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

July 14, 1991|By Kevin Paul Dupont | Kevin Paul Dupont,Boston Globe

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."

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