Remembering Scotty Bowman’s first season with the Red Wings

Scotty Bowman began

Scotty Bowman began his tenure in Detroit during the 1993-94 season.

When the Red Wings won Game 5 of the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals, closing out another championship season in dominating fashion, coach Scotty Bowman laced up a pair of skates and took a final spin with his jubilant players. It was only then that the reality set in that the greatest coaching career in NHL history was at an end. It was Bowman’s third Cup victory in nine seasons behind the Detroit bench, and his ninth as a coach overall, breaking Toe Blake’s record. There was no better time to retire.

But if Bowman left Detroit’s bench in high style, his arrival there nine years earlier was met with skepticism by some. This was particularly true after his first season at The Joe ended with one of the most shocking upsets in Stanley Cup history.

William Scott Bowman was thought to have a computer for a brain and a block of ice for a heart. He was a stickler for detail. In Pittsburgh, his most recent stop before coming to Detroit on June 15, 1993, his players dubbed him “Rainman” after the character, an idiot savant, in the movie by the same name. Wings players, some of whom had an immediate dislike for their intensive new coach, quickly picked it up.

The 59-year-old Bowman had been raised in a blue-collar neighborhood outside Montreal. He was a 17-year-old left winger for the Montreal Junior Canadians when he was clubbed in the head during a playoff game. He suffered a fractured skull, ending his playing career. He worked at a paint factory and coached junior teams, eventually breaking into the NHL as as assistant coach with St. Louis in 1967. He took over the head coaching job in midseason, guiding the expansion Blues to the first of three straight appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals.

In 1971, Bowman became the coach in Montreal, where he led the veteran squad to five Stanley Cup championships in eight years. He left Montreal in 1979 and settled in Buffalo, where he won no titles but cemented his image as a cold, aloof tactician. Moving on to Pittsburgh, he earned two more Stanley Cup rings—the first as general manager, the second as an emergency fill-in for the cheery and popular Bob Johnson, who was dying of brain cancer.

In the late spring of 1993, the Red Wings were coming off yet another disappointing postseason under coach and GM Bryan Murray. The season had turned to sawdust on Nikolai Borschevsky’s overtime goal in the seventh game of the Norris Division semifinals against Toronto. Mike Ilitch paid the winningest coach in NHL history a lot of money to one thing: take a talent-laden team that was a chronic underachiever and turn it into a Stanley Cup champion. “This Detroit team is going to learn quickly that we’re going to do whatever it takes—maybe building up some confidence, maybe some other type of motivation,” Bowman said.

Bowman and Murray had major differences of opinion about personnel. Bowman didn’t like captain Steve Yzerman’s one-dimensional play and he wasn’t happy with the goaltending or many of the defensemen. Bowman wanted to win now, but his suggested moves were stymied by Murray, who believed his mandate as GM was to build a solid team that would compete for the Cup for years to come.

The Wings, preseason picks of many to win it all in 1993-94, instead started the first weeks of the Bowman era by nearly losing them all. They dropped seven of their first 10 games, as Bowman took a good look at what he had to work with. He didn’t care for several players, particularly troubled forward Bob Probert, who had resumed drinking over the summer, and goalie Tim Cheveldae, who he finally quit playing in home games because of the abuse he took from fans at The Joe.

As Detroit battled Toronto and Dallas in the newly named Central Division, goaltending became the sore spot. Murray, unwilling to pull the trigger on a major trade that would bring an experienced big-time goalie to town, settled on getting Bob Essensa from Winnipeg in exchange for Cheveldae and second-year forward Dallas Drake. The Wings wound up winning the Central with 100 points, two better than Toronto, but it wasn’t because of anything Essensa did. In fact, Chris Osgood, a 21-year-old rookie up from the Wings’ Adirondack farm club, played more than any of the five goalies employed during the season.

The offense carried the day, producing a league-best 356 goals. When Yzerman went down with an injury in November, Sergei Fedorov jumped into the breech as the number-one center. Principally a defensive specialist who’d always had to be encouraged to shoot more, Fedorov became the first European to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. He scored 56 goals and added 64 assists to finish with 120 points, just 10 behind scoring champion Wayne Gretzky. Fedorov also earned the Selke Award as the league’s top defensive forward.

Ray Sheppard had 52 goals, Paul Coffey scored 77 points to set a team mark for blueliners, and Keith Primeau, a towering if ungainly center, showed signs of living up to his potential with 31 goals. Slava Kozlov, a small but gutsy winger who had survived a car crash in Russia that had killed a teammate, had recuperated to the point that he scored 34 goals. And Yzerman, despite missing 26 games, contributed 82 points. It all added up to a substantial force squaring off against a vastly inferior foe as postseason play started.

The San Jose Sharks, a third-year expansion team that had won all of 11 games the previous season, was the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs and drew top-seeded Detroit. The Sharks shocked Detroit with a 5-4 win in the opener at The Joe, but Bowman’s club woke up for Games 2 and 3, winning by scores of 4-0 and 3-2.

But then the Sharks bit twice, squeaking out a 4-3 verdict in Game 4 in San Jose after trailing by two goals, then taking a 6-4 decision in Game 5 in Detroit. The Sharks’ unexpected 3-games-to-2 series edge had players baffled. Right winger Dino Ciccarelli complained that the Sharks were so nice to him in front of their net, it was hard to work up a hatred for them. It was like being nibbled to death by goldfish. Meanwhile, San Jose goalie Arturs Irbe continually frustrated the Wings.

In Game 6, the Wings finally solved Irbe, crushing the Sharks, 7-1. Detroit flew home to apply the clincher.

Osgood had replaced the ineffective Essensa early in the series, but it was one major mistake by Ozzie that determined the outcome in Game 7. After Kris Draper and Kozlov scored to wipe out a 2-0 Sharks lead, Osgood and Irbe took turns preserving the tie with timely saves. Then, with 6:35 left, Osgood wandered far from the crease to clear a pass from his own end. San Jose’s Jamie Baker picked it off along the boards and snapped it into the wide-open net before Osgood could recover.

The Joe was shocked into silence. As the clock wound down on the 3-2 loss, the booing began. For the second straight year, the Wings had lost a seventh game on home ice. For the fourth time in five years, they had been eliminated in the first round. This one was particularly hard to accept. A season that had started with so much promise had ended with one of the most shocking upsets in Stanley Cup history. One bellicose fan summed up the feelings of the nearly 20,000 on hand when he stood up at the buzzer and roared into the eerie quiet: “Same old shit!”

Pictures of a disconsolate Osgood crying in the locker room made it into the newspapers. The kid was forgiven. Murray was not. A few days later he and assistant GM Doug MacLean were broomed. Bowman was given the title of director of player personnel. Now he would be free to make over the team in the way he wanted, ably assisted by Jimmy Devellano, who resumed the GM duties he had relinquished upon Murray’s hiring, and Ken Holland, another exec with an eye for spotting and acquiring talent. Several players who couldn’t or wouldn’t buy into Bowman’s system were soon gone. Within three years the Wings would win their first Cup in 42 years, then repeat, then wait four more years before adding a third under Bowman. Scotty retired after that 2002 victory, having earned his record ninth Cup win as a coach. He also left with 1,244 victories and a .654 winning percentage, both all-time bests.

Since then, Bowman has continued his championship ways as the senior advisor of hockey operations with the Chicago Blackhawks (where his son is the GM), earning rings with the 2010 and 2013 Cup winners. All told, Bowman has 13 rings as a coach and executive — a showering of championships for the intense man some Wings once disdainfully called Rainman.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side. He is the author of many articles and books, including biographies of local sports legends Joe Louis and Ty Cobb and histories of Tiger Stadium and Detroit's Negro leagues.