Another time, in a story Bowman denies, he told Bob Plager, who now scouts for the Blues, to pack his bags and go to the airport because he was being traded. Plager, who had two brothers on the Blues, was to call Bowman from the airport to find out which team to report to. When Plager called, Bowman told him to come back, that he had decided not to trade him.
The Blues fell to second place in 1970-71, Bowman's fourth year, when he resumed the coaching duties after Arbour, who had succeeded him, returned to the active roster in February. The year before, Bowman had also become the team's general manager. In the first round of the '71 playoffs, the Blues were ousted by the Minnesota North Stars. The next day the owner's son, Sid Salomon III, informed Bowman that he wanted neither Arbour nor Fletcher back the next season. Bowman replied that if they were leaving, he was too, and he resigned. In retrospect Salomon's gaffe may have been the worst front-office move in hockey history. Twenty-three years later St. Louis is still awaiting its first Stanley Cup, while Fletcher, Arbour and Bowman have, among them, been associated with 12 Cup champions on four different teams. And counting.
Bowman's other mentor, Pollock, had become the Canadiens' general manager, so it was no surprise when, in 1971, he hired the 37-year-old Bowman as coach, a position he had been destined to fill since his skull had been fractured on the Forum ice 20 years earlier. Thus began Bowman's Montreal era, an eight-year span during which his teams won five Cups and had an amazing 419-110-105 record, a .742 winning percentage. They had seasons of 60, 59 and 58 wins, the three highest victory totals in NHL history. The best year, 1976-77, the Canadiens had 132 points. "That record is pretty safe," Bowman says. "With today's payrolls, I don't know if you can keep that many good players on one team anymore."
"He was an intense, intense individual," says Doug Risebrough, a forward on those Montreal teams and now general manager of the Calgary Flames. "He treated every game as if it was the most important game of the year, and he expected everyone to treat it the same way."
If you like the game, Scott, why lose at it?
The funny thing was, the better the Canadiens played and the more they won, the harder Bowman tried to find fault with them. "If you were playing well and winning hockey games, he got more...I shouldn't say irritable, but the higher his intensity grew," says former Canadien winger Pete Mahovlich. "We'd get to a certain point, and he'd say, 'O.K., let's cut the goals-against down—never mind scoring a whole bunch of goals.' There was no such thing as an easy game to Scotty Bowman."
Once a game started Bowman was utterly in control and absolutely unpredictable. Some games he used four lines, double-shifting All-Star Guy Lafleur to prevent opponents from shadowing him. Other games he went exclusively with his big-three defensemen, Serge Savard, Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe. With a lead, his defensive specialists—Risebrough, Bob Gainey, Doug Jarvis, Yvon Lambert—saw the bulk of the ice time. When the Canadiens trailed, players like Lafleur, Mahovlich, Yvon Cournoyer, Pierre Larouche and Steve Shutt carried the load. "A lot of coaches back then thought their job was just to open the door and change lines," says Shutt. "Scotty changed all that. I remember one game at the Forum, the ref made a bad call, really obvious. Scotty didn't even yell at the ref. He went right around the rink and started yelling at [then NHL executive vice-president] Brian O'Neill. That's intimidating to a ref. Scotty doesn't just fly off the handle. He knows what he's doing. It's all premeditated."
To a man, the Canadiens respected him. But very few admitted to liking him. Ken Dryden, one player who did, wrote in his marvelous book, The Game: "Scotty Bowman is not someone who is easy to like. He has no coach's con about him. He does not slap backs, punch arms, or grab elbows. He doesn't search eyes, spew out ingratiating blarney, or disarm with faint enervating praise. He is shy and not very friendly."
By design the Canadiens had an overabundance of specialty players—tough guys, speedy guys, emotional guys—each of whom might or might not be dressed, depending on the nature of that night's opponent. When Bowman did sit a guy out, he seldom explained the move to the player. "All he was thinking about was winning games," Shutt says. "He didn't care if he hurt feelings. He was going to do what he had to do, and personalities weren't going to get in the way."
In short he treated his players as professionals. Not as friends, and certainly not as needy, insecure youths, which many of them were. He allowed beer on charter flights and buses. He seldom checked on curfew. Glen Sather, who played for Bowman's Canadiens in '74-75, remembers skiing right past Bowman one time in Lake Tahoe during an off day on the road, a direct violation of team rules. Bowman never said a word. All Bowman cared about was a player's performance on the ice.