Scotty Bowman has his name on the Stanley Cup a dozen times. He’s the winningest coach in NHL history, with 319 more victories than his nearest competitor, Joel Quenneville. He’s a living legend, a man held in awe by the entire hockey world.
And he’s just like you.
“I’m bored,” he said. “I’m missing hockey right now. The nights are pretty boring.”
At 87 years old, Bowman could just ride a golf cart into the sunset and enjoy a quiet retirement in Tampa. But you don’t become the greatest coach in the history of the sport without it being an obsession, and 18 years removed from his last game — a Game 5 Red Wings victory over the Hurricanes that gave Bowman his ninth and final championship as a head coach — Bowman’s still fully immersed in the sport. His title is senior advisor to hockey operations with the Blackhawks. And his role is as nebulous as that sounds. Essentially, he serves as something of a consigliere to the entire Blackhawks front office.
Bowman attends nearly every Lightning game at Amalie Arena, then catches some late-night West Coast hockey when he gets home. He watches as many Blackhawks games as he can when the Bolts aren’t playing. He scours the analytics for trends and information, and is a frequent visitor to CapFriendly, wondering how certain teams are going to stay under the flat cap caused by the pandemic. And he shares what he learns — and what he’s learned over the past six decades — with anyone who’ll listen.
He talks the most to the Blackhawks’ pro scouting staff, offering insights into opposing players and systems that will be rolled into attacking and defending strategies. If something or someone catches his eye, he’ll let Blackhawks VP of player personnel Norm Maciver know. Or he’ll shoot a text to player-personnel advisor Pierre Gauthier, or to new assistant GM in charge of pro scouting, Ryan Stewart. He’s in frequent touch with head pro scout Alex Brooks, as well as pro scout Don Lever.
Keep an eye on this guy.
Check out this new wrinkle in this team’s power play.
This guy might be a good fit in free agency.
What Bowman is not doing — contrary to some of the conspiracy theories floating around a frustrated fan base — is secretly running the Blackhawks organization from afar. Bowman laughed at the idea that he’s somehow the puppet-master, pulling all of general manager Stan Bowman’s strings.
“I probably speak to Stan the least,” Bowman said of his son. “I was more a coach than a manager. I did both, but the managing part, I was never full-time. I was always coaching. I like the coaching part, and I don’t like to manage. Dealing with the agents is a special chore.”
But he’s also quietly built an intriguing relationship with Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton. In fact, the possibility of being mentored somewhat by the greatest coach of all time — well, arguably the two greatest coaches of all time — was a big reason Colliton came back to the states, leaving Sweden to become coach of the Rockford IceHogs in 2017.
“I came to Chicago because I wanted to be around Joel (Quenneville),” Colliton said. “That was a big reason. Stan gave me an opportunity and he’s like, ‘Hey, my dad watches all the games and he’s going to call you and give you his opinion on everything. He loves asking questions and you’re going to ask him questions. You’re (also) going to be around Joel Quenneville, the top two all time.’ That was why I came. We were happy in Sweden. We didn’t need to leave.”
Colliton is 52 years Bowman’s junior, but Bowman was once a 34-year-old head coach, too. And while he was head coach of the Montreal Junior Canadiens from 1964-66, he shared an office building above the rink with another hockey legend, Habs coach Toe Blake, who won eight Stanley Cups in 13 seasons. Bowman peppered Blake with questions every day — questions about strategy, about managing a locker room, about individual plays and players.
Some of it, Bowman agreed with. Some of it, he disagreed with. But all of it made him a better student of the game, a broader thinker, a better coach.
“I realized that my type of coaching and his type of coaching would not be the same,” Bowman said. “And a lot of times, he would say, ‘You know, you don’t want to do what I did.’ It’d be a back-and-forth. I talk to Jeremy on that basis, knowing that he’s the coach, not me. He’s his own guy, and he came from Sweden so he’s got some different ideas. Just because I have an idea doesn’t mean the Blackhawks are going to use it.”
An example: The Lightning have a perennially potent power play, but when they got to the Toronto bubble for the postseason in August, they struggled mightily without the injured Steven Stamkos in his usual spot in the left circle. Eventually, Lightning coach Jon Cooper tweaked the unit to where the focus was more on Victor Hedman and his big shot from the point. Once the shot was established, the rest of the pieces fell into place and the Lightning’s long list of playmakers were able to take advantage. Considering the Blackhawks’ longstanding issues on the power play, Bowman called up Colliton to break down the adjustments Tampa Bay had made.
With a caveat, of course.
“When I see things like that, I say this is what’s working for them,” Bowman said. “But I don’t know if you have the right players to do it like they do.”
In other words, it’s an open discussion, a discourse on hockey strategy, not a straightforward schooling, and certainly not an order from above. In fact, what’s most interesting about the relationship between Colliton and Bowman is that it’s not really a mentor-mentee relationship at all. Despite the age gap and the 1,192-win gap between the two coaches, Bowman does just as much asking as he does answering.
The game has changed dramatically since 2002. It’s more about speed and skill than size and power. There are no fourth-line plugs to overrun anymore. Rules changes have opened up offense and made life considerably harder on defensemen, particularly when it comes to clearing bodies out of the crease. Defensemen are given more time and space up top as the focus has shifted to collapsing in the slot, the most dangerous part of the ice. Coaches can break down plays with a player instantly with iPads on the bench, a far cry from the cumbersome and sometimes days-delayed tape used in Bowman’s time. And analytics have given coaches a new and more precise way of evaluating players and dissecting their strengths and weaknesses.
The analytics, in particular, are a source of fascination to Bowman, who even at 87, wants to keep learning. As senior advisor, he gets the Blackhawks’ proprietary analytics sent to him after every game. Back in his day, Bowman had a couple of extra coaches try to keep track of things as simple as ice time and zone time, and another coach trying to keep track of backside pressure and which players were more aggressive on the forecheck. Now, he can see the precise percentage of successful passes made through the slot area, the exact efficiency and impact of the forecheck, highly detailed analysis of breakouts and zone entries, and so much more.
For a hockey junkie, it’s like Christmas morning after every game. And Bowman can’t get enough.
“I’m not in (Colliton’s) ear continuously, but I always ask a lot of questions,” Bowman said. “If I see something in the analytics, I ask him about it. I’m trying to put my head around the analytics because I was always interested in that even when I was coaching. We just didn’t have the ability to do what they can do now.”
Colliton talked at length recently about how he wants the Blackhawks to have a “development mindset forever and ever, amen.” That obviously includes young players, but it also includes veteran players and himself as a head coach. The idea is to never stop learning. And the give-and-take with Bowman — even when it’s just idle talk about numbers, or past series, or about strategies the Blackhawks simply don’t have the personnel to pull off — are part of that learning process.
“It’s fun, because he’s kind of removed,” Colliton said. “He’s not in Chicago, typically he’s in Tampa. His experience and all the things he’s been through, it’s immeasurable how much value he can bring. But he’s not on our staff, so sometimes he’ll (have) questions: ‘Well, why did you do this.’ ‘Well, this happened, this happened, then this happened.’ ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ Other times, he’ll come up with something and it’s like, ‘We should probably look at that, that’s a good point.’ That’s part of me developing. You get a lot of outside noise and information, and it’s like, how do you filter it and then make the best decision in the moment? It’s a great situation for me in that way, to be in that environment. It’s going to make me better.”
Bowman’s fully self-aware about how the job has changed since he stopped coaching. There are 31 teams fighting for one Stanley Cup, not 12. Good teams are drafting in the mid- to late-20s now, not 10th, 11th or 12th. And can you imagine what the combined cap hit of that 2001-02 Red Wings team would be these days, with Nicklas Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Federov, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios, Igor Larionov, Pavel Datsyuk and Dominik Hasek?
“In my day, you weren’t going to lose the players if you wanted to pay them,” Bowman said. “Now you can’t do that. It’s a different dynamic.”
So dynasties are no longer possible, yet coaching leashes are shorter than ever. But Bowman likes Colliton. Thinks highly of him. And for those calling for Colliton’s head after two truncated seasons full of extenuating circumstances such as replacing a legend midseason and a pandemic, Bowman again pointed to his own back yard, where Cooper’s seat had been red hot in the spring of 2019.
“I’ll give a lot of credit to Tampa,” Bowman said. “They had been close for a while, but then they got whipped four straight by Columbus in the first round, and there was some anxiety around the area that, ‘Oh, Jon Cooper shouldn’t be the coach anymore. He’s had too many chances.’ But they stuck with him. He had been with those players a long time, half a dozen of them since they were in the American League together. And they just won the Cup together. Jeremy’s been with some of those players now since they were in the American League.
“It’s not easy for a coach to play young players, because when you’re coaching, you always know your job’s in the standings. No question about that. But under the circumstances, you have to give (Colliton) an opportunity to see how many of these young guys come along. Sometimes they come along overnight, sometimes it takes them two or three years. But they’ve been thrown into the fire. It takes time to evaluate. (Colliton) has used young players, I don’t know if it was by choice or by necessity. But you have to give him time.”
And a few timely texts from the greatest of all time don’t hurt, either.
“When you’re a consultant, you can only offer so much to be valuable,” Bowman said. “But I try to help where I can.”