Let’s start this column with full disclosure: I like Rick Bowness. He was nothing other than great to deal with from the media standpoint. Bones was also fantastic just to chat with and discuss his views on hockey. Rick treated everyone with respect regardless of whether they deserved it or not. Bowness is also well respected by almost everyone in the NHL.
He broke into the league with the Atlanta Flames during the 1975-76 season and nearly 50 years later, he is still excited to come to the rink every day. Bowness has coached more games as a Head Coach or an Assistant than anyone else in hockey history—more than 2500. Bowness has dedicated his life to hockey. In many ways, the game has paid him back for his devotion.
Bowness took over the Dallas Stars under extraordinarily bad conditions when Jim Montgomery was relieved of his duties. The Stars did not fall apart in 2020 despite the shocking dismissal, COVID break, or life in the bubble. Instead, they came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup, barely missed the postseason after dealing with loads of injuries in another shortened campaign, and made the playoffs again in 2022 with 98 points, the 2nd highest season point total in 15 seasons.
For all the success Dallas accomplished under unprecedented turbulent times, the Stars needed a new voice after last season. General Manager Jim Nill made the right decision to look for a new direction. The offense was stagnant, the defense-first philosophy made for boring hockey, and worst of all, the players had tuned out the message and needed mental rejuvenation. You can see the difference this year in the performance of players like Joel Kiviranta, Denis Gurianov, and even Jamie Benn.
Just as the Stars needed a new voice, so did the Winnipeg Jets. The Paul Maurice era ended on a down note. The team culture was so bad the term “toxic” most aptly described the situation. The veteran bench boss was not the first choice for the job, but when Barry Trotz decided to sit out one more season, Bowness was chosen to lead an NHL team for the seventh time in his career.
Ironically, both the Stars and Jets have benefited from Rick Bowness finding a new home. Pete DeBoer has changed attitudes and results in Dallas. Bones has done the same in Winnipeg. Both teams sit atop the Central Division with 17 points after last night’s 5-1 win by the Jets.
NHL players know the circumstances behind the hiring of a head coach. Although Bowness played down the first game against the Stars, you can be sure the team knew the importance. To steal a phrase from “Spinal Tap”, the Jets raised their game to 11. Dallas had no answer. I would fully expect the Stars to perform the same way for DeBoer the first time the Golden Knights come to town.
Hard to believe, but one month into the NHL season, three of the four divisions are led by teams employing former Dallas Stars head coaches. In addition to Bowness in Winnipeg, Lindy Ruff in New Jersey and Jim Montgomery in Boston are in the top spots. (Perhaps, Jim Nill does know a thing or two about hiring coaches?). Each coach had good moments in Dallas and each needed to leave at the time of departure. None lasted more than four seasons.
Maybe that’s the biggest takeaway from being an NHL boss in 2022. The days of Scotty Bowman or Al Arbour coaching the same franchise for a decade are long gone. A coach comes in, gets the most out of his team as quickly as possible, and then hopes his command in the room isn’t lost just as fast.
Someday both Rick Bowness and Pete DeBoer will move on from their current coaching positions. It’s inevitable in the vocation they have chosen. For one night, Bowness got the better of his former team, but a quick rematch awaits in just two weeks. Right now, both coaches have had a positive impact on their respective teams and fan bases are energized by the results. As two veterans of the coaching life know, enjoy these good times now, because nothing in this business is guaranteed.