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July 2002

Scotty Bowman -
History on and Off the Ice

 

by Vince EVANS

History is a close, personal friend of William Scott Bowman. You might even say they are road companions traveling the same interstate. Inevitably and inescapably, the two are linked to the past, to the present, and perhaps to things yet to come. Events and achievements in his life seem to appreciate in value and grow, as measured against the yardstick of time. But Hall of Fame hockey coach Scotty Bowman is not a man who pauses to look back; he believes in making things happen, and in so doing, making his own brand of history. Hockey and Stanley Cups may have given him his legend, but at 68, there’s more to the Amherst resident than taking stock of what’s been done - it’s in the doing that matters to him.

Growing up in a working class suburb of Montreal gave Scotty the foundation upon which his drive, work ethic and values were built. His parents, John and Jean, who emigrated to Canada from their native Scotland were married in 1930. They settled in Verdun, just outside Montreal, where his father worked as a blacksmith and a shop foreman for a lead furnace company while his mother worked in a grocery store. Scotty was one of five children born to the Bowman family that resided in a Verdun ‘six-plex’: six families in one complex. With space at a premium, Scotty developed a good sense of organization and an appreciation for maximizing what he had.

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Scotty’s parents - Jean and John Bowman.
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Scotty as an infant, and sister Freda age 1 year.

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Scotty at age 5 with his dad, John Bowman and brother Jack age 2.

Scotty at age 8.


In 1938, the Bowman family sailed back to Scotland to visit relatives and to teach the children about their heritage and ancestry. Scotty - his name derived from his parents’ homeland and from his maternal grandfather William Scott - and his siblings became ill during their stay in Scotland, missed the return ship. They were forced to stay a year before returning to Canada. Time would pass before Scotty came to understand that the ship they were to take for their trip home was a ship named The Athenea, later known as the first ship torpedoed by the Germans. History had tipped its hat to Scotty, but not for the last time.

As a young Canadian boy, Scotty mirrored his father’s work ethic and endurance: his dad worked 32 consecutive years without missing a day; Scotty never missed a day in grade school. Like his father, Scotty also showed a talent for sport.

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Scotty at age 16 at summer cottage in Lancaster, Ontario.


The elder Bowman was regarded as a very good soccer player in Scotland who played on a junior championship team. Scotty took to the sporting community that was Verdun and played a variety of high school sports including football, track and field, soccer, and some baseball and basketball. But in the winter months, when the ice formed and it seemed to last forever, hockey was the dominant draw.

Scotty recalls playing outdoor hockey, even skating in the streets as well as the rink, and playing on weekends from early morning to well past supper. His skills in the sport developed rapidly, and he could have spent considerably more time playing and practicing. “But I always worked, always had a job, from the time I was eleven and up through high school.” He learned to embrace hard work and attention to detail, having been taught through the example of his parents. He had a paper route for years and also delivered bread. When he was 17 years old, Scotty worked at a dairy and delivered milk. “I had a horse and wagon to deliver the milk, primarily in the summer months.” He learned how to get the most out of the resources given him - a trait that would become prominent in his life’s work.

His passion for the game, his skills, and his approach to preparation were evident during Scotty’s days of playing junior hockey in Montreal, but an injury to his head sounded the horn to a promising playing career. While he could have continued playing, Scotty decided to return to school and he took several courses in business. At the same time, he found his way into coaching, first with kids’ teams and eventually landing coaching jobs in junior hockey. Scotty’s keen sense of detail, organization, and ability to motivate impressed those around the game. “I was paid $250 for coaching that first junior team, but the experience in juniors helped me advance in my career.” It wasn’t long before his talents were recognized on a broader scale.

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Scotty at age 19, with Montreal Junior Royals.

Scotty and Toe Blake in Montreal, 1962.


Scotty’s first NHL appearance behind the bench was in 1967 in St. Louis. That would be the start of what has become a love affair of 34 years in professional hockey. It was also the start of another longstanding romance, as a young hospital nurse from Illinois named Suella caught the attention of the 34 year-old hockey coach. Hockey to Suella was not one of the basic food groups as it had been in Scotty’s formative years, in fact, she didn’t see a hockey game in person until 1967. But after they were married in St. Louis in 1969, it would be safe to conclude that she saw quite a few more games, up close and very much in person.

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Suella and Scotty, August 16, 1969 in St. Louis, MO.


Sid Soloman, the first owner of the St. Louis Blues hockey club, once told Scotty, “No matter what job you hold, 10% will not be to your liking; keep it at 10% and not more.” Scotty took the advice - and the remaining 90% - and invested in a career opportunity that continues to reap dividends.

As history, and perhaps destiny, would have it, a move back to his native Montreal in 1971 to coach the Canadiens, would springboard the up-and-coming coach to legendary status. Working with general manager Sam Pollock - whom Scotty considers the biggest influence in his NHL career - and coaching players such as Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, Larry Robinson, Henri Richard, and Pete Mahovlich, enabled Scotty to reestablish the Canadiens as the pre-eminent team in hockey. His brilliance as a strategist and tactician produced a Stanley Cup winner in 1973 and a string of four consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1976 to 1979. Hockey history was rewritten during those nine years in Montreal, adding five more Cups to the franchise’s league-leading total of 17, this time with Scotty holding the quill. During this same time, he and Suella owned a farm in Montreal where, during the off season, Scotty worked the land until more challenges beckoned to him - and he moved on to his next assignment. After helping his boyhood hometown team achieve its 22nd hockey championship, he left to try to help what would become his adopted hometown achieve its first hockey championship...in Buffalo.

His seven-year tenure with the Buffalo Sabres as coach and general manager was not up to his expectations, but he and Suella found Western New York exceeded their expectations and decided to call it home for their family of five children. Not only did they find the schools, the people, the convenience and other attributes of the area to their liking, but they were especially pleased with the services for their handicapped son, David. Perhaps more than any other reason, the care found in the special facilities - from the OLV Infant Home to the Batavia School for the Blind - bonded the Bowmans to Buffalo and Western New York.

After he and the Sabres parted company in 1986 he worked for Hockey Night in Canada as a color commentator. In 1990-91 he accepted a job with the Pittsburgh Penguins as Director of Player Development . partly because it was close to home. When Penguins’ Coach Bob Johnson became ill in the 1991-92 season, Scotty was asked to go behind the bench. He agreed to do so and during his first season as coach in Pittsburgh, he guided the team to another Stanley Cup, and his sixth championship as a coach.

His place in sports history noted, Scotty moved on to another team in another town, this time the Red Wings of Detroit, but he kept his family and his home in Buffalo. “I thought I would be in Detroit only a couple of years, but nine years later I was still coaching.” And then some. He won two consecutive Stanley Cup championships in 1997 and 1998, set the record for the most regular season games coached, and became the winningest coach in NHL history. Of the 2,141 regular season games in which he has coached, he won 1,244. His playoff record is even more impressive - winning 223 while losing only 130. He has won every noteworthy award in hockey and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. Arguably, he is the best coach - in any sport - in the history of sport. But Scotty shuns such superlatives, pledging his allegiance to his former mentor, Montreal coach Toe Blake, whom Scotty regards as having been the best coach in the league and with whom he held the record for Stanley Cup championships with eight. But with all due respect to the teacher, the student now heads the class.

The recently concluded hockey season will forever tell the story of a talented Detroit Red Wing team that was favored to win the cup, and did. It finished first after the regular season, and was the last team standing at the end. It won by outworking, outplaying, outsmarting, and outlasting all comers with a patient, determined approach taught by a student of history who learned his lessons well. In June, Coach Scotty Bowman won his ninth Stanley Cup, more than any other hockey coach in history, this time with players whose names included Hull, Federov, Yzerman, and Hasek. He has coached in five decades, won championships in three, with vastly different team structures, with significantly different styles of play, but always with one common denominator - a relentless pursuit of the prize.

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Scotty with the Stanley Cup in 1998 after win in
Washington vs. the Capitals.

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Scotty with his triumphant Detroit Red Wings after winning his 9th Stanley Cup in June 2002.


Scotty admits he enjoyed coaching and testing himself to see if he could get the best out of players often 40 years younger. It is his family, however, that gets the best out of him. He’s obviously proud of his five children: Alicia, living in Augusta Georgia with her husband Ed DiGiulio, David in Angola, Stanley (born and aptly named during an early Stanley Cup run) and his wife Suzanne with his brother, Bob in Chicago, and Nancy residing in Boston. He also has a three-year-old granddaughter, Ashley Belle, who shines in his heart brighter than any silver cup. “We went from a busy, noisy house with children to quiet and time alone.” Alone but not lonely and certainly not without things to do.

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25th Wedding Anniversary, 1994 - Stan, Alicia, Bob, Nancy, Scotty, Suella and David.

Scotty and Suella Bowman.

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The Bowman family - Scotty, John, Jean, Jack, Freda and Martin.

December 2000 (Back row) - Alicia DiGiulio, Nancy, Bob, Suzanne. (Front row) - Edward DiGiulio, Scotty & Ashley DiGiulio, Suella and Stanley.

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Ashley Belle DiGiulio and “Papa” Scotty.

Scotty with Chumley, his yellow lab.


Scotty’s interests include computers, the internet, golf, and reading a variety of newspapers while Suella enjoys books, collecting Hummels and old Indian artifacts in keeping with her Cherokee heritage; she’s also very active in her church. In addition, Scotty has a passion for pieces from history - he collects Lionel trains and owns several vintage automobiles. His collection includes: a 1950 Chrysler Town and Country ‘woodie’, a 1956 Chevy Belair convertible, and a 1967 Mustang convertible that he takes to classic car shows and cruise nights during Western New York summers.

In the summer months, golf occupies a good portion of his time and he willingly participates in many charity events. He shoots in the mid 80’s and plays at least three times a week at Transit Valley Country Club near his home. In 2000 Scotty was a walking scorer in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach where he was assigned the final round to follow and score Tiger Woods during his triumphant and historic march to the title. Scotty kept the score card that bears Tiger’s signature. Just another slice of history with a personal connection.

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Scotty proudly displaying the Stanley Cup for the 9th time in June 2002.

Tiger Woods and Scotty in 2000 at the U.S. Open in Pebble Beach.


Scotty enjoys traveling, especially to Scandinavian countries, but insists that Scotland is the best place to go. He has maintained close friendships in every city he has coached, not only with hockey people but with others, and astounds people with his memory of names and events.

Focused, not only on his interests but also on his health, Scotty works out regularly at a rehab and fitness center - something he’s committed to, especially after his knee replacement surgery and the death of his brother, Jack, in 1998.

And what of future plans?

Family, travel, and golf are among the immediate, but coaching is not. After winning Detroit’s third Stanley Cup in six years, Scotty announced that he would not return behind the bench. While hockey history books will eventually put the Scotty Bowman story into full perspective, among hockey fans he is already regarded as the greatest coach of all time. Part of his secret is his philosophy: “Stay active, associate with younger people and keep up; don’t postpone things, do them now.”

Scotty Bowman followed his own prescriptions. On and off the ice, he got the best out of what he was given. He got things done; he delivered. From a young man delivering papers and milk in a working class town to a brilliant tactician delivering Lord Stanley’s cup to three different cities, Scotty Bowman never forgot the lessons taught by his parents, his mentors, and by life’s experiences. He and history will not soon part company - each has miles to go with the other.

Vince Evans is a freelance writer.

 

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