In 1992 the Penguins won their second of back-to-back Stanley Cups after sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks. To mark the 20th anniversary of that title run, pittsburghpenguins.com will be reliving some of the key moments from the 1991-92 season and playoffs.
At the Penguins annual alumni golf tournament last month, former winger Mike Needham was asked if, looking back, it’s somewhat surreal to have played for a legend like Scotty Bowman as the decorated NHL head coach chatted with another legend, Mario Lemieux, a few feet away.
“Absolutely,” Needham replied.
Bowman is the winningest head coach in NHL history, amassing a staggering 1,244 career regular-season wins and 223 postseason victories over a coaching career that spanned from 1967-2002.
He’s been a part of 12 Stanley Cup-winning teams, nine of those coming as an NHL head coach – and one of them coming with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992, their second of back-to-back championships.
To put it in perspective, of the 30 NHL teams, only two have won more Stanley Cups than Bowman – the Montreal Canadiens (24 – five of those coming under Bowman) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (13).
Bowman joined the Penguins organization in 1990 when he got a call from general manager Craig Patrick – a former player of his in juniors and the son of Lynn Patrick, who gave Bowman his first NHL coaching job – asking if he’d be interested in getting back into hockey. At the time, Bowman was working as a television analyst for Hockey Night in Canada while living in Buffalo with his family.
Bowman agreed to be the Penguins director of player personnel, as he could be based out of Buffalo and wouldn’t have to relocate his wife and kids, three of whom were in high school. He would make the roughly four-hour drive to Pittsburgh when needed to watch games and meet with the Penguins staff, including head coach “Badger” Bob Johnson – someone Bowman had known for years.
“He was a college coach when I first met him,” Bowman said of Badger. “He was in Wisconsin, and I’d come down and he’d always welcome me into the room and we would sit and talk about the team and talk about hockey in general.”
Bowman’s first season with Pittsburgh was Badger’s first season as well. Rejuvenated by Badger’s tremendous enthusiasm, positive attitude and passion for teaching, the Penguins won the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup under his leadership in 1991.
But sadly, a devastating tragedy would strike just months after Badger and his team lifted the Cup over their heads. In August, 1991, Badger and many of the Penguins were busy preparing for that year’s Canada Cup when the beloved coach – who was set to coach the U.S. team – was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Badger remained hospitalized as the season drew nearer, and the Penguins had no choice but to move ahead with business as usual. They reported to training camp, which was run by the assistant coaches, and did their best to stay focused on hockey despite Badger’s absence.
But with Badger’s condition unchanged as the regular-season opener approached, Patrick named Bowman the team’s interim coach – just one day before the Penguins began the quest to defend their title on Oct. 4 vs. Buffalo.
“When I took over the team, it was more or less interim because Bob was sick at the time and we didn’t know the future and what it held,” Bowman said. “I was sort of just keeping the job open hoping that things would turn around, which they didn’t. I didn’t try to change anything. He had put a strong foundation in that first year winning the Cup, and I just carried on the foundation really.”
The situation was both tough and unprecedented. The players had a hard time processing the unknown surrounding Badger – not to mention they were dealing with a number of other distractions – and that translated to a rough start on the ice.
But what was also difficult is that Bowman’s persona and coaching style couldn’t be more different than Badger’s. Bowman was brilliant, cerebral, innovative, strategic and respected – oh, was he respected – but he could also be stern, unpredictable and sometimes impersonal.
However, instead of making the Penguins change from what they’d established that previous, glorious season, Bowman changed his own methods. He did his best to continue building on the foundation established by Badger and tried not to disrupt what the players were used to.
“I tried to keep the same style of play (as Johnson),” Bowman said. “I wasn’t thinking that I was going to be on the job that long, so I was more or less trying to keep the seat warm, so to speak, and go from there.”
But tragically, on Nov. 26, Badger succumbed to his battle with brain cancer at the age of 60. And at that point, Bowman and the Penguins had to really become familiar with each other.
“We got to know Scotty a little bit the year before – he came in during the playoffs the year before and gave us some scouting reports,” forward Joe Mullen said. “But overall, we were just starting to get to know him a little bit. We didn’t have an extended relationship with him. It was just kind of where he’d pop in and out a bit.
“But you knew the legend of Scotty Bowman all the time, so it was pretty impressive to have him come in the room and talk to us.”
As Mullen said, the Penguins certainly appreciated Bowman’s proven ability to win hockey games. And as the season progressed and they got to know each other, the coach and the players became cohesive. There was certainly no avoiding the fact that Bowman was different from Badger, but that didn’t make his style any less effective.
“(Bowman) was a good coach, a hell of a bench coach,” forward Kevin Stevens said. “He had us ready to play every night and he was a guy you wanted to go out there and win for. It was a different style. Bob was more of a rah-rah type of guy and Scotty was more of a laidback type, like go out and play and let’s get the job done here. He was pretty much straightforward.
“Bob was in the locker room a lot more talking to guys and stuff like that while Scotty didn’t come in and talk a lot to us in the locker room. He had his meetings and we listened and we went from there.”
They went from there all the way back to the Stanley Cup Final, where the Penguins swept the Chicago Blackhawks to win their second of back-to-back championships. And though it’s one of many titles for Bowman, that doesn’t make it any less special.
“We had a strong club, but the thing about the Stanley Cup is you’re playing teams that you don’t play as often during the season,” he said. “I think our expectations were to defend the Cup, but that’s a tough thing to do. We were one of the fortunate teams that were able to win back-to-back, and I think it’s only been done maybe once since that time, so it’s something (special). We started off slowly. We weren’t playing the game that we wanted to play. We had a lot on our plate with the sickness that Bob had. We overcame a lot of obstacles.”