"I wasn't a very good player," Bowness said. "I knew by the time I hit my mid 20s that I loved the game, I wanted to stay in the game, the only way I was going to do that was to get into coaching. In fact, the last contract I negotiated as a player -- and I did my own contracts, I wasn't good enough to need an agent anyway - I had a clause in my contract that I got X amount of dollars as a player and if I decided to retire or they asked me to get into coaching, this was the salary as a coach…I was only 28 years old, so I figured, 'If this doesn't work out, I'll go back and play a few more years in the minors.'"
By December, it became clear Racette wasn't going to be able to return to coach that season, his recovery still ongoing. The Jets asked Bowness if he could remain player-coach for the remainder of the season.
"I was thrown into the fire," Bowness remembers fondly.
The circumstances surrounding Bowness' first head coaching gig were less than ideal. Sherbrooke was beginning its first season in the AHL and barely had enough players to ice a team. The Jets brought in retired players from the Quebec Senior League just to fill the roster.
They would finish the season in last place in the North Division, winning just 22 of 80 games.
"We never should have gotten in (the AHL) to begin with," Bowness said. "I think we realized that once we got to training camp and went, "Wow, we don't have enough depth here. Where are we going to get some players?' It was a scramble."
Fast forward 35 years later and Bowness, now the associate head coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning, is on the precipice of a remarkable coaching milestone in the NHL, one he never could have predicted following that first dismal season in Sherbrooke.
In Tuesday's 5-0 shutout win over the Los Angeles Kings, Bowness tied Scotty Bowman's record of 2,164 games behind a NHL bench as a head or associate/assistant coach.
Tonight, when the Lightning take on the Minnesota Wild at the Xcel Energy Center, Bowness will become the all-time leader, coaching in his 2,165th game.
"He knows how to change with the times," Bowman said of Bowness' accomplishment. "Over the three or four decades, he's kept up. He's got the experience. Nothing's going to surprise him now."
Bowness' coaching career has taken him to virtually every corner of the United States and Canada, from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast and everywhere in between. He was the first head coach of the expansion Ottawa Senators in 1992 and spent time as the bench boss of the Winnipeg Jets, Boston Bruins, New York Islanders and Phoenix Coyotes. In Boston, he coached Ray Bourque for one season and credits the defenseman as the best player he's ever mentored.
"I've never seen anyone work as hard at his game as Ray did," Bowness said.
He coached against Wayne Gretzky when the Great One was with the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux and says the two are the best players he's ever faced.
"We could beat the Calgary Flames but we could never beat Edmonton and the biggest reason was Wayne," he said.
Of the 2,164 games he's coached, 463 have come as a head coach, Bowness compiling a record of 123-289-3 with 48 ties.
"It's been a great experience to live in these different communities but what you always have to keep in mind when you do that is that you're going home and telling your wife and kids, 'You know what, dad's been fired or we're moving,'" the 62-year-old Bowness said. "… Now, you give my wife Judy full credit because I wouldn't have coached one day let alone all these years without her love and support and her willingness just to say, 'Okay, let's pack up and where are we going?' Never once did she complain. Never once did she say, 'Rick, how about we look at doing something else?'…And our kids, they're not afraid to move. They're not afraid to challenge. You can go anywhere and live and survive, and so our kids were never intimidated by that and they're not afraid to chase their dreams. If you're going to chase a dream, there's a price to pay and you can't be afraid of that price. And if that means packing up and moving and going to a whole new area, living a whole new life, then that comes with the package."
While serving as an associate coach for the Vancouver Canucks under Alain Vigneault, the Canucks advanced to the Stanley Cup Final and held a 3-2 series lead over the Boston Bruins with a chance to close out the Bruins on home ice in Game 7.
The Canucks dropped both games, getting outscored 9-2 in Games 6 and 7.
In 2014-15 with the Lightning, Bowness again came within a couple games of hoisting hockey's Holy Grail, the Bolts owning a 2-1 Stanley Cup Final lead over the Chicago Blackhawks before losing three straight and falling in six games.
Those oh-so-close losses still haunt Bowness.
"The two biggest disappointments of my life by far," he said. "They still eat away at me."
The dream of one day winning a Stanley Cup continues to energize Bowness.
"That's my main motivation," he said. "I don't care what the job description is, assistant coach, head trainer, I don't care about that. I just want to win the Stanley Cup. So the drive of trying to win a Stanley Cup is still there. I've never worried about the job description. I just want to go somewhere where you have a legitimate chance to win and to win that Cup."
Bowness' positivity and boundless energy have never wavered, even in the twilight of his coaching career. Come watch a Tampa Bay Lightning practice and Bowness is typically one of the first coaches on the ice, his smile as he walks down the tunnel and steps onto the ice infectious, his voice rising above others as he encourages his defensemen to focus on a minor detail, his enthusiasm for the game transferring to his players.
Bolts defenseman Jason Garrison, who spent one season in Vancouver with Bowness and the last three under his guidance in Tampa Bay, credits the veteran coach as having a major influence on his career.
"He's got a love for the game and a passion for the game and loves being around the game," Garrison said. "You see it every day. There are no days off for him. He's got a positive energy, and it's great to be around at the rink…He's been consistent from when I first met him until now. That's why he's had such a long career in the sport of hockey. Over the years, I've seen different sides of him for sure, but he's taught me a lot and I owe a lot of my career to him."
In Minnesota, Bowness will pass a coaching legend in Bowman, putting an exclamation point on a storied coaching career that shows no signs of slowing.
Not until he gets to put his hands on that elusive Stanley Cup and lift if over his head anyway.
"I've been very fortunate that I played for a little bit and I've been able to coach every day of my life and that's what I'm very, very happy with," he said. "I can look back at my life and say, 'Man, I've worked in a game my whole life.'
"That's pretty good."