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Abrupt, straightforward, without flair or charm, he seems cold and abrasive, sometimes obnoxious, controversial but never colorful. He is not Vince Lombardi, tough and gruff with a heart of gold. His players don't sit around telling hateful-affectionate stories about him.... He is complex, confusing, misunderstood, unclear in every way but one. He is a brilliant coach, the best of his time.
The players are different now. And I found out you can do things differently.
This story might have been subtitled "The mellowing of hockey's winningest coach." Might have been if 59-year-old William Scott Bowman had cooperated and mellowed to any appreciable degree. He hasn't. Oh, he has smoothed out some of the renowned rough edges he featured in the 1960s, when as a young up-and-comer he cajoled and browbeat the expansion St. Louis Blues into overachieving their way into three straight Stanley Cup finals.
He has tempered the unpredictable, intimidating style he used in the '70s, when, chin distinctively thrust out, he drove the firewagon-style Montreal Canadiens to five Stanley Cups in eight years. Recently he has even shown himself to be human now and again, shucking the brusque armor he wore during the '80s, when, as full-time general manager and sometime coach, he steered the Buffalo Sabres to, on average, 95 points per season, falling short of his ultimate goal: winning a sixth Stanley Cup. But you wouldn't say the coach of the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins has mellowed.
Any temptation to think so is laid to rest by a chance meeting with a taxi driver who regularly services the downtown hotel in Pittsburgh that Bowman calls home during the hockey season. (Bowman still lives in Buffalo, where he commutes once every two weeks during the season, schedule permitting.) "I almost got in a fight with him last year," says the cabbie, some 30 years Bowman's junior. "I was parked where he couldn't get past me in the garage, and he wasn't any too subtle telling me to move. He's definitely got an attitude. I finally told him to relax or he was going to have a heart attack."
Tact has never been a Bowman trademark. As for subtlety, it is surely no coincidence that Bowman's father, John, who died last December at the age of 90, spent 31 years toiling as a blacksmith. Like father, like son. Only Bowman's hammer is his tongue, his anvil is his certitude, and pity the person whose ego gets caught between them. Bowman is a bottom-line guy—high on results, low on posturing. At the end of the day he's interested in two things: Did we win? and, What can I do to help us win tomorrow? Some coaches teach; others inspire. Bowman wins. It's his nature.
Bowman traces his competitiveness to his 86-year-old mother, Jean, who to this day will throw her cards in the fire if she loses at euchre. "If you like the game, Scott, why lose at it?" she once said to him, and that advice would look good as his epitaph. Bowman has been hockey's alltime winningest coach since December 1984, when his Sabres beat the Chicago Blackhawks for his 691st career win, eclipsing the mark of one of his mentors, Montreal's Dick Irvin.
Today, in his 21st season coaching in the NHL, Bowman's regular-season record stands at 834-380-226, a winning percentage of .657, easily the highest of anyone who has coached more than 600 games. Bowman, who at week's end was 134-79 in the postseason, also has more playoff wins than any other coach. His teams have been winning for so long that the NHL's second-winningest coach, Al Arbour of the New York Islanders, who has 745 regular-season victories, played for Bowman in St. Louis. Heck, it was Bowman who first put Arbour behind the bench 23 seasons ago, and they're both still going strong. "In the back of my mind, I'd like to get 1,000 wins, including playoffs," Bowman says. "It would take another good season, but I'm charged up because we have a good team."
A great team is more like it. The Penguins, who beat the New Jersey Devils in five games in the opening round of the playoffs and who at week's end trail the Islanders one game to none in the Patrick Division finals, have won two straight Stanley Cups and are odds-on favorites for a third. This season the Penguins had the league's best record, 56-21-7, reeling off a 17-game winning streak in March and April that broke the NHL record.
And if Bowman is kinder and gentler with the Penguins than he was with the Blues, the Canadiens and the Sabres—and he is—it's not because he has mellowed. It's because he has discovered that to win in Pittsburgh in the '90s requires a different formula than was needed in Montreal in the '70s. "I don't think Scotty could do the things now that he did years ago," says Mario Lemieux, whom Bowman calls the greatest player he has seen in his 26 years in the league. "Not with the kind of team we have in Pittsburgh."