A version of this post appeared in the Books pages of The Globe and Mail on Saturday, January 4, 2020.
In 1983, Ken Dryden wrote a bit of a ballad, if not quite an ode, about a former coach of his.
“Scotty Bowman is not someone who is easy to like,” Dryden confided in The Game, the memoir he published after retiring from his NHL career, a book that’s still roundly recognized as the most insightful reflection on hockey ever written. “He is shy and not very friendly. … Abrupt, straightforward, without flair or charm, he seems cold and abrasive, sometimes obnoxious, controversial, but never colourful. … He is complex, confusing, misunderstood, unclear in every way but one. He is a brilliant coach, the best of his time.”
Together, as younger men in the employ of the Montreal’s then-mighty Canadiens, Dryden and Bowman reached hockey’s heights during the 1970s, when they coincided on five of the six Stanley Cups the team won in nine years. There were other key players you could name from the Canadiens’ decade of dominance, but none who played a more important role than the coach or his first-choice goaltender.
Both men departed Montreal in 1979, Dryden for retirement, Bowman to continue coaching in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Dryden’s post-playing career has included stints as a teacher, a TV commentator, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a federal MP and cabinet minister. By the time Bowman retired from the bench in 2002, he was hockey’s (in sports parlance) winningest coach, with more victories to his name, regular season and playoffs, than anyone else in NHL history. All told, he’s been involved in the winning of 14 Stanley Cups in his career — second only to Jean Béliveau’s 17.
The most plentiful Cup years came in the ’70s, when the coach and his goaltender helped propel Montreal to six championships in nine years. Now, 40 years later, Dryden and Bowman have collaborated on Dryden’s seventh book, Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other.
It’s a singular work in its own right: a biography, yes, but an unconventional one that also folds in a lively fantasy hockey playoff series. It’s a contrivance that allows Dryden to frame in the hockey history around Bowman by challenging him to choose the best eight NHL teams of all time, to explore how it might go if they were to face-off across time.
For Dryden, the relationship the men have shared since they first met at the Canadiens’ training camp in 1971 has remained consistent. “I think it’s essentially never changed,” he said in an interview. “I think we always got along. I think he sensed that I thought that he was absolutely the right guy to be the coach of our team and I think he felt sort of similarly about me. And we trusted each other.”
How the relationship expressed itself has, Dryden allows, been different at different times. In Montreal, in the ’70s, “Scotty was somebody who was never comfortable with a conversation that lasted more than 30 seconds.” Later, in the ’80s, working on his first book, Dryden sought Bowman out in Buffalo. “I thought we would be an hour or so — we talked for four hours.”
Dryden thought about writing about his former coach for a decade before he asked Bowman in 2015 whether he’d be interested. He was. Two things that Dryden understood about Bowman: he has a prodigious memory, but he’s no storyteller. That’s where the historical fantasy came in: Dryden had to find a way of allowing the coach to look over the players on a roster, understand what each one could or couldn’t do — he had to find a way to let him coach.
So two of the great hockey minds came up with a list of the teams they considered to be the greatest in NHL history, including the 1951-52 Detroit Red Wings and the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers along with their own 1976-77 Canadiens.
Armed with with contemporary accounts and statistics, this was how they immersed themselves in the hockey past that Bowman had lived and helped to shape. The talking went on for a year, mostly over the phone, Dryden in Toronto, Bowman at home in Buffalo or else in Florida, where he and his wife, Suella, spend their winters.
As the book makes clear, Bowman, who’s 86, is very much still in the game. Working asan advisor to the Chicago Blackhawks, the team his son Stan manages, he studies the NHL as attentively as he ever did, players and analytics, systems and tactics, what works, what doesn’t.
“The conversations were easy,” Dryden said. “I think they would have grown tired for both of us if it was just recollections. At a certain point, it’s not enough. It’s not interesting enough.” Bowman’s voluminous memory, Dryden realized, is more of a thriving depot than a dormant repository. “He remembers everything, but it comes to be in the service of whatever he’s doing now and whatever he might be doing in the future.”
For the coach who’s never really quit coaching, memory isn’t about nostalgia. “It’s an exercise of having learned and of continuing to learn and of fitting even more pieces together to learn even more.”
I arranged to meet Dryden one morning last fall near his home in midtown Toronto. Early to the rendezvous, I watched a passerby recognize and intercept him, shake his hand. At 72, the erstwhile goalie doesn’t look like he’s lost any of his playing trim, or the 6’4” stature with which he made a career of fending off pucks, and it’s just possible to imagine him stepping in to relieve Carey Price in a crisis. In fact, the only time he’s suited in goaltending gear since he retired 40 years ago was in pads he borrowed from Price for a Bell Centre celebration of the team’s centennial in 2009. The incumbent Canadiens goaltender has otherwise superseded him: Dryden notes that both of his young goaltending grandsons wear Price’s number 31 on their sweaters rather than the famous familial 29.
Don Cherry spent three decades broadcasting hockey’s blustering id. Through most of those same years, Dryden has approached the game more, shall we say, methodically and coherently. He’s celebrated its variety and beauty; he’s attended it with a restless curiosity and a public intellectual’s broadness of perspective and willingness to engage. In no-one else’s biography do the adjectives erudite and Conn-Smythe-Trophy-winningcoincide. He published The Game the same year he was ushered into hockey’s Hall of Fame. (Bowman joined him there in 1991.)
As Rick Salutin once pointed out, questioning and self-doubt come naturally to goaltenders, and in classrooms and lecture halls as well as on the pages of books and newspapers, Dryden has never stopped pondering the game’s finer points, riddling its riddles, questioning its verities, calling out its contradictions, trying to plumb — and, from time to time, restore — the game’s conscience.
In 2017’s Game Change, Dryden fixed his focus on hockey’s response to the concussion crisis, positing a comprehensive plan to re-imagine the culture of the game in order to eliminate hits to the head. Appealing directly to the man who has the power to lead the way, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Dryden was, as he’s said, trying to — create the conditions “by which he and hockey might make better decisions.”
Two years have passed since he personally presented a copy of the book to Bettman over lunch in New York. He’s still waiting for a response.
If in Scotty Dryden shifts from Game Change’s pointed advocacy, it’s no less passionate in its embrace of the game. With Bowman as his prompt and guide, he unpacks more than 70 years of hockey history, delving deeply into Bowman’s early years in Verdun, exploring the legacies of his mentors in Montreal, legendary Canadiens coach Toe Blake and Sam Pollock, who’s widely acknowledged as the greatest GM in NHL history.
Growing up on the southern verge of the island of Montreal, Bowman was a fan of the Boston Bruins. He was a good player, not a great one. He was skating for the Junior Canadiens in 1952 when a rival defenceman swung his stick and fractured Bowman’s skull. He recovered and continued to play, but as he told Dryden, “I was no longer a prospect.” Continue reading
It was October when I started talking to Ken Dryden about his new Bowman biography, Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other. We talked again, on the phone, in November and December, but for that first interview we met in person, one early gleaming fall morning, at an espresso bar not far from his home in midtown Toronto. I got there early and was ensconced in a window seat when Dryden strolled into view a block-and-a-half to the north. He was waiting for a light to cross the last of the distance between us when a man walking with his small son accosted the former goaltender and thrust out a hand for the shaking. It was a quick exchange, and friendly-looking. As Dryden continued on, I watched his admirer explaining who he was to his boy. As I mention in the feature I ended up writing for the Globe and Mail’s Books pages, Dryden, who’s 72, looks like he could slip back into the Montreal Canadiens’ net without a flinch, summoning up no problem the puck-preventative instincts and reactions that served him so well through the 1970s. He was wearing a white t-shirt white a light blue fleece pulled over it. I got a cortado, Dryden a Morning Glory muffin. In the more than 40 years have passed since Dryden stopped playing NHL hockey, he’s worked on TV and served in government, helmed the Toronto Maple Leafs, and written some of the most penetrating and insightful books known to hockey. For people like me who continue to ask him about how the diverse projects that command his attention might connect, the answer he’s assembled is this: “I’m not a hockey player, I’m somebody who played hockey. I’m not a writer, I’m somebody who writes. I’m not a politician, I’m somebody involved in politics. I’m not a teacher, I’m somebody teaches. And it depends on what the subject is and the purpose of doing it as to whether the best approach is by teaching or by writing or by administering or by … whatever.”
My feature on Ken Dryden and Scotty is up online at the Globe today, where it’s available to subscribers here. It appears in the paper proper, on paper, tomorrow.
(Image: Aislin, a.k.a. Terry Mosher, “Ken Dryden and Scotty Bowman,” 1973, ink and felt pen on paper, © McCord Museum)
A birthday today for Scotty Bowman, whose 1,471 coaching wins (1,248 in the regular season) are unmatched in the annals of NHL history. The Stanley Cups he’s won as a coach and executive number 14, most of which (five) he famously raised in the 1970s as master motivator, superlative tactician, and sometime scold of several mighty aggregations of Montreal Canadiens. His Detroit Red Wings won three more Cups, his Pittsburgh Penguins another. His coaching career also included, of course, stints in St. Louis and Buffalo. Born on a Monday of this date in Verdun, Quebec, in 1933, Bowman turns 86 today.
On the 1997 occasion of Bowman’s 1,000th NHL win, St. Louis Blues’ GM Ron Caron was one colleague who paid tribute while offering insight into the famously hard core of Bowman’s success on hockey’s benches.
“He was close to Toe Blake,” said Caron, who’d served as a scout in Montreal during Bowman’s Canadiens’ tenure, “and he saw that Toe didn’t succeed early in his career because he wasn’t tough enough. Toe made the correction, and that was his idol. That was how he became the coach he is.”
The St. Louis Blues aren’t there yet, but they did beat the San Jose Sharks 5-0 Sunday in the fifth game of the NHL’s Western Conference, which means that one more win would put the Blues into the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1970. That could happen tonight: the two teams meet again in St. Louis.
Coached by Scotty Bowman (and by, a little bit, Lynn Patrick), the Blues reached the finals in each of their first three NHL seasons, falling twice in succession to the Montreal Canadiens and then, 49 years this month, to Bobby Orr’s mighty Boston Bruins. The core of the Blues’ line-up in the latter series was steeled by a remarkable collection of veterans that included goaltender Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall (aged 41 and 38 respectively), centre Camille Henry and defenders Jean-Guy Talbot and Al Arbour (all 37.) That’s Arbour pictured here, alongside another distinguished NHL elder, Doug Harvey, who manned the St. Louis line at the age of 44 in his final season, 1968-69. Arbour captained the team in all three of their early Stanley Cup appearances. Arbour handed the C to Barclay Plager at the 1970-71 season when he took over as coach of the Blues while Bowman turned his attention to GM’ing.
The arrangement didn’t last: by February of 1971, Arbour was back on the St. Louis blueline and Bowman was back to the bench. “I think I can help more in a playing capacity,” Arbour said at the time. As for Bowman, he insisted the arrangement was only temporary. “I had, nor have, no aspiration to return to coach on a permanent basis,” he said. “Coaching is not for me. But I decided to come back because it is good for the good of the team. We’re building for the future and one man can’t spoil it all.”
The future burned brilliantly bright for both men, of course, though not in St. Louis. While Bowman went on to coach the Montreal Canadiens, Arbour ended up behind the bench of the New York Islanders. In the 11 seasons that followed the year Bowman and Arbour shared coaching duties in St. Louis, their (non-Missouri) teams would lay claim to nine Stanley Cups.