Rick Bowness has been through one heck of a shortened season as interim head coach of the Dallas Stars. But through the highs and lows, he’s persevered and kept his team committed to the ultimate goal. Now, they sit four wins away from the Stanley Cup, and Bowness deserves a lot of the credit.
On the final day of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft in Dallas, I was finishing up a draft day recap story while sitting in the designated media section at American Airlines Center. As I posted the article on a crop of new Dallas Stars prospects, I received a text from a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s communications team.
I had been introduced to him by a mutual connection on Thursday night and made sure to exchange contact information (that’s rule No. 1 of the sports media handbook). He mentioned that he and a few of the other members of the Lightning media were going to grab some barbecue before heading back to Florida and invited me to join.
As a 21-year-old sports media major in college, I had already learned to never turn down an offer to pick the brains of established professionals in the sports media field, so I accepted without hesitation.
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With dinner winding down and the draft chatter behind us, the topic of discussion shifted to the season ahead. That topic quickly catapulted us into another new-look Dallas Stars team that had just hired University of Denver head coach Jim Montgomery one month earlier.
As discussions about the hire and what the Stars had to do to avoid missing the postseason for a third consecutive year, I remembered that Dallas had added a former associate coach of the Lightning to Montgomery’s staff one day prior.
So, I inquired about Rick Bowness.
After explaining that he had been relieved of his duties in Tampa Bay due to a rocky performance by the defense and penalty kill in 2017-18, each person at the table added something along the lines of, “He’s an outstanding person to work with, he’s a respectful and genuine person, and he knows how to get the most out of his players.”
That brief analysis of the 65-year-old coach really resonated with me on December 10, 2019 when the Dallas Stars unexpectedly relieved Jim Montgomery of his coaching duties for unprofessional conduct and announced that Bowness would assume the role of interim head coach.
“We had to make a decision quick,” Stars GM Jim Nill said when asked on Tuesday about naming Bowness as interim. “We didn’t have a lot of time to think about it and I gave Rick a call. I was very fortunate because we’ve got a staff – you look at our staff with John Stevens, Todd Nelson, Rick Bowness – and these guys have all been head coaches. I knew we were in a good situation, I just had to decide who I wanted to be the leader of that group.
“I knew that any of them could be, but I thought that Rick was probably the guy. He’d been in Dallas with us the longest at that time, and he’s done a good job. The other coaches have bought in to what we talked about, it was a quick turnaround, and I tip my hat to them all.”
283 days later, Bowness and his staff have the Stars as Western Conference champions and in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in two decades.
“It is exciting,” Nill said. “It’s a great moment for Rick Bowness, the staff, and the players. There are guys that have been on this team for a long time and have never been this far.”
And while the success has been consistent throughout the postseason, the path to this impressive accomplishment for Bowness and the Stars has been anything but ordinary.
When Bowness took over, the expectation and hope for Nill and the rest of the organization was that not much would change in terms of game plan, execution, and strategy. After all, Bowness had helped Montgomery build the stingy, defense-first system that had carried the Stars to Game 7 of the Second Round in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and helped them turn a 1-7-1 start in 2018-19 into a 16-4-2 response that had them sitting as the hottest team in the NHL when Bowness took the helm. In addition, Bowness had been with the team since June 2018 and had built a sturdy emotional connection with the group.
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From there, the Stars endured the flair of a Winter Classic, a handful of surges and recessions, continued struggles with putting the puck in the back of the net, a 9-2-2 stretch in February that turned into an 0-4-2 losing streak in March, a four-month pause of the 2019-20 season due to a worldwide pandemic, summer training camp, and a Return To Play that began with a shaky showing in the round-robin.
Oh, and there was the criticism and unrest among fans regarding Bowness’s decision-making and strategies in-between.
And yet, here he is. He’s one of the three coaches to coach in the NHL in five different decades, is serving as a head coach for the first time since 2003-04, and will be the bench boss in a Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his career.
As much of an unexpected, baffling, ‘wouldn’t find it in a movie script’ season this has been for the Stars, Bowness deserves a lot of the credit in getting his team this far.
The credit is due not only to Bowness the coach, but also Bowness the person.
By now, even the casual hockey fan knows that this Dallas Stars team is an entirely different animal than the one that went 37-24-8 during the regular season. They are 12-6 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, have knocked off two odds-on Stanley Cup favorites in the past two series, and have consistently flipped the switch to match up perfectly against their opponent.
Credit is owed to Bowness and his coaching staff for the makeover. During the four-month pause, he and the coaches began to break down the team, analyze other teams around the NHL, and use that analysis to mold a new style that involved activating defensemen in the offensive zone in an effort to generate more offense and scoring chances. All the while, the primary focus remained on keeping their defensive identity intact.
As a result, the Dallas Stars were the second-highest scoring team at 3.77 goals per game through the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and had received more points from their defensemen than any other team.
"“Probably the best thing that happened to us was when the pandemic hit, it gave them a chance to finally put their stamp on the team. They really dug in, started analyzing every team in the League. Rick gave every coach certain teams that they had to follow and digest, and that’s what they did. They came back and said, ‘Here’s where we can make some changes to our game and to our team.’ We’re witnessing that here today in the playoffs.” – Nill on Bowness’s changes to the team"
He’s making the necessary adjustments on a game-by-game basis, keeping his team in the moment, and has turned them into a confident and surging group that is a tough out.
But that’s only part of what has many across the hockey world rooting for Bowness to lift the Stanley Cup for the first time in his long and winding journey through the NHL.
The other, and perhaps more important element, that the head coach offers is his humanity.
"“Bonesy’s awesome. He’s a guy to talk to and there’s always an open line of communication with him. He’s a very positive guy and he’s obviously got a lot of knowledge in the League. He’s been around for a while. He’s not afraid to tell you how it is and if you need a pick-up, he’s always there with positive feedback. He’s definitely a guy you want to play hard for.” – Jamie Oleksiak on Bowness’s impact"
Whether you ask a member of this current Dallas Stars team, the Tampa Bay Lightning team from 2013-18, the inaugural Ottawa Senators team, or even players that share a geographic connection with Bowness by hailing from Nova Scotia, they all give a similar glowing review of Bowness and the respect and kindness that he shows to his players, fellow coaches, and just about everyone else affiliated with the organization.
“Anybody that knows Rick Bowness knows the quality person he is,” Nill said. “I get back to the most important thing you see with a coach is how his team plays. They’re playing for the coach, and that’s a real compliment when that happens. These athletes are high-strung, they’re competitive, they want ice time, they want power play time, they want every situation.
“It’s not easy to manage these guys. He does a great job of managing players, and that’s where he is today.”
“Bones is a big part of this team,” Stars captain Jamie Benn added. “It’s been a crazy year for all of us, and I’m sure especially him to come in halfway through the year and jump right back into a head coaching role. It can’t be that easy, but he’s done a great job with us. He’s a coach that you want to do everything for and lay your body on the line for. He’s one of the best and I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Pucks and Pitchforks
Part of what makes Bowness such an effective communicator and leader of this Dallas Stars team is that he has a noticeable off-ice connection with his players. Similar to Montgomery, Bowness has always been dedicated to keeping his players in a stable state of mind. He’s a strong advocate of rest and making sure that his players are working hard while not being overworked.
Immediately following the First Round win against the Calgary Flames, Bowness talked about the hardships of life in the bubble and mentioned that he wanted to give his players and staff as many ‘mental break’ days as possible to keep their minds right for however long they were in the bubble.
Those days have included trips to Commonwealth Stadium to participate in a number of outdoor games and activities, a driving range to play golf, and even to an arcade on Thursday to throw axes, bowl, and play various video games before getting back on the ice on Friday.
And while Bowness openly cares about the mental health and goodwill of his players, he finds a way to translate that care and classiness into getting their best effort on the ice.
“Bones is extremely calm, but he also has a lot of passion,” Stars forward Jason Dickinson said. “I think that’s what we can take from him – that passion and love for the game. He’s been doing this forever and he clearly has his heart in the game. That passion has translated to all of us as players. We feel that and we really want to play for him and do our best for him. It’s kind of a testament to what he’s done over his career and how many guys in the League respect him.”
That connection and shared trust between the team and coach has the Dallas Stars playing their best hockey in a while. Bowness knows when to speak up and how to speak up if something needs to be addressed, and he has no issue with showing his emotions.
“He’s really emotional,” Stars defenseman John Klingberg said. “When he talks to the team, he always brings that emotion in there to get us going and to wake us up or whatever we need. He demands that everyone brings 100 percent to every game, and outside of the rink he’s always there if you need something to talk about.”
“I think if you saw him on the bench [on Monday] and the emotion that he showed, this is huge,” Nill said. “Rick’s been around a long time. He’s been an assistant coach over the last probably 10 years and was very comfortable with that and very good at that. There’s no better satisfaction than what he’s living right now. It’s because of hard work, how he treats people, and who he is.”
And when he was announced as ‘Western Conference champion head coach of the Dallas Stars, Rick Bowness’ following the Stars’ Game 5 OT victory against the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday, the smile on his face said it all.
But, of course, it wouldn’t be Rick Bowness without finding a way to give the credit to everyone except himself.
“For me as a coach, it’s just gratifying for the players,” Bowness said. “They’ve worked so hard, they’ve come together, we’ve been resilient all year. I’m just very happy for our players, for our management, Tom the owner, all the fans in Dallas and the supporters of our team, I’m just thrilled for everybody.
“When you’re behind the bench and you see that puck go in and you know you’re going to the Stanley Cup Final, words can’t describe the emotion that comes through. Anytime you get here, people are paying an awful price. It’s so rare to get to the finals, man. You gotta enjoy every minute of it.”
That’s exactly what he and his team are doing right now. The enjoyment factor is present and wholesome, but Bowness is making sure that his team is keeping the focus on the final mountain ahead.
"“This is a great moment for our organization. But keeping that in mind, we’re halfway home. That’s where we are. We came here to win the Stanley Cup and that’s our goal. It’s great for the fans in Dallas and I think it’s great for the organization. It’s not about me at all. I’m just enjoying the ride.” – Bowness following the Stars’ Game 7 win against Colorado"
While getting to the Stanley Cup Final is a great achievement for the Dallas Stars organization, four more wins are still required before the journey can be deemed ultimately successful.
It’s why Bowness continues to brush off questions about his future with the team. Though Nill has mentioned on multiple occasions over the past two weeks that Bowness has earned the right to return next season, the head coach has reinforced the decision made back on Dec. 10 and stated that he won’t talk about next season until this playoff run is over.
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“I want to sit down with him and see where he’s at, but we don’t want that to be the focus on the team right now,” Nill said. “We like where we’re at, Rick has agreed from day one that we’ll discuss it at the end and we’ll sit down, make that decision, and go from there. But right now, the focus is that we have to win four more games. That’s where we’re at.”
Bowness has always been a team-first coach, and that frame of mind is only enhanced when they became one of the final two teams standing in this year’s postseason.
While this is the first time that Bowness will be a head coach in the Stanley Cup Final, it’s not his first trip to the NHL’s largest stage. He was an assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 when they lost in Game 7 of the Final to the Boston Bruins and followed it up with a 4-2 series loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015 as an associate coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Both of those losses still sit in Bowness’s mind, and it’s hard not to remember the pain and frustration now that he has another crack at it.
“The Vancouver one stays with you every day of your life,” Bowness said. “When you get to Game 7 and lose in the Stanley Cup Final, that stays with you. It stays with you the rest of your life and it’s painful.”
Because of that, the Dallas Stars have their sights set on winning their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. As much as a win would cap off a magical and unexpected run for this “team of destiny”, it would also further cement Bowness’s legacy as one of the NHL’s greatest journeymen and leaders that even a casual hockey fan can’t help but root for.
And with a date for all the marbles against the Tampa Bay Lightning (his most recent stop before Dallas) scheduled to start on Saturday, Bowness and his team know what’s on the line in the final chapter of their storybook season.
But the 65-year-old won’t let that change the way he has guided this team behind the bench, in the locker room, during practice, or away from the ice. He’s used the same roadmap and morals over the past 36 years, so why change now?
“He’s the same person back then as he is now,” Nill said. “He’s a great person on and off the ice.”
That’s just how Rick Bowness rolls. And so far, it’s worked rather well in what has become a Dallas Stars season that, regardless of whether they win or lose, will be talked about for many years to come.