WINGS BUCK TREND IN KEEPING BOWMAN

In this age of greed and long-term contracts, Scotty Bowman does what we wish all athletes would do: He works year-to-year. Doesn’t stick himself on a team. If the time comes to say good-bye, he leaves at the end of the season. And if he ever loses his touch, the team can elect not to renew him. Neat, clean, professional …

…and coming soon?

Sure, Bowman re-upped Thursday for one more run at the Cup. Telling Scotty you don’t want him back is like telling Sinatra you don’t want him sitting in with the band. He has won more rings than anyone else in the game today. He has the pedigree. When Scotty says, “I shall return,” the response is, “Thank you!”

But Bowman, 67, is only human, and more important, so are his players. And the truest theory I ever heard about a coach and his players came from Chuck Daly as he left the Pistons:

“After a while,” he said, “they just stop listening to you.”

Take heed, Wings fans. For while Bowman’s list of accomplishments is longer than the sign-up sheet for “Survivor III,” he is still a coach, the Wings are still players, he has been their leader for eight years, and the success is going backwards.

In 1997 the Wings won it all. In 1998 they won it all. In 1999, a second-round exit. In 2000, a second-round exit. This season, a first-round exit.

And all the while, the same coach, mostly the same players, saying, “We’ve still got it, we’ve still got it….”

Does this sound familiar? It should. In 1989 and 1990 the Pistons won it all. In 1991 they lost in the third round. In 1992 they lost in the first round.

All the while, the same coach, mostly the same players, saying, “We still got it, we still got it…. “

Everybody’s still got it, until he ain’t got it.

Too comfortable is not good

“I never felt like that last game against L.A. would be my last as Detroit coach,” Bowman said Thursday. Who would want it to be? Bowman has pride, and departing in the first round is no way to end the most glorious coaching career in NHL history.

Bowman wants to go out a winner. Or at least a Stanley Cup finalist. And it’s not like he has lost the ability to coach.

But I remember the first years he was here, when the Wings were on the upswing. His style was so unpredictable. His temper was a tornado. You never knew when it would strike, and that kept the Red Wings on their toes. They were befuddled by Bowman, afraid of Bowman, annoyed by Bowman, and in awe of Bowman.

These days, they are used to Bowman. You don’t hear the same fear. You don’t hear the same uneasiness. Bowman, through health issues, family concerns and age, has softened his sandpaper approach, just as the Wings have grown used to it.

And while nothing is inherently wrong with this — sometimes a familiar coach creates a comfort zone for players that is productive — too comfortable is never good. This is why you can’t ask players their opinions of coaches. They’re too close to the situation. Besides, players often prefer the familiar to the unknown. Remember, a lot of Red Wings loved Jacques Demers, right up to his firing. A lot of Lions loved Wayne Fontes, right until his exit.

So when players praise Bowman — and rightly so — what they can’t tell you is how high they might jump if someone new were barking the orders.

And like it or not, the Wings are nearing that juncture. They have superstars
(Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Nick Lidstrom, Chris Chelios), they have a veteran goalie (Chris Osgood), and they have solid role players.

What they don’t have are results.

New wrinkles might not be enough

“We had a great regular season,” Bowman said Thursday. “But everyone knows playoff time is different…. We need to make sure we have enough for the season and we still have enough during the playoffs.”

Bowman says he’ll rest players more during the season. He and Ken Holland will court some newer faces. And Bowman’s amazing mind sees some “new wrinkles” that he’d like to try on the ice.

It may be enough, it may not. We no longer live in the Red Auerbach era. Familiarity in sports these days breeds not contempt, but sometimes contentment. Consider the two teams in this year’s finals. Colorado has a different coach from when it won the Cup in 1996. And New Jersey, the Cup winner in 1995, hired its current coach, Larry Robinson, only very late last season as it won another Cup.

We love what the Wings did in ’97 and ’98. And we hesitate to break up a good marriage. But while everyone seems to agree there should be one more Bowman run, many also agree that this is it. No Cup finals this time, you gotta go drastic.

“A coach can get a team to a certain level,” Bowman admitted, “but without the players, he’s going to be moving on.”

Add to that: Without the players’ ears, he’s moving, too. Holland must provide the players. Bowman has to keep them listening. Let’s hope he can rev up the Wings with some new wrinkles, even as he fights a few himself.

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) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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