With Scotty Bowman's adding yet another coaching record (1,100 victories) to his lengthy resume recently, it's appropriate to review the first book to be written on the man who, over the past thirty years, has established himself as arguably the greatest coach in National Hockey League history.
Born and raised in Montreal, Bowman got his fierce competitive drive from his mother, who if losing at cards would throw her hand into the fire. Her philosphy when it came to competition was "if you can't win, what's the point in playing?" It's one that's driven her son to reach for success throughout his hockey career.
Bowman would play Junior hockey in Montreal in his late teens. Despite the legend that claims his promising career was cut short by a slash to the head by Jean-Guy Talbot, Bowman was not as badly injured as the story would have it. Indeed, he would be back in action quickly, and would have another full season of junior hockey. He never suffered a fractured skull, nor did he have a plate put in his head. The author speculates that the story of his injury may have been stoked by Bowman himself, as a convenient explanation as to why his playing career never amounted to much.
Once his junior playing days were over, Bowman would begin a long association with Sam Pollock in the Canadiens farm system, first as his assistant coach, then as head coach. He steadily climbed the coaching ranks, but there was no way he would rise to coach the Habs as long as Toe Blake was still in Montreal. The 1967 draft would give Bowman his first big break in the NHL, as he was hired by the Solomon family of the St. Louis Blues as coach and GM.
He would waste no time building the Blues into a legitimate contender, eschewing the draft and building his team with veterans like Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey, Dickie Moore, Red Berenson and the Plager brothers. While this garnered short term gains, it would hamper the team's long-term development.
Fired by the Solomon's after he clashed with them over their player-friendly attitudes towards his players, Bowman was hired by his old boss Sam Pollock to coach the Canadiens. The 1970's would be the period of his greatest professional success, as he won 5 Stanley Cups with the Habs, including four in a row. Bowman was fortunate both to have a good working relationship with Pollock, plus a powerhouse of a franchise which Pollock had supplied him with.
However, by 1978, Pollock retired, and Bowman was seen as actively stumping for the job as GM. As the author points out, there are conflicting stories from Pollock (who claims he endorsed Bowman as his replacement), Jean Beliveau and Al McNeil (who claim Bowman was never considered a candidate) and Bowman himself regarding his passing over by the Canadiens, who hired instead Irving Grundman. Suffice to say, it was enough to convince Bowman he needed to move on.
After being wooed by Harold Ballard's Toronto Maple Leafs, Bowman was hired by the Buffalo Sabres as GM in 1979. It was this period that is his lowest, as the Sabres grow steadily worse under his management until they missed the playoffs in 1986. The author shows that his draft record wasn't as bad as has been made out when it came to North American talent. Bowman would draft such stars as Tom Barrasso, Phil Housley, Dave Andreychuk, Ray Sheppard, Darren Puppa and Benoit Hogue. However, his record regarding European players is much less stellar, such as his passing over Chris Chelios in 1981 to go after Czech star Jiri Dudacek, who never played in the NHL.
What was a far bigger contributor to the Sabres downfall during Bowman's tenure was the fact he dealt away too many veteran players too soon for draft picks and unproven youngsters. Former Sabres such as Craig Ramsey and Gilbert Perrault were critical of Bowman for these moves, which they felt was too much too soon and left the Sabres with a team full of leaderless, inexperienced youngsters. Furthermore, Bowman couldn't find a coach to his liking, going through four of them (including Roger Nielson) and returning to the bench again and again. Fired by the Sabres in 1986, it appeared as though he would be labelled a has-been.
Hired by family friend Craig Patrick to be Director of Player personnel in Pittsburgh, Bowman would see his career rejuvenated. He would play a big part in the building of the Penguings as a championship franchise, which included the drafting of Jaromir Jagr, and trades for Larry Murphy, Joe Mullen, Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson. Hired on as a replacement coach following the death of the popular "Badger" Bob Johnson, he changed his style slightly, becoming less controlling and allowing his assistant coaches to run practices. Bowman would be rewarded by coaching another Cup champion in 1992.
Despite rumours he was forced out of Pittsburgh as the "fall guy" in 1993 following the Pens early exit from the playoffs, Bowman saw coaching the Detroit Red Wings as a chance to build another Cup champion with a team already loaded with veterans. His signing an $800,000 deal opened the door for "big money" contracts for coaches.
In Detroit, Bowman set about again building a team to his liking in his dual role as coach and director of player development. He put together the "Russian Five" of Fetisov, Konstantinov, Federov, Larionov and Kozlov and made trades for talented veterans such as Mike Vernon and Larry Murphy. Perhaps his greatest success in Detroit was the transformation of the offensively gifted Steve Yzerman into a dangerous two-way forward and strong playoff leader.
However, his first few seasons in Detroit were not easy ones. He was out-coached by Jacques Lemaire in the 1995 Cup Finals and Marc Crawford in the 1996 Conference Finals. He clashed openly with Paul Coffey and Keith Primeau. His handling of their trade to Hartford affected players like Vernon, Osgood and Federov, who all believed they would be next. Former Wings like Dino Ciccarelli, Bob Errey and Shawn Burr hold nothing back in their opinions of Bowman's treatment of them and their former teammates.
Bowman's saving grace, however, has been his ability to get players like Yzerman and Shanahan to buy into his coaching style. Both have thrived playing for him and were quite vocal in their efforts to keep Bowman as the Red Wings coach. His efforts would help bring the Stanley Cup to Detroit 1997 and 1998.
The author goes on to illustrate that, despite the success of recent years, Bowman still hasn't mellowed when it comes to management intrigue. The only way incoming GM Ken Holland would agree to accept the job was if Bowman relinquished his player development role and stuck to coaching, albeit with a substantial raise. It was Bowman who made the call for Holland to re-sign Federov after the Russian had signed an offer sheet with the Carolina Hurricanes. Fortunately for Holland and Bowman, they've been able to co-exist under their current arrangement.
As you can see by my summary, this book on Bowman is long on intimate details of his coaching career and his style. Sadly, it's short on what drives Bowman the man to be the type of person he is, such is the wall of privacy around his personal life. There are small glimpses, however: his love of model trains, his devotion to his family, particularly his mentally disabled son. He possesses an amazing memory for statistics, which inspired his players in Pittsburgh to nickname him "Rain Man", after the character portrayed by Dustin Hoffman.
During draft day, he is often seen hob-nobbing and relaxing with former NHL "roleplayers" who once played for him, who are now coaches, scouts or managers. According to Jimmy Roberts, who played for Bowman in St. Louis and Montreal, that's the closest people get to seeing the "real" Scotty Bowman. He was a student of Toe Blake early in his coaching career, and to this day is uncomfortable with comparisons to Blake, pointing out Blake won his 8 coaching Stanley Cups with the same team and in less time.
One interesting tidbit notes Bowman was not Detroit's first choice, as GM Jimmy Devellano wanted to hire the Islanders Al Arbour instead. It s interesting to speculate if the Wings would've have the same success under Arbour had he accepted the job!
The lack of insight into Bowman's personality aside, Scotty Bowman: A Life in Hockey is an entertaining portrait of a man who has managed to survive the constant changes and upheavels within the NHL over three decades and remain on top of his game. Douglas Hunter has done a fine job of piecing together Bowman's professional career. The stories of his clashes with players, management and ownership are a riveting, revealing read into the sometimes Machiavellian off-ice world of the NHL.