EDMONTON, Alberta — Rick Bowness looked at the Calgary Flames lineup written on the whiteboard in the Dallas locker room, and a strange thought crossed his mind.
”It was one of the few teams in the league that I had never coached any of their players,” Bowness said.
Bowness did coach Calgary forward Matthew Tkachuk‘s father, Keith. He has also coached the dads of six other players, two fellow head coaches and three general managers who made this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. As for players? The 65-year-old doesn’t have to look far in the NHL bubble to find someone he has coached: 65 players who made the postseason – at least one on 18 of the 24 teams that made the cut.
Bowness is hockey’s version of Kevin Bacon, the screen star who seems to have worked with just about everyone in Hollywood. But there is no six degrees of separation game for Bowness — his connections are direct.
”That’s what happens when you’re an old guy coaching in the league,” Bowness said.
Bowness got his start with the original Winnipeg Jets in the 1980s and has had an NHL job, primarily assistant or associate gigs, all but one season since 1991, when he was in charge of the Boston Bruins as a fresh-faced 36-year-old. He had a young Zdeno Chara with the New York Islanders, coached alongside Wayne Gretzky when they were still the Phoenix Coyotes and spent six years helping Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman become one of the best defenseman in the game as Jon Cooper’s top assistant.
”He’s just one of those guys that he’s in the fabric of everything,” said Louis DeBrusk, a Sportsnet NHL analyst who played for Bowness in Phoenix and whose son Jake was in the playoffs with the Bruins. ”He interacts with everybody, and that’s, in my opinion, the reason why he’s been around for five decades as a great coach is that he really buys into the team concept and he wants to make sure that everybody’s doing OK.”
When Bowness took over as Stars interim coach in December, Hedman credited the hockey lifer for believing in him and called him ”a great human being.” Cooper on Thursday said Bowness was an invaluable part of his development behind the bench, and of course the two could face each other for the Stanley Cup if Dallas and Tampa Bay advance.
Bowness helped Cooper and Tampa Bay reach the 2015 final and was on Alain Vigneault’s staff when Vancouver was there in 2011, so he has been a part of long playoff runs before. But this is the first time Bowness is leading a team this close to a title. There is a special appreciation for that, even among those trying to knock him off.
”Probably one of the best coaches I had,” said Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault, who played a year-plus under Bowness with Tampa Bay and is now facing him in the Western Conference final. ”The way he handles himself, how professional he is, how awesome he is off the ice as well, I really enjoyed my time around him.”
Dallas general manager Jim Nill, who played with Bowness and also had him as an assistant coach in Winnipeg, hears that sentiment a lot. When a former player approaches Bowness to say hello, Nill often follows up and gets one rave review after another.
”I’ll talk to him and (he’ll) say: ”Boy that’s one of the best coaches I ever had. I owe a lot in my career to what he’s done for my career,”’ Nill recalled. ”That’s a great telling tale about a person: who is he is as a person probably off the ice and then who he is as a person on the ice as a coach.”
Bowness has a sharp hockey mind hidden behind the demeanor of a kid living his dream. He jumped up and down and hugged assistants after the Stars’ Game 7 overtime victory against Colorado and isn’t afraid to show how he feels.
”He’s really emotional,” Dallas defenseman John Klingberg said Friday. ”When he talks to the team, he always bring that emotion in there to get us going and to wake us up or whatever we need. He demands that everyone brings 100% to every game, and outside of the rink he’s always there if you need something to talk about.”
Between head-coaching stints with the Jets, Bruins, Ottawa Senators, Islanders, Coyotes and Stars, Bowness has been considered the ideal assistant because of how well he can communicate with players. DeBrusk, an enforcer on the ice in his playing days, recalled how Bowness would give him a pat on the back to thank him for his work.
”That goes so far with players,” he said.
How far can Bowness go with the Stars? Like Craig Berube with last season’s Cup-winning Blues, Bowness remains an interim coach for now. He and Nill won’t talk about his status until they’re done playing, but Tyler Seguin and his fellow players have bought into what Bowness is selling and it has Dallas in the final four for the first time in 18 years.
”It’s all about staying in that moment, and Bones has done a great job at keeping us grounded, keeping us in those days, not getting too high, too low,” Seguin said. ”The typical conversations at these times of year, he’s the best at it. He’s been around the longest, so he’s one of those guys that you want to win for.”