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Rick Bowness’ kids have been keeping track of his coaching career, so it wasn’t a surprise to him when he passed Scotty Bowman’s combined record in 2017 of 2,164 games behind an NHL bench. The number is not an official NHL record because it combines games as an assistant and head coach, but when Bowness hit 2,500 on Nov. 20 when his Dallas Stars played Carolina, it was still jarring.
“When I started in Winnipeg, I was younger than some of the players I was coaching,” said Bowness, 66, whose Stars host the Coyotes on Monday. “Now I’m old enough to be Miro Heiskanen’s grandfather. Five decades, man. It just blows by.”
The best tangible way to digest Bowness’ coaching longevity is to visit his Elite Prospects staff profile and just start scrolling. Most careers fit neatly into one screenshot. Bowness’ requires at least two; three if you choose a normal-size font.
“To stay in this league for that long at any position is a challenge,” said PHNX Sports’ Steve Peters, who was the video coach for Bowness’ entire seven-season tenure as a Coyotes assistant and head coach. “But as a coach, when you literally get hired to get fired, it’s absolutely incredible that he survived this long and I think it’s a testament to the kind of person that he is.”
Bowness knew that he wanted to join the coaching ranks after his playing career ended. He needed to stay around the game. It was in his blood after watching his dad, Bob, play in the Canadiens’ minor-league system and attend training camps with the likes of Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Dickie Moore and Bernie Geoffrion.
He served as an assistant coach with the Winnipeg Jets from 1984-87 while John Ferguson Sr. was the GM, but when the Jets fired Dan Maloney during the 1988-89 season, Bowness got his first opportunity as an NHL head coach before the Jets were set to face the New York Rangers.
“When you walk out and your first game is at Madison Square Garden, that kind of stays with you for a while,” Bowness said.
Bowness coached poor teams with Winnipeg, Ottawa and the New York Islanders (along with one season in Boston) before he joined Bobby Francis’ staff in Phoenix for the 1999-2000 season. Two seasons later, Francis won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach when the Coyotes finished with 95 points.
“Bobby gave a lot of credit for that to Bones for guiding him through that because it was Bobby’s first time in the NHL and Rick had been around,” said Coyotes executive Shane Doan, who became team captain two seasons later; the same season that Bowness replaced Francis behind the bench as interim coach.
When the NHL came out of the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season, Wayne Gretzky was the new coach and Bowness remained on staff along with Rick Tocchet and Barry Smith. That lasted just one season before he joined the Canucks’ staff as an assistant.
Bowness can cite a thousand meaningful relationships that he has forged over the years, and everyone you ask around the league will cite his affability as one of the keys to his longevity.
“As a person and as a family guy, he’s a class act,” Peters said. “He does everything the right way. He’s a good guy to be around. His smile is infectious. He’s just one of the good ones.”
When the Coyotes were on the road, Bowness and Peters had a ritual.
“He liked beer and chicken wings so we could go out to a sports bar, belly up to the bar and he said, ‘Petey, let’s try out the wings,’” Peters said. “It would be that way in all of the cities. We tried chicken wings all over North America. When you first come into the league and you’re working with guys like that, you get a little starry-eyed, but that showed me he was just a regular guy.”
Perhaps the greatest testament to Bowness’ approach is the fact that all three of his kids have worked in the NHL. Ryan is the director of pro scouting for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Kristen is director of amateur hockey and fan development for the Nashville Predators, and his son, Ricky, worked in media relations for Detroit and Columbus before moving into another profession.
“My best childhood memories are of just going to the rink with him whenever I could,” Ryan Bowness said. “I always wanted to be around the rink. I would go on the ice with him whenever I could, and I would go to practice on Saturdays and help out the trainers by folding laundry or filling waterfalls.
“After my major junior career was over is when I really started thinking about being in the game. He was with Phoenix at the time and then Vancouver so I really started to pay attention to the conversations he would have with management at the time; guys like Mike Barnett, Laurence Gilman, Dave Nonis, Steve Tambellini, Lorne Henning and Mike Gillis. He knew I had the interest so he would ingratiate me whenever he could by saying, ‘Hey, why don’t you listen in on this meeting?’”
When Bowness surveys the entirety of his NHL experience, it is those relationships in which he takes the greatest pride, but when he thinks about the moments that stand out in his career behind the bench, he reverts back to competitive coach mode.
“It’s got to be all the playoff disappointments,” he said. “I’ve been in the finals three times as a coach and come up empty. Losing Game 7 in Vancouver (in 2011) against Boston was really tough because we got hit hard by injuries and I really thought we were the better team. When we went to the finals in Tampa (2015), we were just too young. And then with Dallas (in 2020), we had some key injuries again.
“I’d really like to get one more kick at the can before I’m through.”
Bowness doesn’t know when that end will come.
“I know it’s a cliché but at this point, and at this age, I really am taking it one day at a time,” he said, laughing.
When the day does come, however, Bowness expects to retire in Arizona where Ryan lives with family. Even in retirement, he expects to be around the game as much as possible.
“If you’re going to stick around for as long as Bones has, you have to love the game and people have to like you,” Doan said. “If you have those two things, you have a chance, but then of course you have to know what you’re doing and Bones obviously knows what he’s doing. He was coaching in Ottawa when I came into the league. Four years after I retired, he’s still at it.”
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