As Ryan Callahan made his way back into the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room after the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, he caught a glimpse inside the Tampa coaches room. There his eyes were drawn to assistant coach Rick Bowness, and it was clear how much the series loss to Chicago was hurting.
Four years earlier, Bowness was an associate coach with Vancouver when they fell in seven games to the Boston in the Cup Final. The image of a crestfallen NHL lifer missing out on another opportunity at a championship is one that has stayed with Callahan.
“I wanted to win it for him because I knew he’s been in the league for so long and how much he wanted it,” said Callahan, who is now an NHL Network analyst.
Callahan’s experience playing for Bowness is similar to that of many others. The coach is genuine person who cares deeply for his players. He always keeps an open line of communication. Criticisms come from a good place.
“You kind of scratch your head and wonder why he wasn’t a head coach in this league,” Callahan said. “You felt like he had so much to give and he was so passionate about the game and about the players.”
Bowness gets his third shot at winning a Cup beginning Saturday night against his old team, the Lightning. He arrived in Dallas as an assistant coach and was put into the interim role after Jim Montgomery’s surprise dismissal in December.
It’s been a long journey for the 65-year-old Bowness, and no one has more experience with over 2,500 NHL games coached. It’s been a career of ups and downs. But there’s a large fan club of current and former players who are rooting for him to finally hoist the Cup.
— #StanleyCup Final on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) September 5, 2020
The start in Winnipeg
The relationship between Bowness and Stars general manager Jim Nill goes back to the early 1980s. The Winnipeg Jets were vying for a Smythe Division crown and the 29-year-old Bowness was in his first season as an assistant. On the wing, albeit for 20 games in 1984-85, was Nill, then a 26-year-old winger who came over from Boston in a midseason trade.
The two would spend the next few seasons together in the organization before linking up as few years later in Ottawa. Bowness had been hired as the expansion franchise’s first-ever head coach and Nill working as a pro scout.
Bowness would last four seasons as the Senators got off to a rough start, while Nill left for a long run with Red Wings following the 1993-94 season.
Nearly three decades later they would reunite, but under unique circumstances. When Nill fired Montgomery as Stars head coach due to “unprofessional conduct,” he turned to Bowness, who had spent the last two seasons as an assistant.
From playing for him and seeing how players reacted to his approach, Nill knew that given the Stars’ situation Bowness’ personality would be a fit. The match was there, and the comfort level between the players and their new coach was perfect.
“Hey, listen: He’s the main reason I came to Dallas [from Tampa] in the first place two summers ago,” Bowness said of Nill. “His character, his honesty — you know where you stand. He’s an honest, hardworking man committed to winning.”
The young assistant
What’s changed in Bowness 36 years after coaching the Jets? There are a few more grays, sure, but not a whole lot, according to Nill. How he deals with players remains an attribute that’s played a role into his staying power as an NHL coach.
“He’s the same person back then as he is now,” Nill said. “He’s a great person, on and off the ice. It’s all about respect. And with respect sometimes there’s tough conversations. Sometimes you have to have conversations with players and say you’re either not playing good enough or maybe you need more time and need to get send down and play in the minors or you’ve got to get your game better or you’re not going to be in the lineup. Those decisions aren’t easy, but Rick has always been very upfront and truthful about it. That’s what getting him success so far.”
When Bowness took the Ottawa job, the hockey wasn’t great. The expansion Senators won just 39 times in his 235 games in charges. Despite the lack of success, Nill saw the work ethic of a coach who was doing everything he could to improve the franchise’s fortunes.
“That’s not a great situation for a coach,” Nill said. “But he came to work every day, was the same guy every day, tried to make guys better, tried to make the team better, and was about the team first. Sometimes to judge guys in those situations isn’t totally fair.”
If Bowness thought his time in Ottawa was bad, he could not have been prepared for what was to come next.
Finding his niche
Mike Milbury brought Bowness in as an associate coach with the New York Islanders ahead of the 1996-97 season. He only held that title for 45 games before Milbury resigned and Bowness took over head coaching duties.
A struggling team and a continued lack of success after his four seasons in Ottawa brought plenty of frustration. Bowness was unable to turn the Islanders around in his season and a half, no matter how hard he tried. Milbury then decided to take on the head coach role again 63 games into the 1997-98 season.
“When ‘Bones’ would get behind the bench he’d so fired up, he’s screaming and yelling at everything he could,” said Bryan Berard, who played two seasons for Bowness with the Islanders. “Whether it was the refs, whether it was us, whether it was the opposing team, you could just tell he was pumped to be behind the bench.”
Aside from a 20-game stint as interim head coach in Phoenix, Bowness’ resume since the Islanders job has been filled with assistant or associate coaching gigs. From Berard’s experience, that role is where Bowness excels.
“For me, ‘Bones’ kind of found that niche, and I think he liked being an assistant coach because he likes being in the locker room and around the players,” he said.
Dallas is the latest example of a team in need turning to Bowness in the middle of a season.
“The general managers, when they have to fire a head coach, they know that guys like Rick,” Berard added. “They know they’ll play for him. I think this is pretty obvious with the way [Dallas] rallied around him and each other and are having a lot of success.”
As Berard has watched the Stars this postseason, it’s clear to him why there’s been a turnaround. Bowness took over an older team, one that was created to be a contender now. Gone are the days where he’s yelling at everything in sight all the time. Now, he’s letting his players play and it’s working.
“For ‘Bones’ to stick around it just shows that he loves being in the locker room and he’s a true hockey guy,” Berard said.
Getting the chance again
The Stars players were familiar with Bowness when he assumed the interim role. He knew them well and they knew his approach. The relationships may have slightly changed given his new responsibilities, but he was still the same old “Bones.”
“He’s a coach you just want to do everything for, lay your body on the line for,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “It’s been a crazy year for all of us, and especially for him. To come in halfway through the year, jump into a head-coaching role, can’t be easy.”
That kind of endorsement reverberates inside a dressing room. The Stars had no choice but to respond when Bowness took over. Given the abrupt change of leadership, they had to rally for one another and rally around the coach.
One of Bowness’ biggest strengths — honed by his many years as an assistant — is communication. He likes to keep the atmosphere positive and light and his players know he’s available to talk any time. It’s a two-way street of of course, and he’s upfront if criticism is warranted. That kind of honesty and openness stays with players and helps them buy into what he wants to do.
The level of respect for Bowness isn’t just contained to the Stars’ dressing room. While colleagues and former players will sing his praises, opponents want to see him finally reach his Cup dreams.
After the Stars eliminated the Avalanche in the Second Round, Bowness met with Nathan MacKinnon in the handshake line. The Hart Trophy finalist had a simple message for his fellow Martimer.
“Go get it. Go get it,” MacKinnon told Bowness. “We’re all cheering for you back home now, eh?”