After the Dallas Stars had eliminated his Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals, Nathan MacKinnon stopped in the handshake line to tell Stars head coach Rick Bowness that he was now rooting for him.
“Losing sucks. But losing to such a great person in Rick makes it a little bit easier, I guess,” said MacKinnon, who has a house on the same lake as Bowness back in Nova Scotia. “I mean, he’s got the most coached games in NHL history.”
Bowness has an NHL work history that spans eight franchises and four decades, from his first gig as an assistant coach with the original Winnipeg Jets in 1984-85 to his current position as interim head coach of the Stars. During that span, Bowness has been employed as either a head coach or assistant coach someplace in the NHL in every season save for one.
He hadn’t been a head coach since 2004 when the Stars asked Bowness, then an assistant coach, to take over in December 2019 after Jim Montgomery was fired for conduct detrimental to the team. At 65 years old, he became the NHL’s oldest head coach, and he led the Stars to third in the Central Division before the season was paused due to COVID-19.
And now he’s coaching in the Stanley Cup Final, after the Stars eliminated Vegas in five games in the Western Conference finals.
“He’s a coach you want to do everything for,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “It’s been a crazy year for all of us, and especially for him. To come in halfway through the year, jump into a head-coaching role, can’t be easy.”
That’s especially true considering Bowness hadn’t been a head coach in the playoffs for 28 years. Despite logging 500 games as a head coach in the NHL, the 1991-92 Boston Bruins were the only team he had led to the postseason.
“It’s crazy the coach is still coaching all those years later,” said Dave Reid with a laugh.
The NHL Network analyst was a 27-year-old forward for the Bruins that season under Bowness. He marvels at how his former coach has thrived through different owners and managers; through advancements in coaching and technology; through several stylistic changes in NHL play; through generations of different players; and, in general, through the decades.
“Most of the coaches in that day, their style is gone,” said Reid. “A lot of people wouldn’t have stayed with it. They would have said, ‘The game’s moving on and I’m not moving with it.'”
But he moved with it. “Everything about coaching has changed. Everything about the players has changed. You roll with the punches. You adapt and you keep moving on,” Bowness told ESPN this week.
No team in the West has adapted better than the Stars, who are moving on to the Stanley Cup Final. Bowness chuckled as he considered the last several months of that journey. “It’s totally strange circumstances this season,” he said, “but it’s the same approach [as in Boston]. You roll with the punches.”
Bowness was only 36 when the Bruins promoted him from the AHL affiliate, the Maine Mariners. Mike Milbury had coached Boston to consecutive 100-point seasons but moved upstairs to become an assistant general manager — theoretically on track to replace then-general manager Harry Sinden. Bowness beat out candidates like Boston University coach Jack Parker for the job.
“They were looking for a coach, and I don’t think that Rick was their first choice,” said Andy Brickley, who was a 30-year-old center on that team and is now a Bruins analyst for NESN.
Bowness took over a team that had become the NHL’s most storied bridesmaid: losing in the Stanley Cup Final in 1988 and 1990, and losing in the Wales Conference final in the season before Bowness took the job. They were the team powered by Hall of Famers Ray Bourque and Cam Neely, a team of brute Bostonian force from players like Chris Nilan.
For Bowness, his previous head-coaching experience was 28 games with Winnipeg in 1988-89. But Reid said he had the respect of the Bruins when he arrived, because Bowness was a former NHL defenseman, playing 173 games from 1975 to 1982.
“Back in that time, that was the instant respect. You didn’t have to be successful as a coach to gain the respect of your players. You have to be able to relate to your players, to know what the players are going through,” said Reid. “Rick was great with that. He was always an excited guy. Always an emotional coach — pat you on the back and things like that. It was fun to play for him.”
Talk to the Bruins from that season and you can hear the echoes of what the Stars say about their coach today.
“What I got out of Bones in the year I had him? That he’s a really good guy. He was always enthusiastic with his players. He always had a good temperament when he was at the rink,” said forward Stephen Leach, who had 31 goals and 147 PIMs for Boston that season. “It was a long season. Lots of ups and downs. No one said he didn’t snap or lose it on people. But he mostly had a level head about him.”
This season in Dallas, Bowness had to deal with the sudden coaching change, the pandemic and the grind of the Western Conference playoff race. With the 1991-92 Bruins, he faced a different kind of adversity: Due to injuries and roster shuffling, Boston had an incredible total of 59 different players appear in at least one regular-season game.
“Two totally different scenarios. That year in Boston, we had a ton of injuries. Cam Neely played nine games. Ray Bourque broke his finger in the second round [of the playoffs]. We didn’t really become a good team until the Olympics were over and we got Teddy Donato, Steven Heinze and Joe Juneau,” Bowness told ESPN.
With a large number of players comes a wide range of personalities.
“We had a team of misfits at times,” said Reid. “And [Bowness] was a straightforward, honest guy. That’s what you want as a coach. Good or bad, he’d tell you to your face. Which is what players want, instead of other coaches that I had that wouldn’t say anything until you went to the coaches’ room later.”
Bobby Carpenter was a 27-year-old center that season in Boston. “I used to have coaches who asked me to do something and I’d be like, ‘Excuse me? You want me to do what?'” he said. “You’d never have that with Bones. He’d ask you to do something, he’d explain it and it would make a lot of sense.”
But that didn’t mean the players didn’t get testy in the face of that logic. For example, Carpenter wasn’t allowed to play or practice on back-to-back days because of a healing knee. He was able to manage the discomfort, but late in the season, Bowness scratched Carpenter.
“I went to him and said, ‘Are you serious? You’re gonna f—ing sit me out?’ He gave me some reasoning that I did not want to hear, even if I understood it. We end up losing the game. He comes to practice the next day and tells me that he needs to speak to me. And I really didn’t want to speak to him,” Carpenter said. “And he apologizes. He says he made a mistake and should have had me in the lineup. I’ll never forget that. He’s the only coach that ever apologized.”
The Bruins had back-to-back 100-point seasons under Milbury but fell to 84 points under Bowness (36-32-12) in 1991-92. The players said it could have been worse were it not for Bowness striking the right note of optimism. “He was upbeat. An enthusiastic guy. Always trying to keep things positive in a pretty volatile year,” Leach said.
The Bruins were second in the Adams Division, winning the division semifinals in seven games over the Buffalo Sabres and then sweeping the Montreal Canadiens in the division final. But then, for the second season in a row, it was Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins sending Boston home.
And then Bowness was fired.
Harry Sinden, the Boston GM, said he considered firing Bowness “two or three others times” during the season, claiming he lacked something as a Bruins coach.
“When Bones came in with a calm and more cerebral way of coaching, it was like, ‘This ain’t gonna work for the Bruins,'” recalled Carpenter. “It’s only a guess, but I don’t think it had anything to do with what Bones did good or bad. It’s that they wanted someone back there that could jump up and down.”
Sinden said that for a Bruins coach, “there’s an element and an instinct that come to few, and we hope that we can find that in whomever we select.”
Bowness apparently didn’t have it, although he quickly resurfaced as the first head coach of the expansion Ottawa Senators. Brian Sutter apparently did have it. The St. Louis Blues had fired him after four seasons. The Bruins pounced on him as Bowness’ replacement.
“The Bruins coveted him. No matter what Rick had done that year in Boston, it almost seemed like he was a placeholder until Brian Sutter was available,” Brickley said.
Reid remembered thinking something was up. “I think it was all prearranged well beforehand, but no one would ever admit to it,” Reid said. “Rick was such a great guy. He’s still a great guy.”
A great guy and easy to root for. After 28 years, the players who competed for Bowness in his only previous playoff run are rooting for him again. “I think the players that have been with him through the years are really pulling for him. Good people are deserving of having their name on the Cup,” Reid said.
“Hats off to him for the perseverance, Leach said. “The volatility in the coaching profession is outrageous in the NHL. For him to hang in there and do what he’s done for all of these years, hats off to him for sure.”
Brickley was just happy to see Bowness behind the bench in the restarted season. There were some questions about the 65-year-old going to the bubble because he was in a higher risk group for COVID-19. “I was a little alarmed about his situation. I was wondering if he was going to get boxed out because of his age,” Brickley said. “But I’m sure he took every precaution, took every CDC warning to heart.”
After seven weeks, the bubble has held, with no positive COVID-19 tests in the NHL’s restarted season. There was Bowness on Monday night, leaping into the air and hugging his staff after the Stars eliminated the Golden Knights in overtime to win the Western Conference.
“The mind is sharp, if not sharper. This wisdom is there. I think 65 is just a number,” Brickley said. “He’s got such a passion for the game. He’s young at heart.”