June 8, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Jerry Green

On a list of great coaches, Scotty Bowman is at the top

Former Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman (right), shown talking to Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, the former Red Wings great, in 2010, is chasing his 13th Stanley Cup as either a coach or front-office executive. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Scotty Bowman pushed through the pack, ignoring all of us and walked into an inner sanctum in the back of the dressing room in Joe Louis Arena..

The interview duties were turned over to his assistants, Barry Smith and Dave Lewis. Scotty just didn’t care much for the nuisance of revealing tidbits to the slavish workers in the media.

Moments later, he flashed a signal, a slight wave of his hand, and indicated “c’mon back.”

It was a rare invitation to the reporter-proof room where the Red Wings' coaches viewed videos and designed strategy.

There he sat.

This secret, often-silent man — an enigma — the classic curmudgeon and the classic coach who had won championships and who would win more, and even now might be attached to another.

And we spent the next hour or so gabbing about hockey. The game. The people. Our boyhoods.

"I grew up on a street, two of the boys became safecrackers," Bowman said of his days growing up in bilingual Montreal.

"They would crack safes. In banks.

"One ended up in prison in Vancouver, and the other ended up in the big job (big house) in Boston. They became bank robbers. Armed robbery."

And Scotty Bowman became the collector of fine jewelry — Stanley Cup championship rings.

He does not have enough fingers for all of them. Five Cup championships as coach of the Canadiens in the 1970s, one as coach of the Penguins and three more as coach of the Red Wings — plus three others in a variety of front-office positions. That totals to a dozen. And now there is the shot for No. 13 at age 79 as senior adviser, hockey operations for the Blackhawks. His son, Stan, is general manager of the Blackhawks, Cup champions three years ago and in the mix for another.

Once, way back when the Red Wings were ending 42 barren seasons by winning the Cup under Bowman in 1997, a knowledgeable guy told me:

"Bowman is the best coach in any sport since Vince Lombardi."

Now, these 16 years later, that accolade could be disputed.

Bowman — by my reckoning —is the greatest coach/manager ever in any pro sport. Scotty's nine championships as a coach trump the five Lombardi won in the NFL with the Packers.

Similar as discipliarians, motivators —and champions. But Scotty turned out to be a better story teller.

"That wasn't the real type of neighborhood it was," Bowman said of the part-French-speaking, part-English speaking Montreal suburb of Verdun that produced thieves and a championship hockey coach.

In the neighborhood, when Scotty was growing up the Canadiens were the favored team along, at that time around 1940, with the Montreal Maroons. The Maroons were part of what Scotty and I remember as the NHL's Original Eight. The second Montreal team and the New York/Brooklyn Americans were casualties of World War II. Franchises that folded and never returned.

After victory in the war, the NHL operated for two decades with six franchises — known historically, and reverently, as The Original Six.

But before the war, all the Verdum kids rooted for the Canadiens or the Maroons. Except the bilugual Scotty Bowman and the two kids down the street with other interests.

"The first game I would have gone to was Canadiens against Maroons," Bowman said in our back-room conversation. "Because my father was a Maroons fan.

"See, when you grew up in Montreal at that time, most of the English were Maroons fans. The French were for the Canadiens.

"They had in Montreal at the time what they called a rush end. Fifty cents. They called it Millionaires' Row, but it cost only 50 cents.

"I remember my dad waited, he used to line up behind the Forum. Obviously in the middle of winter; and he waited for tickets."

Scotty Bowman was perverse even as a young lad. With the Canadiens and the Maroons in Montreal, he chose to be a fan of a team across the border in the United States.

"I grew up a Boston Bruin fan," Scotty said in his back room, "the reason being the Boston radio broadcast. You could pick up the signal in Montreal.

"I think the reason was, I was about seven years old, and they were winning the Cup. The Rangers won it in '40, the Bruins won it in '41.

"I used to have to go to bed at the end of the first or second period. My father would always write the score before he went to work the next day.

"I think probably the reason I was a Boston fan, they were a strong team. Once Christmas I got . . . somehow they found a Boston Bruins jersey.

"The two jerseys you could buy in Montreal were Canadiens and Toronto. They found a Boston Bruins jersey and they put a No. 10 on it for Bill Cowley. That was my big hero. He was a big centerman, you know.

"He made more wings than Boeing."

A promising NHL career as a player was shattered when Bowman was cracked over the head by a stick-wielding defenseman in junior hockey. Bowman was playing for the Montreal Royals, the Canadiens' top junior club. His skull was crushed.

"I got my first skates when I was maybe seven," Scotty said in sharing his boyhood story. "That was pretty young in those days. You didn't get on teams until you were around 12. I got on a team when I was around 10.

"I got on a group team when I was about 14. We won the whole province of Quebec midget championship."

There would be more championships, but no more as a player.

"A player was all I wanted to be," he told his audience of one. "Actually, when I got injured I was still in high school. It was my senior year. I was 181/2."

He went into coaching near the bottom. He finally made it into the NHL, when the league doubled from six to 12 clubs in 1967. He became coach of the expansion St. Louis Blues, hired by one of his boyhood idols, Lynn Patrick. The Blues would dominate the expansion side of the NHL. Back then, the NHL rigged the playoffs so that an expansion team would qualify every year for the Cup Finals.

Scotty's Blues made it to the Finals the first three seasons of expansion — and lost three successive seasons.

One of those seasons the Blues needed a veteran defenseman. Scotty brought the guy in and signed him.

The player was craggy, tough Jean-Guy Talbot.

Scotty was not about irony. He was trying to win. He was about championships.

Jean-Guy Talbot just happened to be the opponent who had ended Scotty's ambitions as a player with a stick shot over the noggin in junior hockey.,

Scotty didn't have to love his players to win. And many of them, certainly, did not love him.

But on this day, years ago, he told his stories with candor and grace.

The next night the Red Wings had a game to play at Joe Louis Arena.

I encountered Scotty in the passageway outside the Red Wings' dressing room before the game. I must have been smiling, privately at least, after our lengthy session the day before. I said, "hello."

Scotty walked past without a word, not even a nod of acknowledgement. It was game night and he was back in character.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at detroitnews.com.

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