Irvin used to say that if you could get your team to laugh before a big game, you had an edge. Bowman watched, learned, absorbed. People noticed him, marveled at how Bowman commanded respect from players nearly his own age. In 1956 the Junior Canadiens moved from Montreal to Ottawa, and the team's coach and general manager, Sam Pollock, asked the 23-year-old Bowman to be his assistant. "Pollock was a very demanding coach," says Bowman. "His philosophy was, You go with your best players as much as you can. I learned that from him."
Pollock was also aloof, private, intimidating. Bowman would later display all those traits. After the team won the 1958 Memorial Cup, the top prize in junior hockey, Bowman took over his own Junior A team in Peterborough, Ont. He coached there for three seasons, then became the Montreal Canadiens' head scout for eastern Canada. But he missed coaching, missed being with a team and moved back behind the bench of the Junior Canadiens in '63-64.
It was then that he met Montreal's Toe Blake, the only man to coach more Cup winners (eight) than Bowman. "I used to go into his office a lot," says Bowman. "And he might say something like, 'I'll let you in on a tip. Your friend Terry Harper's not going to play much tonight.' He knew how each of his players did against everyone else. Certain guys do well against one team but not another. He was a good strategist and a good matchup man and wasn't afraid to sit guys out to change his ammunition."
When Bowman's Junior Canadiens were matched up against a superior opponent in the playoffs, Blake called him in and drew up three radically different fore-checking schemes for Bowman to try. All of them worked, and Bowman learned another lesson: If you threw something different at a team, almost anything, it got the players out of rhythm, slowed them down, kept them off balance. No matter how clever the opposing coach was, it took his team some time to react to the changes. And by that time Bowman, always a step ahead, might have altered his strategy again. It was a good way to play when you were outmanned. "I found out that if you're going to win games, you had better be ready to adapt," he says.
"When the puck is dropped, there has never been anyone who could run a bench better than Scotty," Toronto general manager Cliff Fletcher, an assistant general manager in St. Louis during the Bowman years, once said. "He was always-three or four moves ahead of the opposition. So his players knew they only had to be as good as the other team. Scotty would make the difference."
Bowman was just 33 when Lynn Patrick, the expansion Blues' first coach and general manager, hired him as assistant coach for the '67-68 season. Craig Patrick had played for Bowman with the Junior Canadiens and described Bowman to his father as "very stern, but fair." On more than one occasion, Craig Patrick recalls, Bowman made him and his teammates hold a practice before school, at five or six in the morning, after they had just spent all night on a bus returning from a game. He insisted his players keep their own plus-minus records in a notebook—this is some 20 years before the NHL began keeping that statistic—and occasionally checked to see if the notebooks were up to date. "He was known then as a very bright, innovative young hockey man," Craig says, "and he was the first guy my dad hired."
Lynn Patrick put Bowman in charge of the Blues' defensemen. The team won just four of its first 15 games but was leading the Philadelphia Flyers by a goal in its next outing when Bowman advised Patrick to have a certain player skip a shift. Patrick ignored the advice, and with that player on the ice the Flyers scored and went on to win the game. At two o'clock the next morning Bowman got a call from Patrick. "I've always prided myself in having the right players on the ice at the right time," Lynn said. "I think this coaching business has passed me by."
Bowman took over behind the bench the next game, and under his guidance the Blues went 23-21-14 the rest of the way to finish third in the Western Division. In the playoffs they pulled off two seven-game upsets to advance to the 1968 Cup finals, where they lost to Blake's powerful Canadiens, four games to none, each game decided by a single goal.
That was the start. Each of the next two seasons the Blues won the Western Division and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. They had limited talent but an outstanding, experienced defense that thrived under Bowman's system. In 1968-69, with Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante in goal, the Blues posted 13 shutouts and a goals-against average of 2.07, the lowest ever by a team in the post-expansion era. "People didn't know how good Bowman was," the late Dan Kelly, the team's broadcaster, once recounted. "He was the first guy to use videotape to scout other teams. He knew more about the other team than the guy coaching them. That was a secret to his success."
Another reason for Bowman's success was his unpredictability, a trait he felt gave him an edge, both with the opposition and with his own players. "We did a lot of crazy things back then," Bowman says. One week he made the Blues practice at 8 a.m., then again at 4 p.m., so they had to commute to and from the rink during rush hour like the rest of the working world. "They were ready to play hockey at the end of that week," Bowman says.