When it comes to the ranks of professional coaches, there are some who rank head and shoulders above their peers and depending on your loyalties, a debate might ensue about just who the greatest of all time was (is). When it comes to football, you have your Vince Lombardi, your Joe Walsh and your Chuck Noll. Basketball has its Red Auerbach, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson and baseball has its Casey Stengel and Joe Torre. When it comes to hockey though, there really is no debate or argument. For now, Scotty Bowman sits alone atop the heap.
Like most of his fellow brethren in the coaching profession, Scotty started out as a player but an injury to his head while he was still a youth forced him to hang up his skates and stick and try his hand behind the bench. In term of accomplishments, what was to follow is truly amazing.
Don’t Let The Blues Get You Down
After kicking around the minor leagues in Canada with some degree of success, Bowman soon found himself in the employ of the Montreal Canadians and their minor league team. As luck would have it, the NHL was undergoing a period of expansion and a franchise was awarded in 1967 that would be known as the St. Louis Blues and Bowman took the job as head coach.
For those of you who aren’t sports aficionados, let me just say that doing anything with a newly formed team is damn near impossible. Your choice of players is usually limited to cast offs from other squads and your farm system is virtually non-existent. These were long before the days of free agency and just finishing out of the basement would be considered quite an accomplishment.
So, what did Bowman do? In each of the teams first three years of existence, he took them to the Stanley Cup finals. Granted, they lost in all three but I believe that’s a record that won’t ever be broken in any of the major sports.
In 1971 the Montreal Canadians called Bowman home and offered him what was then the most prestigious job in hockey. Sure, they had won the Stanley Cup the year before but many of their players fought openly about the tactics of then head coach Henri Richard and were looking to jump ship. Bowman came in and settled things down and during his next eight years at the helm, a dynasty was in the making. All they managed to was to hoist “The Cup” five times. That included a run of four straight ending in 1979.
Once the 1979 season was over, Bowman shocked the hockey world when he announced he was stepping down as the head coach of the NHL’s premier franchise. Maybe it was the pressure of playing in Montreal or maybe Bowman was looking for a new challenge but he soon accepted an offer from the Buffalo Sabres to be their head coach and general manager. Alas, success wouldn’t follow Bowman to the same degree as it did in Montreal. While the Sabres were good and made the playoffs in most of the years Bowman was behind the bench, he never duplicated the success he had in Montreal.
A Ticket To Pittsburgh
In 1987 Bowman tried to call it quits behind the bench and start up a new career in the booth. He worked as an analyst on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada but that wouldn’t last for too long.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, a longtime NHL doormat had just won their first Stanley Cup in 1991 and were looking like a sure bet to repeat the following year. Tragedy in the form of cancer struck their then head coach (Bob Johnson) and Bowman was called in to take his place. He would lead them to victory and 1992 and almost pulled it off again in 1993 but were upset by the New York Islanders in the conference finals.
Next Stop, Motown…
The Detroit Red Wings, one of the NHL’s original six teams, had become one of the laughing stocks of the league. They seemed destined to remain perennial cellar dwellers and were looking for a way out of the basement.In 1994 Bowman was called in to take the reins of the once proud franchise. In 1995 Bowman lead them to regular season record of 42 wins and the Red Wings made their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals in twenty nine years. Unfortunately for them, the New Jersey Devils lay in wait and swept them in four games.
Undeterred, the next season Bowman led the Red Wings to an NHL record sixty two regular season victories but once again they fell victim, this time to the eventual Stanley Cup winners, the Colorado Avalanche.
In 1997 it all came together and Bowman led the Detroit Red Wings to its first Stanley Cup victory in forty two years. In a town that had been thirsting for a championship, they wouldn’t have to wait much longer to sip from the Cup as the Red Wings repeated as league champions again in 1998.
After a couple of disappointing seasons in which the team played well but failed to do so in the playoffs, Bowman decided to call it quits after the 2002 season. Rather than let his team know about his decision, he kept them in the dark and apparently it was the right call to make. He went out a winner as the Red Wings once again lifted The Cup when they defeated the Carolina Hurricanes in five games. It wasn’t until they had won that Bowman let his players know that this was his last season behind the bench.
Nowadays, he's a consultant for the Red Wings and an occasional analyst for ESPN.
You Want Numbers?
- An NHL record of nine Stanley Cup victories
- Winningest coach in NHL history with 1,244 victories and a .654 winning percentage.
- Most games coached (2141)
- Most playoff games coached (353)
- Most playoff games won (223)