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He left the Canadiens in 1979, shortly after Montreal had won its fourth straight Cup. Bypassed for Montreal's general manager position, Bowman accepted an offer to be coach and general manager of the Sabres, and for the next seven-plus seasons his Buffalo teams had a 210-134-60 record with him behind the bench. But the Sabres were perennial disappointments in the playoffs, never advancing beyond the conference finals. Critics said that his caustic, impersonal style, so successful at spurring his veteran players in Montreal and St. Louis, was ill-suited for the young, inexperienced Buffalo players.
"I can remember him yelling, 'Patrick, you're nothing but an underachiever,' " said Steve Patrick, Bowman's first-round draft pick in 1980, after he was traded to the New York Rangers in 1984. "Once I had a chance to score in Philly, the goalie was down, and I couldn't get the puck up. Afterwards Scotty walked by me, and no eye contact. Nothing. He was like that. Then we walked by each other again, and he sort of stopped in his tracks and said, 'Steve, you had the whole net open, and you couldn't even put the puck in it?' Then he just walked away."
"Off the ice, away from hockey, he's as good a guy as you'd ever hope to meet," says Roger Neilson, who was Bowman's assistant in Buffalo in '79-80 and the team's head coach in '80-81. "Around hockey he's very demanding. He motivates by fear. Players are never quite sure where they stand."
Bowman certainly kept Tom Barrasso guessing. He made Barrasso Buffalo's first-round draft choice in 1983, a gutsy selection considering that no goalie from a U.S. high school had ever been taken that early. But Barrasso made him look pretty smart. In 1983-84 he was Rookie of the Year and a first-team All-Star and won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top netminder. When Barrasso and the team got off to a slow start the next season, Bowman dispatched him to the minor leagues after just six starts with nary an encouraging word. "I wanted to beat the——out of somebody," Barrasso said at the time. "It was humiliating."
Bowman ignored the carping, but no amount of badgering or mind games could overcome the Sabres' fundamental shortcoming: They didn't have the horses. In the NHL the Stanley Cup tends to follow the league's best player, and Buffalo's best player in the Bowman years, whoever he might have been, was not among the league's top 10. Bowman began to lose his appetite for coaching. Problem was, Bowman the general manager couldn't hire a coach who was his equal behind the bench. Bowman hired and then personally replaced Neilson (in 1981), Jimmy Roberts (in 1982) and Jim Schoenfeld (in 1986). "I was spread too thin doing the two jobs," Bowman says. "Looking back I should have been in the trade market more the last two years, but if the same man is coaching and managing, he ends up juggling one job or the other."
In November 1986, with the Sabres off to a poor start, Bowman stepped down as coach for a fourth time to concentrate on his general manager duties. The team, however, continued to struggle. Less than a month later he was fired.
Bowman is, by all accounts, devoted to his family. It's difficult to know when to insert that information into this story, because he keeps the two—hockey and family—distinctly separate. He has a wife, Suella, and five kids: Alicia, 22; David, 20; Stanley, 19; and 16-year-old twins, Nancy and Bob. David, blind and born with hydrocephalus, also known as water on the brain, has spent most of his life in an institution for the mentally handicapped.
The twins are seniors at Buffalo-area high schools, and Bob plays varsity hockey. Bowman used to make a backyard rink for the kids—boards, lights, the whole bit—and found it unbelievably therapeutic, after a Sabre game, to go there with a hose and resurface the ice late at night. It brought back memories of his childhood in Verdun. Or he would relax by running his model train set. It would probably surprise a lot of people to know that Scotty Bowman likes to play with a model train set, that he takes great pride in its extensive layout. But he is a man of many layers and surprises.
"That's been the toughest part," he says of living in the Pittsburgh hotel, away from his wife and kids. But Bowman had made a deal with his family: Once the twins started high school, he wouldn't ask them to move. They could finish school in Buffalo, regardless of where he might be working. "Kids change so much when they're in high school," he says. "So much happens to them that you're not part of."
After leaving the Sabres, Bowman spent three years as an analyst for Hockey Night in Canada, but as had happened years before, he missed being part of a team. When Craig Patrick offered him the job as the Penguins' director of player personnel in 1990, Bowman jumped at it. It was a good fit for everyone. Bowman could remain in Buffalo with his family, scout teams for Bob Johnson, then the Penguin coach, and occasionally commute to Pittsburgh for consultations.