Embracing second option label, Bowness aims to tap into Jets’ potential

Sean Reynolds and Ken Wiebe discuss the Jets' hiring of Rick Bowness as the new head coach, how he will manage the locker room issues in Winnipeg, and how he can help the Jets get back to the playoffs.

WINNIPEG – It would have been easy for Rick Bowness to be defensive or have his nose out of joint when the topic of being the second choice was broached on Monday morning at his introductory press conference.

Instead, the new head coach of the Winnipeg Jets leaned into it, embracing it openly rather than trying to run away from it.

When #TrotzWatch came to its conclusion and Barry Trotz had informed the Jets that he’d made the admirable decision to focus on his family rather than jump back behind the bench in his home province, there was a portion of the fan base that was only going to feel disappointment, no matter who was named successor to interim head coach Dave Lowry.

When an organization coming off a season of failed expectations doesn’t secure its top choice, the emotional reaction is an understandable one.

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But once you make your way below the surface and spend some time listening to Bowness speak about the situation he’s walking into and how he plans to attack some of the issues, you start to get the sense that this union has the potential to work.

“If I’m in his chair, I’m going after Trotzy too. I am. It’s that simple,” Bowness said during a question and answer session with Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff that lasted nearly 22 minutes before a side session with reporters went another 10. “Trotzy is the perfect guy for this, I get that. With his resume, I would have done the same thing Chevy did. I got a nice text from Trotzy a couple days ago. It didn’t work out (for Trotz) and that’s fine.

“So do I feel bad about (being the) second choice? Absolutely not.”

This isn’t about being skilled as an orator, though Bowness clearly has been able to check off that box during the course of his career.

Bowness is at the stage of his career where he can be fussy about what jobs pique his interest and after turning down three opportunities to be an assistant or associate coach, he received a call from Cheveldayoff that quickly got his attention.

Bowness became the Jets’ Plan B – but not before an exhaustive and exhausting process that included roughly 12 candidates but only yielded one formal offer, according to the Jets GM.

When you consider Cheveldayoff openly offered on Monday that John Tortorella was one of the individuals interviewed before he chose to become the bench boss of the Philadelphia Flyers, this was a clear sign the Jets were open to hearing some constructive criticism about the state of the organization during the search.

Given how things went off the rails last season with a team that was projected to contend in the Central Division rather than miss the playoffs entirely, that seems to represent some semblance of growth.

The Jets haven’t had a full head coaching search since Claude Noel took over from Craig Ramsay in June of 2011, with Maurice and Lowry both coming on in-season under an interim label.

It turns out the information gathering proved to be highly informative.

“The biggest benefit is there is more than one way to play the game. You don’t have to be branded as a certain type of team. You can have skilled players that can play defence. You can have defensive players that can contribute,” said Cheveldayoff.

“There is a lot of knowledge out there with respect to coaches. Just listening to their philosophies, their thoughts, it makes you think and think about the game. It’s such a fast game now. It’s a game of mistakes, getting the buy-in, and listening to people talk about what their approach is, it helps you to grow and grow as a manager. Certainly when we have to draw upon different situations now, I’m going to have that other knowledge of different guys that Rick and I can talk about.

“Rick is a guy that is going to come in here, and it’s not a my way or the highway, but it’s a strong approach to getting this team back on track. There are a lot of good pieces here. Again, listening to the exit interviews in the room, Rick is the type of guy that is up for this challenge.”

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Bowness is bringing on Scott Arniel (who was one of the finalists for the head coaching job) as associate coach, with two other assistants expected to join a Jets staff that includes a pair of returnees in goalie coach Wade Flaherty and video coach Matt Prefontaine.

For those thinking this is some sort of stopgap situation for when Trotz is recharged and ready to take over, that’s not how this organization operates, especially when you consider the current state of the roster and the number of contracts that are set to expire in two years time.

The Jets aren’t going to suddenly embrace any sort of rebuild, this is more of an on-the-fly renovation that will at least include some minor personnel tweaks and possibly a core piece on the move during the coming days and weeks.

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Make no mistake, Bowness is the guy with two hands firmly on the wheel and one of the first calls he made to players this week was to centre Mark Scheifele.

Although Bowness didn’t really want to go into much detail about what was said, you got the sense the new head coach was emboldened by the exuberance Scheifele displayed in the conversation.

It was clear Scheifele’s message to Bowness was much different than the one that set off alarm bells on the final day of the regular season following the game with the Seattle Kraken.

“He’s one of the guys that knows the team didn’t achieve the success that they wanted. He was very enthusiastic and looking forward to training camp,” said Bowness. “Honestly, when I hung up from him I was very encouraged. And I know he’s a great player and he’s a huge part of any success this team is going to have. And you talk about buy-in, it just sounded to me, just with the tone of his voice and the words, that he’s in.

“He’s all-in. And I look forward to working with him.”

Having an all-in version of Scheifele would be an important development for the Jets as they look to regroup after last season.

As for his coaching philosophy or style of play he’d like to institute, Bowness said it was important for him to get a better understanding of which players he will have at his disposal before making a bunch of bold proclamations.

What isn’t up for debate is accountability.

That’s a core belief that won’t be sacrificed – and it’s probably just what the Dr. ordered when you consider the way last season ended for the Jets, a message that was delivered by numerous players late in the season and after holding their exit interviews.

“So that’s when I say the team kind of lost its way a little bit, it all starts there,” said Bowness. “The Xs and Os of our game don’t work if there’s issues that they’re not being held accountable to each other and they’re not all on the same page. You’ve got to fix those issues, off ice, and that’s what I talked with (Cheveldayoff) about right away.

“All I can tell you from what I’ve seen from the outside is the way the team played was totally different from two years (ago), and it had nothing to do with the Xs and Os. It was the competitiveness. Just in talking to the players I’m aware of more, now, of what went on. And we’re going to address those issues, which I’ve already started to do. And we’re going to correct them.”

Bowness has long been known as a problem solver, someone who attacks issues with vigour.

And while things didn’t go overly smoothly in some of his early stops as an NHL head coach, he’s done some of his best work during the past decade and change, whether that was an assistant coach with Alain Vigneault with the Vancouver Canucks, an assist on Jon Cooper’s staff with the Tampa Bay Lightning or running his own bench with the Dallas Stars.

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How this latest chapter is defined has very little to do with the fact Bowness once played for and was a head coach and assistant of the 1.0 version of the Jets.

If the Jets didn’t think Bowness could connect with the modern player and get results, he wouldn’t have received the job offer.

And don’t worry about the number (67) on the birth certificate either, Bowness would not have taken the position if he didn’t still have the passion or enthusiasm to put in the work.

This remains a labour of love for the hockey lifer and the best way to ensure that the joy level is higher than it has been during the past several seasons is to achieve results.

“When we played them last year, there was something missing. You could feel it and you could see it,” said Bowness. “Maybe you can’t always describe it. But when you’re playing against them, and you’re on the bench, you just feel it. There was something missing there. I’m not getting into it because I wasn’t here, it just got derailed a little bit. But if you go back and you look at the roster, how competitive they were for a while, it’s there.

“We just have to work together, all of us, players included, to get it back. The buy-in starts from being frustrated by the failures of last year and being realistic and saying ‘we’re better than that.’ The buy-in also comes from us and our communication with the players, our expectations for the players, making sure the roles are all defined, making sure everybody is clear, making sure everybody is on the same page. You can’t have a buy-in if there are grey areas. I hate grey areas. It’s up to us as a coaching staff to eliminate the grey areas. Just from speaking with the few players I have, I think the buy-in has started.”

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