St. Louis Blues, 1968-1971
Buffalo Sabres, 1979-1987
Western Division Titles, 1968-1970
Adams Division Title, 1979-1980
Playoff Appearances: 1968-1971, 1980-1985
Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 1969-1970
So much has been written about Scotty Bowman’s coaching greatness that there is a tendency to forget that he was a pretty decent general manager too (according to my rating system).
Bowman was only 35 years old and had been an NHL coach for only one season when Lynn Patrick stepped down as general manager of the St. Louis Blues. Bowman succeeded Patrick and quickly made his mark by luring goaltending legend Jacques Plante out of retirement to play and co-star in goal alongside the immortal Glenn Hall.
The following season he added Phil Goyette to the roster (and Goyette responded by winning the Lady Byng Trophy in 1970).
In short order the Blues became the elite of the six new NHL expansion franchises that came into being in 1967.
Bowman continued to coach but in 1971 he decided to yield the coaching portfolio to the untried and untested Al Arbour—thus commencing a magnificent coaching career surpassed only by Bowman himself.
In 1971 Bowman had a front office that employed himself, Arbour, Cliff Fletcher, and Jim Devellano. All of these men became master builders of great teams in their own right.
Who would have thought that one year later all of these men would be gone from St. Louis; allowed to practice their talents elsewhere and thus denying the Blues the fruits of their success? The what-if scenarios boggle the mind.
The St. Louis Blues have yet to fully recover from the loss of these four stellar hockey coaching and managerial geniuses.
Scotty Bowman became head coach of the Montreal Canadiens and carved a magnificent niche for himself: dominating the 1970s with five Stanley Cup wins. Still, the desire to become and remain an NHL general manager remained in Bowman’s blood. He aspired and campaigned to be Sam Pollock’s heir apparent as the Habs GM. Pollock had been his mentor; had made Bowman possible.
Behind the scenes though, it was never in the cards. Jean Beliveau in his memoirs writes trenchantly, “When Scotty took issue as a player, for any reason at all, he would run upstairs to Sam’s office and demand an immediate trade. Bringing all his experience and wisdom to bear, Sam was able to calm him down….But Scotty had ongoing fractious relations with a number of the more colorful players….With Scotty at the helm, it seemed likely that our team would change dramatically from year to year; if not from hour to hour.”
In 1979, after winning his fourth straight Stanley Cup, Bowman took his act on the road. After considering a compelling offer from the Toronto Maple Leafs Bowman opted to be head coach and general manager of the Buffalo Sabres instead. (The Leafs lost the bidding because Harold Ballard couldn’t meet Bowman’s salary demands. The Sabres could and they did. The what-if scenario of Bowman managing the Leafs boggles the mind).
Bowman had the power and control of the team he always wanted but the 1980s were the darkest period in Scotty’s illustrious career. He was expected to make the Sabres Stanley Cup winners. The talent was there but in the course eight seasons Bowman failed in that goal. The closest he ever was in his debut year in 1979/80 when he managed the Sabres to the semifinals.
Bowman inherited a veteran team but throughout his managerial reign he traded away veterans for draft choices. The problem was the young men he drafted took longer to blossom than anyone expected to. Scotty drafted Mike Ramsey and Lindy Ruff in 1979; Randy Cunneyworth in 1980; then in 1982, Phil Housley and Dave Andreychuk; and goalie Tom Barrasso in 1983.
Unlike Bob Pulford, Scotty Bowman was not adverse in seeking talent from the European market but his choices bore mixed results. He found gems in Uwe Krupp, Mikael Andersson, Christian Ruutu, and Calle Johansson but he also got burned on occasion.
Another problem that dogged Bowman was the fact that he was cursed by his own coaching genius. Since he was the greatest head coach in NHL history he could never find another person who could match his own sterling skills save for himself. Bowman picked the late Roger Neilson, Jim Schoenfeld, Jim Roberts, Craig Ramsey, and Ted Sator to coach in his place—but it wasn’t the same. By 1986 the Sabres couldn’t even make the playoffs and by 1987 Bowman was out of a job.
He would never manage again in the NHL. In 1990 he was hired by Craig Patrick of the Pittsburgh Penguins to serve as Director of Player Personnel.
Scotty learned from his mistakes in Buffalo. In 1991 he recommended Jaromir Jagr as the Penguins first round draft pick. In 1992 he discovered Markus Naslund.
The Penguins won two Stanley Cups and in the process Bowman returned to head coaching in the wake of the death of Bob Johnson.
Still, Bowman aspired for more. Not content with remaining in Pittsburgh, he was enticed to join the Detroit Red Wings who were seeking a coach who could win the Stanley Cup. Bowman agreed to become head coach but he also wanted more power in personnel decisions. Red Wings GM Jim Devellano devised a unique arrangement. He, himself would serve as GM and Senior Vice President while Bowman served as director of player personnel; and Ken Holland would work as assistant general manager and heir apparent when Devellano retired. The troika worked for three seasons and culminated in the Red Wings winning the 1997 Stanley Cup.
Bowman retired from coaching in 2002 but continued to work as a special consultant for the Wings until 2008. (In 2007 the Toronto Maple Leafs again reached out to Bowman, offering him the position of President of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a position Bowman was tempted to accept but in the end the offer was withdrawn. Instead in 2008 the Chicago Blackhawks reached out to Bowman and made him Senior Adviser of Hockey Operations—working alongside his son Stanley. In 2010 Scotty Bowman got his name etched on the Stanley Cup for 12th time in his wonderful hockey career.
(My next column will feature former Rangers and Penguins GM Craig Patrick.)