It’s impossible to root against Rick Bowness.
At 65, he is the oldest coach in the NHL, a friend to all, a Mr. Nice Guy for the ages and one who has yet to hoist the Stanley Cup.
It doesn’t even sound as if Jon Cooper, coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, is rooting against Bowness, his counterpart on the Dallas Stars, as the teams got the Stanley Cup final going Saturday night.
“I’m probably not sitting here today without a lot of the help of Rick Bowness,” says Cooper.
The Lightning had hired Cooper in 2013, a rookie coach with success in the minors. As he looked around to fill out his staff. Bowness, basically a hockey lifer who grinded out a career as an assistant when the head coaching jobs dried up, was between gigs when Cooper came looking.
“Going through the hiring process, it was about bringing somebody in that knew the league, and honestly could work as a mentor for myself,” said Cooper. “That’s what I personally wanted. We searched and were very fortunate to run into Rick Bowness.
“I learned so much from him, just about how the league works, how to have success. We spent half a decade together. We had some pretty good runs, especially the one in 2015.”
Tampa made the Stanley Cup final that year, but lost in six games to Chicago. That was Bowness’s second close call. His first was as an assistant in Vancouver, losing in seven games to Boston in 2011. These are experiences he’s tried to pass on to his Dallas players.
“I told the players I want them to enjoy this,” says Bowness. “It’s something when you look back at your career, some of the highlights of your career are getting to the Stanley Cup final. The pain of losing will always stay with you, but the joy of playing in the finals will also stay with you.”
Eventually, they parted ways with Bowness ending up as an assistant in Dallas, only to become the “interim” head coach this season when Jim Montgomery was fired for off-ice issues. Outside of a 20-game stint with Arizona in 2003-04, it’s been 28 years between head coaching gigs.
“Everything about coaching has changed, everything about interacting with players has changed,” said Bowness. “You roll with the punches, you adapt to the times, you keep moving on.
“Our team has been together since training camp in extremely strange circumstances throughout the season. But it’s the same approach. You deal with things as they come along day to day.”
To say that Bowness has a lot of experience to draw on is an understatement. While he’s spent a great deal of time being asked about his days with Tampa, and his trips to the Cup final, he was also reminded of some of the struggles he’s had along the way.”
Four times he was a mid-season head coaching replacement: Winnipeg (1988-89), N.Y. Islanders (1996-97), Coyotes (2003-04) and now Dallas. He was also in charge of the expansion Ottawa Senators, with an almost unbelievably dismal record of 39-178-18 over three seasons and part of a fourth. But that’s where he said he learned to be a better coach.
“If you love what you do — and obviously I still do, because I’m still at it — you go to work and you give it your best. You give it everything you have and you come home and say, ‘I did everything I could today,’” he said. “But yeah, we had tough times.
“We weren’t a very good team, and I probably wasn’t a very good coach at that point, but we did our best every day. We knew we were losing, we knew we weren’t very good, but we were going to push these guys in a very positive way and try to get everything we can out of them.”
Bowness said he knew the Senators’ hopes were bleak, the roster weak, and the only way they’d win is if the other team messed up. But amid all that losing was where he found the positive, almost cheery attitude for which he is known.
“You learn from those experiences and it makes you stronger,” said Bowness. “It makes you a better person, a better coach. Those were tough times, but you challenge yourself. I didn’t want to go in and be negative. I didn’t want to pound them.
“They gave us everything they could. We weren’t good enough, but the challenge was internal. You’re the coach, you’ve got to push these guys. Be positive.”
As for the challenge ahead, well, Bowness is not about to get rattled.
“I’m excited, not nervous,” he said. “Very little at my age, in my stage in my career, makes me nervous.