Why Scotty Bowman has full confidence in Detroit Red Wings future, Steve Yzerman as GM

Detroit Free Press
Bill Dow |  Special to Detroit Free Press

As part of his series on former Detroit sports figures, Bill Dow caught up with former Detroit Red Wings coach and hockey legend Scotty Bowman.

How we remember him

The NHL’s greatest coach has the most Stanley Cup championships (nine), regular season victories (1,244), postseason victories (233) and games coached (2,141) in league history. Hired by the Wings in 1993, Bowman had already won five Stanley Cups with Montreal and one in Pittsburgh. Detroit was swept in the ’95 Final by New Jersey, then won a record 62 games the following season before losing to Colorado in the Western Conference finals.

After convincing Steve Yzerman and others to become two-way players — and adeptly using the Russian Five unit — the Wings won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in ’97 and ’98. A 42-year title drought was snapped. The coach informed owner Mike Ilitch and the team that he was retiring as a coach during the on-ice celebration after Detroit’s third Cup with Bowman in 2002.

Bowman, a native of Verdun, Quebec, quit junior hockey in the Montreal system having never fully recovered from a fractured skull suffered in 1952. He soon became a coaching prodigy by 24 upon winning the Memorial Cup with the Ottawa Junior Canadiens as a protégé of Montreal’s legendary coach Toe Blake before becoming head coach of the NHL’s newly established St. Louis Blues in 1967 at 34.

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After taking the team to three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals, Bowman won five Cups in his eight seasons in Montreal before coaching Buffalo for seven seasons. Bowman then became a color commentator for Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts for three years before serving as Pittsburgh’s head coach for two years, winning a sixth Stanley Cup prior to arriving in Detroit.

Bowman was known as a master strategist and a demanding coach, who got the most out of his players any way he could think of. Over his 30-year NHL career, he coached 39 future Hall of Fame players while his teams competed in 13 Stanley Cup Finals, winning nine. He finished with a remarkable winning percentage of .654. Arguably no other coach in sports history has been as successful with as many teams and over as many generations of athletes. Years before he retired, in 1991 he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

After the Red Wings

Upon retiring as the Wing’s coach in 2002 he remained with the club for seven seasons as a consultant before becoming senior advisor to hockey operations with the Blackhawks where his son Stan (named after the Stanley Cup) served as the general manager before being named President of Hockey Operations in 2020.

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With Chicago, he added three Stanley Cup rings (’10, ’13, ’15) bringing a total of five as an executive. (Pittsburgh in 1991 and Detroit in 2008 being the others.)  

What is Stan Bowman doing today?

Bowman, 87, and his wife of 51 years, Suella, reside outside of Buffalo, New York and near Sarasota, Florida. They have five children, Alicia, Dave, Stan, Nancy and Bob and have eleven grandchildren. He continues to serve as senior advisor to hockey operations for the Blackhawks. With Bowman’s cooperation, his biography, “Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other,” was written by his former Montreal goalie and Hall of Famer Ken Dryden and published in 2019.

Stan Bowman on injury that ended his playing career

“I was a 17-year-old rookie left winger playing in a playoff game for the Montreal Junior Canadiens team and I was on a breakaway when Jean-Guy Talbot struck me on the head with his stick, fracturing my skull. He wasn’t a dirty player but that game, he just lost it. He later sent me an apology letter and was suspended for a year.

I didn’t think I could come back from that injury and Montreal didn’t want me playing anymore. The organization helped put me through business school and asked me to coach youth hockey in my hometown in an under-12 league when I was turning 18.

“During the day I worked for a paint company, but three years later I had my first full-time coaching job with the Ottawa Junior Canadiens working for Sam Pollock, who was responsible for advancing my coaching career. When I was coaching the Blues, I picked up Jean-Guy Talbot off of waivers. He had won seven Cups with Montreal. We became good friends and he calls me every year on my birthday.”

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Bowman on the influence of Montreal coach Toe Blake

“I was coaching Juniors in Montreal and every Friday after the Canadiens practiced, I searched him out and asked him questions. I considered him a mentor. Toe was a real stickler about fundamentals; like practicing not going offsides and when changing the lines during play, making sure the players came off at the right time.

“He also prepared his own analytics and tried to break down who played against who when the team won or lost. Back then, I started making my own books with the help of a friend who was a statistician. Now the league gives it to you.”

Bowman on coaching players:

When you go to a new team, it takes a while to get to know everybody. Some players, you cater to more than others. Some players have to be pushed and prodded and some you have to be quiet with. Some players you can’t get on them or they’ll pack it up.

“I never tried to sugar coat it with the players and I think they wanted you to be honest with them. You have to tell them what is truthful and what is not. But when it’s all said and done, to get the most out of the good players they needed someone to be pushing them and that’s how they got into the NHL.”

Bowman on turning Yzerman into a two-way player, making the Wings a Stanley Cup contender

“When Jimmy Devallano approached me about coaching the Wings, I knew they had a lot of offense and weren’t a team starting from the bottom. They had some good players, but in the playoffs, they couldn’t get it done. Offense is a great thing, but a lot of times it can dry up, especially in the playoffs if you face a hot goaltender. Maybe you’ve feasted on the power play, but you may not get as many opportunities so you have to have a well-rounded team.

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“Steve was a great offensive player and smart, but he wasn’t paying as much attention to defense because he was counted on to score. I told him that for this team to win his individual production was going to dip because he had to play more defense. He was an ultra-competitor, and I didn’t have to twist his arm because he wanted to win a Stanley Cup. The players respected him and they were going to follow suit, and if they didn’t, they weren’t going to stay.

“Steve worked hard on his faceoffs, and we started having him kill penalties. We had other great scorers like Sergei Fedorov, and had enough scoring, but we just needed to play some sound defense. We were fortunate that when we needed a player Mr. Ilitch let us do that.”

On the Russian Five

“We already had Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, and Vladimir Konstantinov, and then we acquired Slava Fetisov as a depth defenseman. Slava was a studious player and he suggested that we obtain Igor Larionov, who wanted to play here. Fetisov and Igor suggested that we put the Russians together as a unit so we tried it. In Russian hockey, the players are brought up playing five-man units.

“I was astonished how good they were together but I was always afraid someone was going to figure them out. I didn’t use them together all the time so I was cautious at the beginning. Their puck possession was so special and all five were excellent passers and pretty much could do it without looking. The Russian system is a team game and there is not a lot of puck carrying and the players are very unselfish. The puck goes a lot faster than a player, and that’s the way they were taught.”

Keys to his success in Detroit

“We had skilled players, they were hungry and we were a physical team. We were strong down the middle with Yzerman, Fedorov, and Larionov and had a great defenseman in Nik Lidstrom.

“The Joe Louis Arena had a lot of atmosphere with our great fans and it wasn’t an easy place to play in for other teams. Mike Ilitch was hell-bent on winning a Stanley Cup and he put a lot of resources into the team. When we wanted to make a move for a player his question always was, ‘Will he help us win?’ That was a big factor.

“We were very fortunate to have been able to add Brendan Shanahan, Chris Chelios, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, and Larry Murphy, all Hall of Fame players. But also, we had very good role players like Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Darren McCarty, and Joe Kocur. They didn’t always get the accolades but they inspired the others with their work ethic.  I was also very fortunate to have had Ken Holland as our GM, good scouts, and the continuity of an excellent coaching staff with Dave Lewis and Barry Smith.”

On his time with the Wings

“It was an exciting time for me, and to win the Cup for the first time in 42 years and win two of our three Cups at home was very special. Detroit is aptly named Hockeytown.

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“I knew Al Sobotka (Zamboni driver) all the engineers, and others in the building. The Ilitch family created an atmosphere that is hard to duplicate. I had been thinking of stepping down as coach a year or two before but it’s hard to leave a job you’ve done all your life. You can’t coach forever and I never had any second thoughts, but I did miss the preparation and game situations.

“I was fortunate that Mr. Ilitch let me stay with the organization as a consultant. I would have stayed longer but my son Stan who had become Chicago’s general manager had gotten sick and needed help with the Blackhawks. I told Mike that I didn’t want to leave but he said ‘it’s a no-brainer, you have to go.’ It’s tough when you leave a good place, but I still have good friends in Detroit.”

On the greatest player he saw

“It’s hard to compare players from different eras because the game has changed so much over the years, but I still have to say it’s Gordie Howe. Here’s a player who played so long at such a high level and who made the All-Star team, first or second team, for 21 years. You have to look at his offense, defense, and versatility. Plus, nobody was tougher than Gordie Howe. That is a pretty tough combination to beat.”

The Red Wings’ future

“Steve Yzerman has put Detroit in a pretty good position for the next two or three years to sign players to the right contracts. They have cap space now. When you get players in the draft you typically have to wait two or three years for them to develop. They can augment the drafted players and can go out and compete to get players now. There will be some good ones coming up in the marketplace because the teams they’re with have no more cap room.

“To have a good team and keep it together takes a lot of gymnastics. Steve’s not impatient. It takes five years to build a team and he’s only in his second year. Look what he did in Tampa Bay. Those are his players and look how well they’ve done.”

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