Starts are interesting and almost always vital learning experiences, but it’s the journey and finish that matter most. It’s the pursuit of the Stanley Cup that keeps Rick Bowness going, longer than any coach in NHL history, and he’s not done yet.
Even if it might have briefly felt that way long ago here in Boston.
“Still one of my favorite years of coaching,” recalled Bowness this past week, some 30 years after being abruptly dismissed following only one season behind the Bruins’ bench. “Disappointing that it lasted only the one year. I grew up a Bruins fan, and to work for the Boston Bruins was a big thrill. One of the biggest highlights of my career. I loved the Bruins. Still do.”
The 1991-92 Bruins, 36-32-12 under the then-37-year-old Bowness, made it all the way to the Cup semis, ultimately erased in four straight by the powerful Penguins (eventual Cup winners) after first rubbing out the Sabres (4-3) and Canadiens (4-0).
A trip to the NHL’s Final Four is typically a work permit in the coaching fraternity, but not in Boston, where then-general manager Harry Sinden had a penchant to change bench bosses on the fly. The ice had barely melted in the old building on Causeway Street when Sinden canned Bowness and hired the crustier Brian Sutter soon after the ex-Blues winger was dismissed following his four-year run as St. Louis coach.
“The first time I’d ever been fired — and it hurt, a lot,” recalled Bowness. “So, OK, when it happens to you the first time it really does hurt. At that point you decide, ‘OK, that’s really an awful feeling, do I want to continue coaching?’ I said then, and I’ve always said, yes.”
And yes. And yes again. And yes again and again . . . and again. Now the Dallas Stars’ interim head coach, Bowness, 64, on Thursday night was behind the bench for his 2,400th NHL game — his total as head coach, associate or assistant. In February 2017, he blew by Scotty Bowman’s league record of upward of 2,200 games.
“You adapt with the generations,” said Bowness, pondering the key to his longevity. “When I first got into this [as a player-coach in AHL Sherbrooke], I was 28 years old in 1983, I was younger than some of the players I coached. Well, now I’m old enough to be Miro’s grandfather.”
Miro Heiskanen, Dallas’s stellar second-year defenseman, is only 20 years old. He’d be within his rights to refer to his coach as Gramps.
“It’s true!” said an animated Bowness. “He’s 20. I’m 64. So it’s completely gone the other way. But I think one of the things I’ve been able to do is just adapt to the generations, adapt to the players, and adapt to their personalities and their needs and how to deal with them. The way we dealt with players when I first started, and the way we deal with them today . . . just completely different ends of the spectrum.”
In that sense, Bowness was ahead of his time in Boston, promoted to the job in the wake of the Bruins being coached by Terry O’Reilly and then Mike Milbury. Both were successful, and both were old school, highly caffeinated ex-Bruins, their approach to the game and player personnel direct, hard, and confrontational, very much in keeping with the day’s standard.
If O’Reilly and Milbury were the whip hand, Bowness was the velvet glove, very similar, in fact, to the approach we’ve seen the last three years under Bruce Cassidy.
“They had Terry, a longtime Bruin favorite and tough guy,” noted Bowness, speaking by telephone from his office in Dallas. “Then they had Mike. And then they bring an unknown like me in, and I was determined from the outset, well, I am going to coach my way, not like Mike and Terry. Yeah, they were great coaches, very successful, but I knew I wanted to coach my way and be me.
“So . . . it probably cost me my job there. But that’s OK. Because it’s also kept me alive.”
The Bruins offered to keep Bowness aboard in a management/scouting position, but he turned it down, adamant about remaining a coach. In a matter of weeks, he was named the first head coach of the expansion Ottawa Senators.
“I remember Harry said there was something missing,” said Bowness, recalling what explanation he received for his quick dismissal. “And I never did ask him what it was.”
“The way I was,” Bowness said, no sign of lingering hurt in his voice as he chuckled. “My personality, probably.”
The Stars had won seven of their last eight and had overcome their October pratfall when GM Jim Nill came to work the morning of Dec. 10 and fired second-year coach Jim Montgomery and promoted Bowness as interim coach. Nill played in Winnipeg in the late ’80s when one of the Jets assistant coaches was . . . yep, Bowness.
“Total shock, not a clue it was happening,” said Bowness, who signed on as an assistant in Dallas prior to last season, eager to rejoin Nill and work alongside Montgomery, a first-time NHL head coach. “Sometimes you see those moves coming, right? This was a move no one saw coming.”
Nill commented little about the firing, other than to say Montgomery, the former University of Maine scoring star, was dismissed because of unprofessional conduct. Last weekend, Montgomery commented publicly for the first time, issuing a statement in which he disclosed he was entering rehab for alcohol abuse.
“A different scenario to take over a team,” said Bowness. “But I give the guys credit. They’ve worked very hard. They’re coming together. An interesting scenario, but it is a good team.”
With Thursday’s 3-0 blanking of the Ducks, the Stars improved their record to 9-3-1 under Bowness’s direction. Entering the weekend they stood second to St. Louis in the Central Division with 26 wins, tied with the Bruins, Penguins, and Lightning for the fourth-most in the league.
Fact is, this is the best club Bowness has commanded since his brief Boston run. Other than his three-plus seasons in Ottawa — and only 39 wins in 235 games — his turns as bench boss have been mainly on cleanup duty. He took over the 1988-89 Jets for 28 games. He took over Milbury’s 1996-97 Islanders for 37 games, only to get terminated the next season after going 23-32-9. His last interim job was in Phoenix, where he handled the Coyotes’ bench for the final 20 games after Bobby Francis was turfed.
“If you look at some of the times I have taken over,” said Bowness, “it was a fire sale. As most teams do when they are out of the playoffs, they trade their assets for next year. So we mopped a couple of teams. But through all that, it’s always a learning experience and you make the most of it when you are given the opportunity.”
WHO’S RIGHT FOR THE JOB?
Bruins still need winger for Krejci
No surprise that Justin Williams ended up back where he left off, the productive 38-year-old right winger hitching on for a second-half-and-beyond run with the Hurricanes.
It was widely speculated around the league that the Bruins kicked the tires on Williams, who signed on for the league minimum $700,000, a price the Bruins obviously would have been happy to embrace.
Let’s keep in mind, however, that the much-loved Williams was part of the Hurricanes lot that looked painfully out of place in last year’s Eastern Conference finals when the Bruins swept them in four. He looked tired, without his telltale savvy and jump. His challenge now will be to reenter the NHL autobahn at midseason from a standing start. A tough ask for someone even half his age.
Meanwhile, the Bruins still don’t have a complete answer for their second line, despite Jake DeBrusk’s two goals Thursday in a new configuration with Anders Bjork at his opposite wing. For the moment, and always subject to change, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy has returned Charlie Coyle to his more comfy No. 3 center spot, where he has played best during his brief Boston tenure — particularly when paired in the postseason with Marcus Johansson (now doing business in Buffalo).
The Feb. 24 trade deadline will have GM Don Sweeney mulling such potential options as Chris Kreider (Rangers), Tyler Toffoli (Kings), Kyle Palmieri (Devils), and perhaps Wayne Simmonds (Devils) as fits for David Krejci’s right side.
All, save for Palmieri, are on track to be unrestricted free agents July 1. Palmieri has next year on his contract, at a $4.65 million cap hit, placing the ex-Notre Dame standout in the same circumstances where Coyle stood with the Wild this time a year ago.
Despite his production slump of late, Coyle now looks like a steal, the Bruins yielding only prospect Ryan Donato, who has yet to find his footing (8-5—13 in 41 games) with the Wild this season. The Bruins brought in Johansson last season from the Devils, ostensibly to be with Krejci, only to find his best fit was a line deeper in the order with Coyle.
One sleeper here for consideration: Joe Thornton. The Sharks all but packed up bags this past week when learning that top scorer Logan Couture (36 points) will miss six weeks or more with a small fracture in his left ankle. He should be ready to go by the trade deadline. Way too late for the Sharks to salvage their season.
Thornton has a no-movement clause in the one-year deal ($2 million) he signed in September. So he’s not going anywhere without his OK. He is also 40, still without a Cup title, and certainly can’t be thinking that he has a shot at one in the next 2-3 years with the Sharks.
Thornton, 6 feet 4 inches and 220 pounds, wouldn’t be that second-line fix at right wing. But for a short price (middle-round pick?), he would offer insurance for all four center spots, and give Cassidy the flexibility to shift Coyle back to the second line.
The return of Jumbo Joe for a Cup run, nearly 15 years after he was hustled out of Boston for Wayne Primeau, Brad Stuart, and Marco Sturm. Not a likely scenario. But Sweeney has come up with deadline surprises, none bigger than two years ago when he landed Rick Nash from the Rangers. A Thornton deal would be of far lesser scale, but intriguing, particularly for a fan base that embraced him from Day 1 as the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft.
Injured Guentzel will miss points
The Bruins will see the Penguins twice this coming week, first in Boston on Thursday night, and then a Sunday matinee in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins recently lost the services of Jake Guentzel (shoulder surgery), but he was still their leading scorer (20-23—43) headed into weekend play, with a slight lead on Evgeni Malkin (12-28—40).
Guentzel, out for the season, had a chance to be first Penguin other than Sidney Crosby and Malkin to lead them in scoring since 2003-04.
The last player not named Crosby or Malkin to finish first: defenseman Dick Tarnstrom, who posted a 16-36—52 line in the season that led to the lockout, which ultimately led the Penguins to winning the post-lockout lottery that landed Crosby.
Is Julien the next to go?
Peter Laviolette became the sixth coaching casualty of the NHL season this past week, dismissed by the Predators after 5½ seasons and one Cup Final in Tune Town — his longest stay (451 games) in any of the four cities where he’s coached.
Next to go? Based on the noise up north, it sounds like Claude Julien, whose Canadiens entered weekend play 18-20-7, a beefy 9 points short of a wild-card berth in the East.
It would be a third straight playoff DNQ for the Habs under Julien, who took over there only days after he was dismissed in Boston in February 2017 and was able to coax Les Glorieux into the playoffs — for what was a first-round knockout.
The Habs this past week were without four of their top nine forwards, including Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia, Jonathan Drouin, and Paul Byron. Quibble with Julien’s style and his X’s and O’s all you want, but few teams, if any, in today’s NHL cap system can overcome that kind of offensive gutting. Which is why the Habs were desperate enough to bring in Ilya Kovalchuk (0-3—3 in his first three games) for a last kick at the can.
Headed into weekend play, Julien’s Habs were 1-8-1 in their last 10 games and six of those eight regulation losses were by one goal. They were outscored, 36-29, in those 10 games.
Meanwhile, Julien has two years left on his deal, paying him $5 million a season.
Of the six coaches to be canned thus far, only John Hynes, ex-of New Jersey has found work, taking over in Nashville for Laviolette. Hynes and Predators assistant GM Jeff Kealty were roommates in their days playing for the Boston University Terriers.
Yet to land work: Mike Babcock (fired in Toronto Nov. 20), Bill Peters (Calgary, Nov. 29), Jim Montgomery (Dallas, Dec 10), Peter DeBoer (San Jose, Dec. 11), and Laviolette.
As of Friday morning, the Bruins still owned the NHL’s best home record with a 15-2-9 mark, an impressive .750 points percentage (39 out of 52). However, the Penguins had the most home victories (16), and the Blues and Stars also had 15 wins. In fact, headed into weekend play, nine teams had a better home-ice win percentage than the Bruins (.576). The top three: Flyers, .700 (14 of 20), Islanders, .667 (14 of 21), and Penguins, .667 (16 of 24) . . . All three of Rick Bowness’s children work, or have worked, for NHL clubs. Ryan is director of pro scouting for the Penguins. Kristen, who went to the University of Southern New Hampshire, works in the Lightning’s communications department as the community hockey manager, which includes some coaching. Ricky, who was in the Red Wings and Blue Jackets media relations departments, now works in communications for a non-hockey company in Denver. His wife is vice president of ticket sales for the Avalanche. “Dinners at my house include four NHL organizations,” said Bowness . . . Kovalchuk was able to don his trademark No. 17 with the Canadiens, thanks to Brett Kulak, who happily surrendered it and switched to No. 77 for the bleu, blanc et rouge. Kovalchuk always has worn No. 17, because his dad grew up as a huge fan of Russian great Valeri Kharlamov. Kovalchuk gifted Kulak with a Rolex watch for making the swap. Meanwhile, Kovalchuk, 36, dismissed criticism in the Montreal media that he’s too old for the job. “Come on,” he said, referencing the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara, soon to be 43, as his comparison. “Big Z is way older than me. He’s enjoying his time, so I’ve got a few more years.” Kovalchuk is about seven years and a million workouts short of Chara.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.