A Biography Like No Other Too
Scotty Bowman’s mind worked even faster than Yvon Cournoyer could skate. So two tangents into something completely different than what he had been asked, you figured the answer sought was lost forever and instead panned through what was there for the omnipresent nugget of insight into one of the best brains ever in sports.
Rarely was that the end of it however. Months, even years, after you had forgotten, Bowman uncannily would pick up the conversation exactly where it left off. “That is sort of the family joke, that Scotty will get to the end but it might take a couple of weeks,” said Ken Dryden.
“Transcripts were a test. He would start a story on page one and you would find some other detail of it on page eight and another on page 67.”
Woe to his biographer, whomever would get the privilege-of-a-lifetime in telling Bowman’s story. There was no shortage of fine wordsmiths to whom Bowman refused to turn over the key to the vault that produced nine Stanley Cups triumphs. While his biological clock ticked into the seventies and eighties, he would find one excuse or another. While there still was time, this was a book that demanded to be done until Dryden, Bowman’s old Hall of Fame goalie, found a way to intrigue the coach into doing “Scotty. A Hockey Life Like No Other.” During these months like no other, this is a highly recommended pastime.
“I think a book was always something in his mind but it had never happened so it was something that wasn’t likely going to happen,” said Dryden on the phone last week. “Scotty has said that he thought that doing a book would get in the way of his life and he likes his life.
“And I think he was at least a little bit intrigued with the approach I suggested. He didn’t want to do it as an autobiography with war stories. Some of those are fun but they get a little tedious both for the teller and the writer and, to me, Scotty was not a traditional storyteller. He doesn’t think in stories; Scotty has fresh eyes at age 86.
“The thing that amazed me from the beginning is that he goes to all these (Lightning) games (near his winter home in Sarasota) and it’s not just principally because he has time to fill. Scotty has always been somebody who has seen every next game and every next moment in it as something that might be different from the tens of thousands of games he has experienced before. That’s the central reason why he was such a great coach.
“As I repeat a few times in the book, he is not a been-there-done-that type of person, so to someone who has seen it all there was something appealing in a new challenge. Any gospel for now and forever is exactly the opposite of what Scotty is.”
Dryden asked Bowman to select the eight greatest dynasties and their peak years-among which would include Canadiens and Red Wings teams he coached–into a tournament in which Bowman would narrow down to a theoretical winner. While we wait for the games to start again, there is a lot of fantasy stuff being offered, but not by a guy who either witnessed or coached half of NHL history.
Like Dryden writes, Bowman’s hockey life is like no other not just because of the nine Cups that the cap era are unlikely to yield to any coach again, but that he did this over 29 years through the influx of Americans and Europeans, the swelling of the league from six teams to 30, drastic increases in earning power by the players, changes in playing rules, styles, training methods and the use of analytics.
Oh boy, those analytics. Obsessed as Scotty always has been with the numbers, think how he would have loved to have had the ones coaches get provided to them today. Far better late than never, they still make what he watches now all the more intriguing to him. Two full decades into the next century, it would be easy for him to lament the draining of passion in the NHL game, the sameness to the teams and coaching approaches. Bowman would rather probe today’s game for ways he might have been able to obtain an edge.
So if you want to get to the bottom of what went wrong for him in Buffalo, the crash of the early expansion Camelot in St Louis, and the dirt on his banishment from Pittsburgh, it’s not in this book. Principally that is because Dryden felt there was no bottom to be learned, just a he-said, she-said to the inevitable conclusion that Scotty was not as good at finessing his bosses as he was a team from behind the bench, his truest genius.
And if the author wasn’t going to extract juicy tales from the locker room or coach’s office, then there still is plenty there: About how an interning paint salesman after his playing career ended with a skull fracture brown bagged his lunch while watching the legendary Toe Blake running Canadiens’ practices at the Forum and worked his way into a job largely through an insatiable curiosity. About the influence upon Bowman’s thinking by mentor Sam Pollock, the architect of the seventies Montreal dynasty that Scotty coached; plenty there to lament that the game is poorer for that extensive Pollock biography never done.
But that, too, is reason for the relief that the Bowman story finally has been, and by a person who lived the better part of a decade under Scotty and also wrote The Game, the best book about hockey ever done. And when this reviewer found himself wanting more about how Bowman thought and taught, suddenly, in the chapter about his 2001-2 Red Wings, there it was: insight into his care and treatment of aging stars-–usually so treacherous for a coach–and how he made it work for his final Cup.
What, use Brett Hull, rarely seen in his own end while scoring 741 career goals, as a penalty killer on the theory that penalty Killers and goal scorers thought the game the same way. Don’t they think the opposite way? And who would have thought to ask that question of Bowman or of any coach?
”You have done this enough and I have done this enough to know that you ask what you think are the right questions,” said Dryden. “But I have been on the other end of interviews when I have said ‘Really? Those are the questions you are asking?
“They are defensibly interesting one supposes, but really what you should be asking is something much more central. They have to respect you, see you are worthy of their conversation, because otherwise they will say whatever it is they want and you won’t discover anything. Most of us are at our best when we are asked to discover something new. That’s why I put Scotty into a present project.”
We’re not going to give you his winner, except to insist that having extensively watched six of the eight he chose for his tournament, Bowman got it right.
In each generation, athletes become bigger, stronger, better trained and fed, plus there is no question how much faster today’s game has become. So it’s a good question whether the 1952-3 Red Wings of two- minute shifts would be able to skate 60 minutes with the 2014-15 Blackhawks of 40-second shifts.
“If that is how you make comparisons then the present is always going to win,” said Dryden. “But I don’t think that’s the essential question. Stars find a way of being stars, rise to the challenge of their times. They adapt.”
To which we add that there was so much more depth to the lineups of the great dynasties than is possible to collect in today’s league of so many teams, that the 1981-82 Islanders would have worn down the impeccably trained 2014-15 Blackhawks over six games with little problem.
Not unlike interviewing Scotty Bowman, winning a Cup is all about staying with it to reach a considerable reward. Such as Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other.