Bruins' new coach knows first-hand the ups and downs of game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOSTON -- There are muckers, who are sometimes called grinders. There are finesse guys, 40- and 50-goal scorers with the fast wheels and the big shots.

There are role players, slow skaters, goons, policemen and, specific to the Boston Bruins, slugs. For the uninitiated, a slug plays along slowly, in near anonymity, ever vulnerable to spontaneous demotion Down East to the Maine Mariners, almost in mid-shift, if not mid-stride.

Hockey has its labels, and Rick Bowness was given his only moments into his first NHL training camp.

"Fred Creighton was the coach," Bowness said, thinking back to his rookie days with the Atlanta Flames, who made him a second-round draft pick in 1975. "I remember him calling me over the first day -- the very first day of practice -- and saying, 'Son, you're a little too slow to play center; we're going to take a look at you at wing.' That was it. First day, too slow.

"Labels stick. I don't like labels. . . . don't believe in them. I think people change, but once a perception is there, it's almost impossible to change what people think of you. The perception becomes reality, whether it's based on fact or not."

On June 4, Bowness, 36, was named head coach of the Bruins, a team labeled by many to be short on height and slow on skate. Once a promising 100-point scorer in junior hockey, Bowness entered the NHL with the Flames in '75-76 and spent parts of seven seasons skating through Atlanta, Detroit, St. Louis and Winnipeg. In 173 games, he finished with 18 goals and 55 points, along with the slow-skating tag that followed him like a dogged checker until the end of his playing days in 1982-83.

In all his playing years, Bowness only once avoided a trip to the minors during a season. He spent all of 1977-78 with the Red Wings and was beginning to feel at age 23 that he was part of a promising team. He had a future. Happy days had come to Detroit; the Red Wings were sure of it. But only days after the season ended, Detroit boss Ted Lindsay told Bowness there was no room for him. The 1978-79 season began with Bowness' being sold to St. Louis.

"I've been bought, traded, sold. . . . you name it, it's happened to me," said Bowness, laughing now with the security -- if it can be called that -- of a two-year deal to coach Boston. "My wife and I talk sometimes about it -- the heartache and the disappointment we've had -- but the bottom line is, you love it. You love the game, and you're willing to persevere."

Judy Bowness married her husband 14 years ago after a courtship that began during their days together at Halifax [Nova Scotia] West High School. "It is just what Rick loves," she said. "Really, despite it all, I can't see him happy doing anything else.

"Sure, there have been tough times. He was only 23 when Detroit told him to get lost. That was a devastating moment. But we often say that hockey's been good to us, and we count our blessings. I know that sounds corny, but it's true. So you take the negatives. . . . some of those things have helped make Rick the character guy he is, I think."

Bowness was in Salt Lake City playing for the Blues in the Central League for most of the 1979-80 season and was plugging up and down right wing one night in a game against Tulsa. He had once been the property of Tulsa, when it was an Atlanta outpost, but that had been almost five years earlier. So Tulsa coach Mike Smith, today the general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, couldn't figure it when his trainer, Bill Harwell, kept up a running dialogue with Bowness every time he skated by the Tulsa bench.

"Finally, I went over to Harwell and said: 'Hey, what's going on here? You got something going with this guy Bowness or what?' " Smith said. "Turns out he really liked Bowness. He starts telling me: 'You want to win? You want a character guy on your team? Then trade for Bowness. You'll see. This guy can win.'"

Harwell today is a vice president for Ed Orr and Associates, an oil and gas company in Tulsa. He remembers that night, encouraging Smith to trade for Bowness, and he recalls Bowness' first year with Tulsa, when he was an eager 20-year-old with impressive grit and determination.

"I wouldn't say he was our best player, skill-wise," Harwell said, "but he was as tough as nails, gave 150 percent. The kind of guy you want on your team.

"I'll tell you two stories about Rick. He got in this one fight, broke three fingers and could hardly put a glove on, the thing was so swollen. But he came to the rink, jammed it on and went out and scored a hat trick. Unbelievable.

"And that first year in Tulsa, I remember Orland Kurtenbach was the coach, and we were playing Dallas in the CHL championship. Well, Bowness got in a fight with their tough guy -- Dave Logan -- and I mean he just cold-cocked him. Bang, one punch and out. That was it, the turning point in the whole series. We won, and I thought it was incredible that a kid that age could show that kind of character.

"Obviously, it stuck with me."

In a matter of months, Bowness was dealt to Winnipeg for Craig Norwich and played most of the next two seasons back in Tulsa. He played in only 46 more NHL games with the Jets but soon began talking with then Winnipeg GM John Ferguson about plotting a coaching path. But if not for the talented eye of a trainer-to-turn-oilman, he may never have found his way to Winnipeg or to coaching.

Bowness left Winnipeg two years ago, not long after Ferguson was fired and replaced by Smith. Smith opted to hire Bob Murdoch to run the Jets' bench, and Bowness, who had mopped up as interim coach the year before when the Jets dismissed Dan Maloney, grabbed Boston's offer to coach in Maine.

"He was a coach from day one," said Ferguson, reached by phone in Windsor, Ontario. "Never a question in my mind. Just a quality guy all over.

"Mike Smith came in and changed things around, of course [hiring Murdoch], and I'll tell you, that was the biggest mistake they ever made. He knew every player in the organization. . . . but they went out and changed everybody. They've paid a price for that ever since, and I don't feel sorry for them, I'll tell you that."

According to Ferguson, Bowness was going to be the next coach of the Jets, without question. But Ferguson was fired in December 1988, and Smith passed over Bowness for Murdoch, who had just been fired as the Chicago Blackhawks' coach. With Murdoch in place, Bowness could have remained in Moncton but instead opted for the job in Maine.

"He was ready to coach in the NHL then," Ferguson said. "He was mature enough; he'd spent his time in the minors. That was a great catch by Harry Sinden, grabbing him. You'll see -- he'll prove to be a good one."

Bob and Thelma Bowness reared four children in Halifax -- Rick and his brother, Laurie, and the girls, Laureen and Shirley. Laurie runs a sportswear store in Halifax. Both girls are married, with Laureen in Calgary and Shirley in Halifax.

All the Bowness kids, with spouses, will be at Boston Garden opening night to see the new Bowness Bruins. Bob wouldn't miss it. He was once an aspiring NHLer, signed by the Canadiens, and believes he and Rick played the same kind of game.

"But overall, Rick had a career superior to mine," said Bob Bowness. "He had those years in the NHL -- a bonus, if you'll excuse the pun."

Bob Bowness built a rink in the back yard, like every Canadian father does for every Canadian son. If the ice in back wasn't up to par, Rick found a game wherever it was being played. A rink rat. All he ever wanted, said his father, was to play in the NHL.

"If you love the game -- and I believe he does; otherwise, he wouldn't still be there -- then you take the good and bad," said Rick's father, who still laces up his skates at age 63. "When that happened in Detroit, when they told Rick they didn't want him, I know I was extremely disappointed. I didn't think Rick deserved to get the ax. But he was a defensive player, and they don't always get the credit they deserve."

In a little less than three months, the Bruins will begin to see if their new coach can change their old label. For going on 20 years now, they have held office as the league's hardest workers, only to lose to hard luck or soft talent in their last five trips to the finals.

Everyone knows the Bruins: consummate muckers, eventual losers. But who is Rick Bowness? Tactician? Motivator?

"A little bit of both," said defenseman Ken Hammond, who played for Bowness in Maine last season. "Actually, he gets you to play more through respect than anything else. I think everyone will say that he's a player's coach. He takes care of his players.

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