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HEADS ABOVE THE REST

02/13/2004 10:04 AM - No one will likely ever surpass Scotty Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history, with 1,244 victories and nine Stanley Cups to his credit.

Story and photos by Mark Newman


Scotty Bowman has never been one to keep his opinions to himself. Of course, when you've won more games than any coach in the history of your sport, you have the privilege to speak your mind.

And when Scotty speaks, people listen.

Now retired, Bowman is enjoying life as a special consultant to the Detroit Red Wings. He scouts NHL games in Tampa , an hour's drive from the winter condominium in Sarasota that he shares with his wife, Suella.

He spoke with Griffiti magazine prior to his scheduled engagement at the 2004 Pepsi AHL All-Star Classic, where he was slated to be the featured speaker for the Hockey Hall of Fame luncheon at Van Andel Arena.

Bowman speaks matter-of-factly, peppering his pronouncements with "you know" and "you know what I mean," as he dekes his way from one thought to the next, never directly answering a question as the writer might hope.

Even in conversation, Bowman is an expert at changing lines.

One writer, perhaps unkindly, once suggested that Bowman speaks in what he termed “a stream of unconsciousness.” Sports Illustrated once called him “a vexing conversationalist, abandoning sentences in mid-thought, scattering non sequiturs like rose petals.”

As a coach, Bowman was always thinking, always plotting one or two moves ahead of the guy standing behind the other bench. His insights into the game now are no less valued.

In its recent “100 People of Power & Influence” issue, The Hockey News wrote the following about Bowman: “There is no shortage of teams who would hire the 70-year-old coaching legend in a heartbeat. Even as he eases into retirement, his opinions are still sought and his answers are at least as influential as those given by any active coach.”

Ask Bowman what he thinks about the job that his proteges, Dave Lewis and Barry Smith, have done with the injury-riddled Red Wings this season and he answers “They're doing pretty well,” in a tone that makes you wonder whether he wishes he still could be coaching.

He insists, however, that those days are behind him. “If I was going to still coach, I would have stayed in Detroit ,” Bowman says.

Although his time in Hockeytown wasn't without acrimony, Bowman acknowledges that he has nothing but admiration for the Red Wings organization, from the top on down.

“Mr. Ilitch has done a good job,” Bowman says of the Red Wings' owner who joined him in the builder category of the Hockey Hall of Fame this past fall. “He's turned the Red Wings into a solid franchise by making sure he has good teams, and the fans support it.”

Having coached in both Detroit and Montreal (two of hockey's Original Six franchises, both with long, storied traditions), Bowman came to appreciate what the support of fans can mean.

“In a lot of cases, it makes a team play better,” Bowman says. “Guys go to Detroit and they want to stay there because they're well-treated. They want to play in those places where they have a good shot at winning.”

Coaches are no different. When Bowman came to Detroit , he wasn't looking for long-term employment. He wasn't looking to win more Stanley Cup titles than his mentor, Toe Blake, who coached the mighty Montreal teams in the 1950s and '60s to eight championships.

Winning one more Stanley Cup and then another has a way of changing a man's mind.

“I was only going to stay a couple of years, but the team was on the rise,” Bowman said. “We were fortunate that we had a lot of great players who got along pretty well, and we had good leadership.”

Steve Yzerman has been the captain of the Red Wings since 1986, but it wasn't until Bowman's arrival that he exhibited all the traits of an unselfish leader who was willing to sacrifice personal accomplishments for the good of the team.

Bowman notes that while Yzerman's playing skills may have diminished with age, his leadership qualities have been accentuated. “He's still a strong player; he knows how to win,” Bowman says. “He's a great leader.”

Yzerman is hardly the first veteran to win the legendary coach's approval. Bowman, who entered the NHL coaching ranks in the 1967-68 season when he took over the reigns of the expansion St. Louis Blues, has long appreciated the value of experience.

In St. Louis , he built a strong defense on the talents of several players past their prime, including venerable goaltender Glenn Hall, 44-year-old defenseman Doug Harvey, veteran Al Arbour, and Dickie Moore, whose wrecked knees had forced him to retire not once but twice.

“They weren't at their peak -- they may have been at the descending part of their careers -- but they were still great players,” he says.

Nobody has ever been better at manipulating talent than Bowman, who brought tried-and-true players like Larry Murphy, Chris Chelios, Igor Larionov and Mike Vernon to Hockeytown.

Even so, Bowman feels his reputation for favoring veteran players is hogwash. “Somebody wrote that, but I don't think it's true,” he insists. “Look at some of the players we had in Buffalo .”

After winning five Stanley Cups in eight seasons in Montreal , Bowman settled in Buffalo with the Sabres, who hired him to be their general manager and director of player personnel in addition to being their coach.

In 1982, Bowman became the first NHL general manager to use his first-round pick in the annual amateur draft on an American high school student: defenseman Phil Housley, who went on to play 1,495 games in 21 NHL seasons before recently announcing his retirement.

A year later, Bowman took goaltender Tom Barrasso with the fifth overall pick. Barrasso, who retired last June with 369 victories to his credit, would later help Bowman and the Pittsburgh Penguins win the 1992 Stanley Cup.

In Bowman's system, players had to earn their ice time.

“It's not that you favor anybody,” he says. “If you have a good, winning team, it's hard for the kids to come up and step in. But some young players can play right away. If they're good, they'll play."

A good example is Niklas Kronwall, the young Swedish defenseman who won a regular spot in the Red Wings' lineup after beginning the year in Grand Rapids . Kronwall was averaging 12-15 minutes per game in Detroit before he broke his leg in January.

“He sees the ice well, he's a good passer and he's got some grit, which is nice to have,” Bowman says. “He played in the top league over there (in Sweden ) for three years, so it's not like bringing in a kid from juniors.”

Bowman, who also won a Stanley Cup as director of player development in Pittsburgh for a total of 10, is a firm believer in the minor league development system.

“Historically, it hasn't been bad for players to go down and play in the minors,” he says. “If you're not ready to play in the NHL right away, it's a good place to be.”

He notes that the Red Wings couldn't be more pleased with their relationship with the Griffins. The affiliation between Grand Rapids and Detroit works, Bowman says, because the two organizations are equally committed to winning.

“If a player comes from one good team to another, the expectations are there,” he says. “It's been good for Detroit , now that their players are in a closer environment. It's nice that (Red Wings management) can go to watch them play. Plus, (the Griffins) get a lot of fan support. It's good for the whole state."

It's in the minors that coaches find their precious diamonds in the rough: character players like Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty, who, in Bowman's words, “show up every night.”

“I think the most important thing is a player has to know his role,” Bowman says. “You can't sugarcoat things. If a player is going to play only 10 minutes a game, he has to accept that. He can't get his nose out of joint.

“Everybody on the team has to know their function. If he's a star, he has to play like a star. If he's a role player, he's got to know his role. If they won't accept their role, they're not going to help you.”

Although the number of future Hall of Fame players in Detroit attracts the headlines, Bowman believes the Red Wings' management has done a remarkable job at finding the right pieces to fit.

“Every time we needed a player, they would get him,” he says. “They bought a lot of players, but they developed a lot of players on their own, too. You look at Detroit and there aren't too many weaknesses.”

In contrast, Bowman contends most teams in the NHL begin the season without any real hope of winning the Cup. “Out of 30 teams, 20 of them probably don't have a chance because of economics and the stage they're in,” he says.

The balance of power could shift when the current collective bargaining agreement between NHL clubs and players expires Sept. 15, 2004 . Having made hockey his life for more than 50 years, Bowman naturally has an interest in what happens.

But this is one time when he doesn't have an opinion. “I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen,” he says. Which is not to say that he doesn't care. Just ask him.


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