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Bowman cherishes memories of Howe

Hall of Fame coach got to see hockey legend's many sides, was honored to serve as pallbearer

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

DETROIT -- Scotty Bowman was a fan before he ever met Gordie Howe, a young man who especially loved going to watch the 1950s Detroit Red Wings play his hometown Montreal Canadiens.

"I'd go up to the Forum early and the Red Wings would come in by taxi from the Mount Royal Hotel," Bowman recalled late Tuesday afternoon. "Always well-dressed; fedoras and top coats. They'd come in by lines. Gordie would come in with Ted Lindsay and first Sid Abel, then later Dutch Reibel or Alex Delvecchio.

"What I always remember about Gordie, beside the goals he scored, over 800, is that he was such a playmaker."

Bowman went on to earn induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame as the most successful coach in NHL history, the winner of nine Stanley Cup championships with the Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins and Red Wings. But long before he was winning NHL titles, Bowman was cutting his teeth as a Junior B coach, moving behind the bench at the end of his own junior playing career.

It was then that he became a fan of Howe and, by extension, the Red Wings; along with Montreal, Detroit was the greatest force in the NHL of the 1950s.

Bowman was at Joe Louis Arena early Tuesday morning with a No. 9 pin on one lapel, his Order of Canada pin on the other and a heavy heart beneath his blazer. Just before 9 a.m. ET, he was one of eight pallbearers who rolled Howe's casket halfway around the building, from where it entered to where it would stay for 12 hours on the arena floor.

He returned near dinnertime to pay his respects once more, and he helped return Howe's coffin to the waiting hearse at the end of visitation.

"I was honored," Bowman said of being asked to serve as a pallbearer. "I got a call from both Marty and Mark [Howe]. I'd known that Gordie had not been doing great the last month or two, and I'd talked with Mark quite a bit during Gordie's last six months."

As Bowman walked slowly alongside the coffin, he said his thoughts were filled with how great a player Howe truly was. And he also was cherishing his memories of a very special man in his own life.

"He was always coming over, he always had a story," Bowman said. "I never heard him being negative about anything. He was always trying to pull somebody up. When we were here, he'd gravitate to players. It's like when I was coaching in Montreal. [Former coach] Toe Blake would come in after a game, especially in the playoffs, and search out someone who'd had a tough game or a young guy who didn't play very much. Gordie did that, too. He had that ability. He was a simple guy. He didn't go right to the stars all the time."

Bowman saw many sides of Howe, from the wide eyes of a young fan to a seasoned NHL coach who tried to match his team against the superstar's creative prowess, and then to having Howe act as a wise, valuable counsel when Bowman took the reins of the Red Wings.

"I never wavered from the fact, having seen him play at his best, that there could be another player who could do everything like he could," Bowman said. "People who had never seen Gordie play were asking me today what kind of skater he was. I told them he was powerful, up and down the wing -- when wingers stayed on their wings."

Bowman learned early on that the best way to defend against Howe was to not provoke him.

"In 1968-69, Gordie had been in the League for [22] years. He was [40]," Bowman said. "In St. Louis, we'd try to make sure we didn't rile him up. Bob Plager was a hip-checker and one game he rolled his hips and ran into Gordie. That was the end of that game. Gordie took over the game. He could do it all. …

"I'm unwavered in the [belief] that if you're ever going to make a mold for a player -- size, strength, speed -- you'd just take Gordie. Ted [Lindsay] was a tough player in his own right. He wasn't going to take any prisoners, but it must have been pretty handy having Gordie on the other [wing], too.

"They had a lot of plays. The Detroit Olympia was a special kind of rink. [Canadiens goalie] Jacques Plante liked to get out of the net, but the puck fired in would hit a funny board in the corner and Howe or Lindsay would be coming in to get it."

Video: Detroit remembers Gordie Howe

For a heartbeat, Bowman coached Howe, making him a coach's selection from the Hartford Whalers for the 1980 Wales Conference All-Star team. Howe's appearance back in Detroit nearly brought down the roof of the new Joe Louis Arena.

Bowman, while coaching the Red Wings, benefitted from the retired Howe's wisdom when Mr. Hockey came around the arena to watch his son Mark or just hang out in the dressing room, enjoying the atmosphere.

"I don't recall which season it was, but I remember that Sergei Fedorov hurt his shoulder. It was more painful than serious," Bowman said. "It was bothering him and he wasn't sure whether he'd play.

"Gordie said to me, 'Let me talk to him. Sergei's coming down to the rink, so I'll come down with him.' He told Sergei, 'You may not get here all the time. There are injuries that are painful and injuries that are dangerous. Apparently, yours isn't dangerous."

It seems that Fedorov had the skill required to read between Mr. Hockey's lines.

He played.

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