanted to tell the team,” said the 68-year-old coach, standing in the hallway outside the Wings’ locker room. “I wanted to tell them how great they were.”

“You haven’t ever done that?” I asked.

“I was hoping to tell them tonight.” He glanced down the corridor. Players were hugging their wives. Hoisting their children. Puffing cigars. Kissing the Cup.

“Maybe tonight,” he said, “isn’t the right night.”

What a strange two hours it had been. Just seconds after the Wings leapt onto the ice in glorious victory, having defeated Carolina in five games for the title, Bowman began telling everyone within earshot that he was finished, done, quitting the coaching ranks forever. He told Mike Ilitch, his owner, whispering the words. He told Steve Yzerman, his captain. He hugged forward Brendan Shanahan and told him, too. He told Ken Holland, his GM, with a handshake. He even told Aaron Ward, a former player now on the Hurricanes.

Whoever was around got the news flash, quick and short, straight from the coach’s mouth. “That was my last game.” . . . “I coached my last game.” . . .
“It’s time for me to go.” . . . “I’m done, that was my last game.” . . . Strange? Well, more than a few people wondered about the timing. This was no small news, Bowman leaving. He is the greatest coach in NHL history, and only after he arrived did Detroit begin winning titles again. Some think he overshadowed the night with his announcement. Some think he should have waited.

You know what I think? I think he couldn’t help it. Players leap. Fans slap hands. Owners light cigars. And Scotty Bowman, a man so detail-oriented he checks everything from stick length to locker-room air conditioning, couldn’t bear a story without an ending. He had known for months he was leaving. He had kept it inside until now. Players leap? Fans slap hands? This was an aging coach’s way of celebrating. He had made it through. He was leaving a winner.

And he was alive.

A different voice

“I had that scare in 1998,” Bowman told me, referring to some sudden heart surgery that sidelined him for months, “and that made me consider if I should come back at all. I looked after myself after that. But I also realized that sooner or later, you can’t keep doing this job.

“After that, I wondered how do you know when you’ve had enough?”

In previous years, a voice would tell him. He’d hear it, in the weeks that followed the season finale. “You can’t leave yet.” It happened after the Red Wings surrendered the Cup in 1999. It happened after the Wings were stunned with a first-round knockout in 2001. “You can’t leave yet. You’re not done.”

But this year, for the first time, the voice had a different echo. The Olympic break came in February, and so in the middle of the season, Bowman and his family went to Florida. They had nearly two weeks in the sun, no ice, no practice, no planes, no interviews. And as it was winding down, the voice once again said, “You can’t leave yet.”

But it was talking about vacation.

“I knew it would be four more years — the next Olympics — before I’d get to do that again, take time for myself in February. And that’s when I decided, I wasn’t up to doing it anymore.

“I made my decision.”

He kept a damn good secret. No one knew. Few even suspected. Many Red Wings learned the news from reporters Thursday night.

“I went to a breakfast place this morning,” Shanahan said Friday, “and I got all the newspapers and I was reading about the game and I saw a picture of me and Scotty hugging and I just have this stunned look on my face. That was when he told me. I was still kind of in shock.

“You know, Steve (Yzerman) and I had talked during the playoffs about how much energy Scotty had this year. We all noticed it. He seemed so on top of his game.

“But now I realize why. He knew it was the end. So he was savoring every moment of it.”

Bowman’s final good-bye

In a photographic darkroom, a picture is dipped first in a tray of developer, where the image comes up, then a tray of wash to remove the developer, then a tray of fixer, to hold the image where you want it. Without the final dipping, the picture will still develop, it just won’t stop. It keeps going, getting darker and darker, until it finally fades to black.

The Red Wings now are like a photograph without the fixer. A wonderful snapshot that cannot be frozen. New developments keep happening. And the old image, no matter how much we love it, is doomed to fade.

Who knows what Bowman’s departure will engender? Perhaps Dominik Hasek says,
“I’m too old to be breaking in a new coach,” and heads back to Europe. Perhaps 41-year-old Igor Larionov says, “I’ll never play for anyone as smart as Bowman; I’m done, too.” Perhaps other players see those departures and say,
“This isn’t the same team.” Perhaps assistant coaches aren’t happy with the new arrangement and bolt. Perhaps Holland, in an attempt to fill the holes, has to trade some of the faces that made it what it was.

Perhaps Yzerman, the heart and soul of this team, doesn’t come back as quickly as hoped from reconstructive knee surgery. There is no describing what he went through for this squad, coming to practice but never practicing, taking all kinds of shots just to make it through another game, skating on a knee so barren it was like driving a car on tire rims. It was worth every minute, he will tell you, but the piper waits by his door. And he will be paid.

That’s sports. You can’t lock in anything — except memories. So you must make those when you can.

Which brings us back to that sentence Bowman told me in the hallway Thursday night: “I wanted to tell them how great a team they’ve been.”

Bowman is not loose with compliments. Time was, he probably didn’t see the point of compliments at all. But now, as the years shorten, he said, “When I left Montreal, where we won the Cup, I moved on, and never told those Montreal guys how good they were.

“Now, when I see them 25 years later, now I’m able to tell them. At least I try.

“That’s the one regret you have as a coach. You can’t tell the guys how good they are. But I can do it with this team now, because . . . because I’m not gonna coach anymore.”

Why, Scotty Bowman, I believe you have developed a soft side.

Bowman says he plans to tell the Red Wings all at once, maybe at an upcoming team function. I asked what he would say.

“I’d just tell them how this Cup shows what a great team they have. There’s a nucleus that has been here a long time, and then you bring in new players who had great careers but they hadn’t won it all — and they molded together. And there’s no special way you mold that. They mold themselves. I’ve always said, you can’t make the players get it. If they don’t get it on their own, they never will.”

Bowman told a story then. He said after Game 4 in Carolina, which put the Red Wings within one victory of the Cup, he felt he needed to address the team. He wanted to tell the Wings to stay controlled, don’t believe the hype, don’t think they had won anything just because they were going home.

He went to do that — and out on the tarmac, near the team plane, Yzerman already had gathered everyone together and was telling them that very thing.

“It was like having another coach,” Bowman said.

And he smiled.

This cannot be the same team without Bowman. No one is pretending it can. But he leaves behind more than photos. “He taught all of us how to play the game of hockey,” Shanahan said.

And here, in the wee hours Friday morning, was his legacy: Hasek, finally standing on a stage, spraying his teammates with champagne. Luc Robitaille’s young son sitting atop his dad’s locker, one cheek painted with the words
“Robitaille Wins Cup.” Steve Duchesne, a 36-year-old journeyman, still blinking at the idea that “my name is finally going to be on that thing.” Nicklas Lidstrom, who thrives under a defensive mind like Bowman’s, holding the Conn Smythe Trophy over his head as he weaved through the crowd.

And finally, this. A reporter asking Sergei Fedorov what he thought about Bowman’s leaving. Fedorov has had his share of brushes with the coach. Over the years, he has bristled at Bowman’s discipline and bucked against his playing time.

But here is how Fedorov answered the question:

“He is the best coach ever. He can go out however he wants. He has nine championships.”

He grinned.

“Maybe they should call it the Scotty Cup.”

Hmm . . .

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). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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