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STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS | THE NHL

Bowman Is the Oldest Coach, but He's Not Set in His Ways

May 04, 1997|HELENE ELLIOTT

DETROIT — You can teach an old coach new tricks.

Scotty Bowman is proof.

At 63, he's the NHL's senior coach, completing his 25th season and his fourth with the Detroit Red Wings. He's the only coach with 1,000 regular-season victories, and when he steps behind the bench today for Game 2 of the Red Wings' Western Conference semifinal series against the Mighty Ducks, it will be the 2,007th game of his career, regular season and playoffs.

By the standards of a league that places a premium on young coaches--perhaps on the theory they can more easily relate to and influence the high-priced youngsters in their charge--Bowman is elderly. Yet, by no means is he set in his ways or resistant to change.

His strengths have always been his ability to think quickly and adjust to the demands of any situation, and his attention to the smallest detail. Those traits have not changed.

In discussing Duck Coach Ron Wilson, Bowman praised him for wringing 33 victories out of a young team in the Ducks' first season. Bowman knew it was 33, not 32 or 34. And in overtime of Game 1 on Friday, trying to take the offensive initiative in the opening minutes, Bowman concocted a line of playmaker Igor Larionov centering for grinding wingers Brendan Shanahan and Martin Lapointe. He was rewarded when Shanahan set up Lapointe's game-winner.

"For sure, I never had a coach like this," said Larionov, a veteran of the great, old Soviet Red Army teams and seven NHL seasons. "I guess only him, he knows what he's doing. It seems to be working well."

Those are large pieces of the fascinating mosaic of his mind. But the secret behind Bowman's mystique, and behind his success in transforming the Red Wings from a finesse team to a grinding team that can manufacture goals under restrictive playoff checking, may be his open-mindedness.

Bowman, who won six Stanley Cup championships as a coach and another as the Pittsburgh Penguins' director of player personnel, still has an insatiable hunger for knowledge and a willingness to experiment, whether it's devising a new system for the entire team or moving center Sergei Fedorov to defense. Bowman is guided by the past but isn't a slave to old theories. He is considered mysterious and quirky--perceptions he probably enjoys and may even perpetuate--but he's never dull and will never be behind the times.

"I'd love to sit down and talk with Scotty some time with a beer or whatever Scotty drinks," said Wilson, who knows Bowman casually through his uncle, Johnny, a former Red Wing and contemporary of Bowman's. "I've heard how he's so aloof but I've never seen that. We have discussed rules changes and he's always supported anything I've mentioned at coaching meetings.

"It's a players' game. People pay to see the players. There are only a few coaches where fans pay to see what he does, like a Scotty Bowman."

Bowman's willingness to change the Red Wings' style may be his smartest move of all.

After three seasons of playoff frustration with a fast-tempo, puck-control game, he orchestrated a change toward a grittier, bigger team, trading defenseman Paul Coffey--a gifted scorer but a defensive liability--for power forward Brendan Shanahan and sending small center Greg Johnson to Pittsburgh for rugged winger Tomas Sandstrom. He likes this team so much, he spends more time on the ice at practices than in the past and is animated when he speaks, an odd but magnetic sight in a Red Wing warmup jacket and dress slacks.

"He's obviously excited about this hockey club," center Kris Draper said Saturday. "Everyone in this locker room is here because he wants them here, and I think that excites him."

Although he disputes the theory that this is his team, he must be credited with retooling it after last spring's loss to Colorado in the conference finals. "We've added some players with experience," he said. "You're still never satisfied with what you have. It's not my team. A lot of the top players have been here longer than I have. It's hard to keep a team intact.

"Hockey has changed a lot. It's not like it used to be. The focus is completely different and the game has changed a lot with power forwards and offensive defensemen. Defenses are a lot better now than they were 10, 15 years ago."

His job has changed, too. "Coaching is more sophisticated, with tapes available," he said. "When I first started, if you knew who the other team was going to play together, you were lucky. Now, with videotapes you know all that, and in the playoffs you've got your choice of videotapes to look at."

One element, however, remains the same. "You have to be prepared for what the other team could do," he said. "You can't fill your team full of too many new ideas, but they have to be prepared for changes. Good teams, if they're not doing well, have to be prepared to change a bit."

The Red Wings have changed a lot. Whether that will bring them the Cup title that has eluded them since 1955 is unclear, but the players believe in what he's doing. However, they have no clue whether, as has been speculated, he will retire if he wins the Cup--and he won't discuss it.

"It's really hard for me to say, because he's a legend," Larionov said. "Some people like him, some don't. For me, playing for Scotty is a privilege."

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