Scotty Bowman had been dropping hints like bread crumbs for anyone willing to follow the trail. In a press conference before Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals on June 8, Bowman, the 68-year-old Detroit Red Wings coach, said he had made a decision about his future (but refused to elaborate). When the possibility of a labor stoppage in 2004-05 was raised later in the week, he said a lockout would be somebody else's problem. In fact, it was after the Olympic break in February that Bowman decided to retire, but he told only a handful of friends, including New York Yankees manager Joe Torre. On the morning of Game 5, last Thursday, he broke the news to his summertime neighbor in suburban Buffalo, Canadian Broadcasting Company analyst and former coach Harry Neale.
"I'm retiring," Bowman told him. "All the other times I considered it, I thought I knew I was ready. Now I know I know it."
"So what now?" Neale asked.
"Consultant," said Bowman, who has a three-year deal with Detroit as a paid second-guesser. "Now I can go to the games and I don't have to win them."
The Red Wings had to win the 2002 Cup, because they were constructed to do no less. They defeated the dogged but overmatched Carolina Hurricanes, but their third Cup in six years was not so much pursued as it was orchestrated—much like the celebration after the 3-1 clinching win in Game 5. After going wire-to-wire following a 22-3-1-1 start, surviving losses in Games 1 and 2 of the first-round matchup against the Vancouver Canucks and outlasting the defending champion Colorado Avalanche in the superb seven-game Western Conference finals, Detroit staged an on-ice celebration that was much smoother than its power play.
As red and white confetti rained from the rafters of Joe Louis Arena, captain Steve Yzerman, who only moments earlier had been told by Bowman of his imminent departure, accepted the Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman and handed it to his coach. Having donned his skates with 20 seconds left to play, he took one final spin with the 35-pound chalice he had been chasing for 46 NHL seasons. Then, one by one, the players who never had lifted the trophy—goalie Dominik Hasek, 37; sniper Luc Robitaille, 36; and jack-o'-lantern defenseman Steve Duchesne, 36, who had lost six of his front teeth in Game 3—were given their moment in the spotlight with the Cup.
Bowman, meanwhile, continued to spread the news. As he hugged general manager Ken Holland at center ice, he said, "This was my last game." For someone who sets the standard for prolixity, the sentence was sweet and succinct. Bowman has been known to ramble: In reply to a question before Game 5 on the common traits of great coaches, he gave a 668-word discourse that contained references to trips to Florida and a journeyman goalie named Cesare Maniago, whose career ended 24 years ago.
The ultimate contrarian, Bowman is the best coach in pro sports history because he's an old-school leader who kept up with the times, an inflexible man who made adjustments in dealing with today's players. Bowman had the right to overshadow the celebration with his retirement announcement because his career has been more memorable than the final series was. Bowman's legacy, which includes nine Cups (breaking the record he shared since 1998 with mentor Toe Blake), is secure—just like the Red Wings' future.
Detroit has surpassed its status as a mere hockey powerhouse and become the pinstriped dynasty of the ice. Like the Horace Clarke days of the Yankees, the franchise had to endure the era of the late 1970s and early '80s, when the untalented, ineptly managed Red Wings were known as the Dead Things. Like the splendidly professional Yankees of recent years, these Red Wings, who play an up-tempo, crowd-pleasing game, are hard to hate. Like the Yankees, the Red Wings spend top dollar to get premium talent. And, finally, like the Yankees, the Red Wings routinely get the players they want, because the club's talent is a siren's call that attracts more talent.
"We are like the Yankees," agrees Brett Hull, the right wing who scored the pivotal goal in Game 3, on a deflection with 74 seconds left in regulation. That tally extended the match into overtime—Detroit then won 3-2—and effectively derailed Carolina. After that goal by Hull, who led playoff scorers with 10, the Hurricanes had only one goal in the remaining 176 minutes and one second of the series. "Year in and year out," says Hull, "this team will be there. They'll always be at the top."