WINNIPEG — He’s a hockey lifer, a guy who has essentially seen and done it all, outside of getting his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
Rick Bowness has served in a variety of roles after wrapping up his nine-year professional playing career and nobody has been behind the bench (as a head coach or assistant) for more regular season games than him, a tally that’s currently at 2,562 and counting.
There was a widely-held belief that Bowness might be ready to retire, but he dismissed that theory after he stepped down as head coach of the Dallas Stars last month.
And after an exhaustive head coaching search that began with the pursuit of Barry Trotz, the Winnipeg Jets are set to officially unveil Bowness as the fourth head coach in 2.0 franchise history at some point this weekend.
“You’re not going to meet a finer person on or off the ice — he’s just a great human being, he does everything right and he’s a first-class individual,” Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill said in a telephone interview on Friday afternoon. “He gives everything he’s got to the team. It’s all about the team and he did a great job for us.”
The other finalists for the Jets’ head coaching job were former Detroit Red Wings bench boss Jeff Blashill, Columbus Blue Jackets associate coach Pascal Vincent, TNT analyst Rick Tocchet, and Washington Capitals assistant coach Scott Arniel.
The Jets chose not to drop the interim tag from Dave Lowry’s title and he was dismissed at the end of the season (going 26-22-6 after taking over for Paul Maurice on Dec. 17) along with assistant coaches Charlie Huddy and Jamie Kompon.
Goalie coach Wade Flaherty remains on a Jets staff that will be rounded out during the coming days and weeks.
The Jets were among the first teams to have a vacancy for the head coaching position, but they were the 11th team to fill the job.
In choosing Bowness, the Jets are leaning on his vast array of experience, with the hope he can receive a buy-in when it comes to defensive commitment.
“I would say passion and energy. He’s been with some good teams, he’s been on some long runs and he knows how hard it is, so he wants the guys to enjoy coming to the rink but he wants the guys coming to the rink knowing that there’s a job to do. That’s just his personality,” said Vegas Golden Knights assistant coach John Stevens, who spent three seasons on the Stars staff with Bowness. “He’s the most senior guy in the league, but you wouldn’t know it by the excitement he brings to the rink. I’m not surprised that he still wants to do it at his age (67).
“We’re in a business that is demanding and stressful and has a lot of expectations, but Bones has a really good understanding of that and works hard at building relationships with his players where there is a mutual respect for what’s asked of them and what they have to go through to compete as athletes. He’s been in the game a long time, he’s played the game and he knows that. He does a good job of communicating with the players and letting them know where they stand.”
Arniel is a candidate to join the Jets coaching staff as an associate coach, while former Manitoba Moose captain and former Vancouver Canucks assistant coach Nolan Baumgartner is one of the possibilities being considered to run the defence corps after he recently served as an assistant coach for Claude Julien with Team Canada at the 2022 IIHF World Men’s Hockey Championship.
Bowness has strong ties to the 1.0 version of the Jets, having served as a player, assistant coach, and a head coach with the organization.
He also got a head start on his coaching career as a player/coach with the Sherbrooke Jets of the American Hockey League back in the 1982-83 season.
Bowness spent parts of the past three seasons as the head coach of the Stars, guiding the team to a record of 89-62-25 (.579 winning percentage) and leading it to the Stanley Cup final in 2020, before losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
During his time with the Stars, Bowness was known for his ability to instill a sound defensive structure and he was instrumental in the development of several young blue-liners — including Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell, and John Klingberg.
That ability to connect with veterans and young players could be essential in this job with the Jets, who need to find room for Ville Heinola on a defence corps that should also include Dylan Samberg as a regular next season.
“When we brought him in, that was his niche. We knew he was great with young defencemen. We had seen it in Tampa Bay and the other teams he had been with,” said Nill. “When we hired him as an assistant, that was his real strength and he continued that as a head coach also. It’s about how he treats people. He’s got a great way of connecting with them and has a great feel for that part of the game.
“He treats people fair. He’ll be hard on them, but fair. They’re going to respect him and that’s the way that it has to be. He is the head coach and he’s going to have to make some tough decisions, but they’re going to respect the decisions he makes. He does a good job of that.”
Bowness has also overseen the transition of a core group, as Dallas captain Jamie Benn and centre Tyler Seguin moved into more of a complementary role after the emergence of Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz and the arrival of veteran forward Joe Pavelski to the top line.
Something similar could be on the horizon in the not-too-distant future with the Jets, depending on how things evolve during the off-season.
The ability to integrate youth, while still getting contributions from the veterans in the lineup is another area of strength for Bowness.
“That’s just the art of coaching and just having a feel for when it’s time to push a guy a little bit more or to give him freedom and a time to pull the reins back, especially some of the young guys,” said Derek Laxdal, who spent the past three seasons on the Stars staff with Bowness and could be a candidate to join the Jets to run the power play. “With the older guys, the idea of building those relationships and gaining that trust from within the group, that’s the art of building a hockey club and building the culture that you want.”
Bowness was an assistant coach with the Jets back in 1984-85 when Nill was traded to Winnipeg by the Boston Bruins and expressing his love for the game is not a new development.
“That was evident back then,” said Nill. “He was there to support the players, but he also wanted you to get better and make you accountable for it. You could see that he always had passion. As a player he had passion and as a coach, he’s got passion and it’s never changed.
“He’s very upbeat. He comes to the rink with a smile on his face.”
Bowness was an assistant coach with the Stars for parts of two seasons before he took over on an interim basis after Jim Montgomery was dismissed for unprofessional conduct in December of 2019.
The interim tag was removed after Bowness led the Stars to the Stanley Cup final during the bubble playoffs.
They missed the playoffs by four points in 2020-21 and then finished fourth in the Central Division this past season and captured the first wild card before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs to the Calgary Flames in seven games, despite a heroic effort from goalie Jake Oettinger.
“He did a great job for us,” said Nill. “He came into a situation where he was an assistant coach working with the defence, he stepped in and took us to the Stanley Cup final and had two more really good seasons with us, under a lot of adverse situations.”
Bowness has also served as head coach of the expansion Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins and New York Islanders, while working as an assistant or associate with the Phoenix Coyotes (spending 20 additional games as the interim head coach), the Vancouver Canucks and Tampa Bay Lightning — including five seasons on Jon Cooper’s staff.
“The experience that he has with dealing with players at different timeframes, he’s dealt with every type of player,” said Laxdal. “Even with the new-age player, he’s really adapted himself to be able to communicate with them and to build relationships.
“It goes back to the old saying, players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. (Bowness) exemplifies that phrase and that pays dividends for his ability to get a response from his players to perform at the highest level and to bring the team together at special times.”
The Jets are coming off a season where they failed to meet expectations, missing the playoffs with a record of 39-32-11, which left them sixth in the Central Division standings and 11th in the Western Conference with 89 points.
There has been a great deal of speculation about the direction the Jets are going to take when it comes to personnel, with the names of several core pieces swirling in trade rumours.
With the 2022 NHL Draft just around the corner, the Jets will be focusing on having two first-round selections for the first time since 2016, when they selected Finnish winger Patrik Laine second overall and then traded up to get defenceman Logan Stanley with the 18th pick.
But with free agency around the corner, there’s also the potential for several deals to be made during the coming week, especially since the Jets have a surplus of defencemen who won’t be exempt from waivers (not including the aforementioned Heinola or fellow prospect Declan Chisholm).
Bowness is expected to meet with the media on Monday and you can be sure he’s going to be ready to attack this latest challenge with the enthusiasm that has become his calling card.
While the Stars were known as a tight-checking team that didn’t score a lot, Bowness should have a bit more offensive weaponry at his disposal and if he’s able to get the Jets to improve their defensive commitment level. If he does, this union has the potential to be a successful one.
The misnomer about Bowness’ style is that he’s simply a defence-first guy that doesn’t care about the offensive side of the game. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
“One thing Rick has a really good feel for … and I wouldn’t call it the defensive game … I’d call it the checking game,” said Laxdal. “And checking with your feet. His philosophy of the game starts with the checking part of the game, getting above (the puck) and checking with your sticks in all three zones. That just ties into the whole defensive side of the game.
“He instills that, he believes in it and from that, you’re not sitting back and defending, you get a chance to get the puck back and then you have the freedom and creativity to go on the offence and perform. That’s a key part. When you struggle to score goals, it’s more important to learn how to check. With him coming to Winnipeg, he’s going to have more firepower and more offensive weapons to work with. The two sides will be a good fit.”