As Tampa Bay prepares for game No. 54 of the 2014-15 NHL season against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, Lightning associate head coach Rick Bowness stands on the blue line during practice, a whistle in a one hand and a hockey stick that he uses to prop his arm periodically in the other.
He watches the Lightning work on an odd-man rush scenario. As the puck moves toward the opposite zone, Bowness skates swiftly to keep up before blowing his whistle.
“You guys got to tighten up,” he yells across the ice.
Bowness will be behind the Lightning bench for his 2,000th career NHL game against the Kings. He approaches Saturday’s run-of-the-mill morning skate with the same energy and fire he displayed as a rookie coach with the Winnipeg Jets in 1983.
“When I got into coaching, I was hoping to last a year. I was only 28 at the time,” Bowness said. “I figured if this gig doesn’t last long, then I’ll just go back and play in the minors for a few more years.
“But, fortunately, it’s all worked out.”
Coaching hockey has worked out quite well for Bowness, who just celebrated his 60th birthday two weeks ago.
And hockey is better off for having Bowness.
“My career honestly wouldn’t be where it is right now if it weren’t for Bones,” said Vancouver defenseman Kevin Bieksa.
Bowness was a player/coach for the Sherbrooke Jets of the AHL when he joined the Winnipeg Jets during the 1983-84 season to serve as an assistant coach on Barry Long’s staff.
“I was playing in the minors on a Tuesday,” Bowness remembered. “Tuesday night I was on the plane to Winnipeg. Wednesday morning I was at practice. Wednesday night we flew to Vancouver and played Thursday.”
Game No. 1 of Bowness’ long coaching career was as an assistant with Winnipeg in Vancouver. The Moncton, New Brunswick, native made his head coaching debut on February 9, 1989, against the New York Rangers. He got his first victory as head coach four games later when the Jets defeated the New Jersey Devils in overtime 3-2 in Winnipeg.
Since then, Bowness has been on the staff of six teams – Boston Bruins (1991-92), Ottawa Senators (1992-96), New York Islanders (1996-98), Phoenix Coyotes (1999-2006), Vancouver Canucks (2007-2013) and the Lightning (2013-2015) -- during a 26-year coaching career.
He’s served as the head coach of the Jets, Bruins, Senators, Islanders and Coyotes. In Boston, he led the Bruins to the Eastern Conference Final. He was the Senators’ first coach in franchise history.
In his last job before coming to Tampa Bay, Bowness was an associate coach with the Canucks for seven seasons and was one victory away from holding the Stanley Cup before falling in Game 7 to Boston in the 2011 Finals.
“I had the privilege of playing for Rick for three years, and we had a lot of success as a team with him,” said Canucks defenseman Dan Hamhuis, who played three seasons in Vancouver under Bowness. “He was a guy that you enjoyed playing for because he’s such a good person. He pushed you, but at the same time, he cared about you. When you have a coach that cares about you when they’re pushing you, it’s a lot easier to respond. Guys will do a lot for a coach that does that.”
In Tampa Bay, Bowness has been responsible for the defensive unit. Before his arrival, the Lightning were 26th in the NHL for team goals-against average (3.06). In his first season, the Bolts improved to 11th in the league (2.55), and the team GAA continues to fall, at 2.53 currently, in 2014-15.
“When he’s breaking down video, you can definitely tell he’s a guy who’s seen it all,” Lightning defenseman Andrej Sustr said. “But, he’s also really good at keeping up with the game changes over the course of several years, on being well-educated about the game, and he’s passing it down to us.”
Bolts blue liner Victor Hedman said Bowness’ honesty is his greatest asset.
“You appreciate honest coaches, and he’s one of those guys who will say all the positives and all the negatives,” Hedman said. “He tries to get you to be a better player. For me personally, I think that he’s really improved my game. The way he teaches you in practice and the way he holds you accountable is something I really appreciate.”
Bowness said what keeps him coming back to the rink night after night are the players and the games.
“I love working with young players,” he said. “I love helping them get better and achieve their goals. I love the excitement of the practices. I love the excitement of the games, the adrenaline gets going, everything about the game I love. People say, ‘You must be getting tired of the travel?’ Well, this is the only life I know, and this is what comes from playing and being in pro hockey. I always tell my wife Judy the day I wake up and I don’t want to go to the rink, I’m going to retire.
“But, I’m not even close to that.”
So does Bowness have another 26 years in coaching left in him?
“That I don’t,” he says, laughing, before walking down the hall toward the rink and No. 2000.