Imagine winning the Stanley Cup. Imagine looking into the shiny silver, seeing your reflection staring back at you and reading your name engraved among the greats.
Now imagine what it was like for Stan Bowman.
His first name came from the Cup. His last name came from his father, Scotty Bowman, who has won a record nine Cups as a coach and three more as an executive, who has won it so often that one of his former players, Sergei Fedorov(notes), once said that maybe it should be called the “Scotty Cup.”
Scotty won his first Cup on May 10, 1973, when his Montreal Canadiens beat the Blackhawks in Chicago. He and his expectant wife, Suella, decided that if they had a son, he would be named Stanley. Forty-nine days after the victory, they had a son.
Thirty-seven years later, their son won the Cup as general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks, with Scotty as a senior advisor. When the ’Hawks held their ring ceremony Sept. 29 at Morton’s steakhouse in Chicago, he saw it for the first time – “STAN BOWMAN” on the Stanley Cup.
“The trophy symbolizes everything in hockey,” Stan said. “You’re named after it. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around it so much because my dad has won so many Cups. For some people, they’ve never seen it before. I had seen it often because he’s had so many parties with it.”
Never like that, though.
“No,” Stan said, smiling. “It was pretty cool to see his name and my name right there. It certainly makes you want to do it again.”
And so Stan Bowman, the namesake of the greatest trophy and greatest coach in hockey, has made his own name for himself now – or at least, as he put it, he’s “trying to.”
He has taken his own path and found his own passion for the game, going from Notre Dame to a consulting job to the NHL. He has fought his own battles, overcoming cancer. And he has his own team and his own challenge.
The ’Hawks are hovering around .500 at 11-10-2, after Stan shed 10 members of the Cup-winning team in the offseason to keep his payroll under the salary cap. But the long-term goal is to become perennial Cup contenders, and Stan has kept the core intact and the ’Hawks have won three of their past four games. Their last was a 7-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks, popular preseason Cup favorites, who added depth in the offseason after falling to the ’Hawks in back-to-back playoff showdowns.
“I think you have to just do things your own way,” Stan said. “You can’t try to be somebody else. You can’t get out of your comfort zone. I’ve just tried to be myself here, and by that I mean I’ve got my own style. I’m not my dad.”
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Imagine what it was like growing up as the son of Scotty Bowman. “It’s hard to live with Scotty and not somehow hear about hockey 24 hours a day,” laughed Detroit Red Wings senior vice-president Jimmy Devellano, a longtime associate of Scotty. “Even if you didn’t want to.”
Stan said he was “very into hockey” as a kid – playing it, being around it, learning about it. “The only thing I can remember is he seemed to be very intelligent,” said Ottawa Senators scout Nick Polano, whose son Michael played youth hockey with Stan while he served one season as an assistant under Scotty with the Buffalo Sabres. “You have to remember, if you live in the Bowman household, it’s hockey, hockey, hockey. And when you think that there’s no more hockey, then there’s more hockey. He had a pretty good teacher, I can tell you that.”
Scotty coached Stan only once – and that was in youth baseball in Buffalo one summer – but Stan often would go to the rink and watch his father at work. “Especially after games, I would like to listen to him talk to the other coaches or break down what happened in the game,” Stan said. “From a young age, I just remember, I liked to kind of just be a fly on the wall and just sit there and listen to all his conversations about players and about styles of play and coaching.”
But from a young age, Stan knew he would not be a coach. Scotty was famous for his volatility, keeping his players on their toes by pushing them one minute, laying off them the next, then going another direction entirely. His M.O. was the unexpected. “I think the most successful coaches are a little bit more fiery, a little bit more reactive,” Stan said. “That’s not really ever been my personality.” Scotty said of Stan: “He’s got a different demeanor. He’s pretty analytical, but he’s calm. He doesn’t get too excited.”
Stan went to Notre Dame and studied finance and computers. He had no connection to the hockey program, though he played recreationally and celebrated on the ice when his father’s Pittsburgh Penguins won the 1992 Cup – beating the Blackhawks in Chicago. He figured he would go to law school.
Then he put law school on hold when he landed a consulting job with Arthur Andersen in Chicago. He worked in “process re-engineering,” helping struggling companies become more efficient, introducing new software packages, redesigning the way they did business. He installed new systems and trained users. He was using his skills, but something was missing.
“I realized after doing that for five years that I liked it, but it wasn’t, like, my passion,” Stan said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do something where it’s not really a job?’ ”
Wouldn’t it be great to get into hockey? But how? He had a famous father, obviously, but using his name would be the easy way in. “I said, ‘Well, you have to write letters. You have to get there on your own,’ ” Scotty said. Stan wrote to Blackhawks executive Bob Pulford, highlighting his finance and computer skills.
“I had no hockey background,” Stan said. “My dad was in hockey, but I didn’t bring any hockey stuff to the table. So I had to get my foot in the door with my other abilities.”
Pulford forwarded the letter to general manager Mike Smith(notes), and Stan landed his first job in hockey in 2001. He was a low-level employee – a special assistant to the GM, working on budgets, developing programs to track player movement and evaluation – but he loved it. And once he was in the organization, he could start working on the hardcore hockey stuff like scouting and development.
Stan rose to Chicago’s director of hockey operations in 2005. He rose to assistant general manager in 2007, working on contract negotiations, free agency, salary arbitration and player movement. He became the GM in 2009.
“It’s not like I’m waiting for 5 o’clock to roll around,” said Stan, who has two sons, Will and Camden, with wife Suzanne. “Even though the hours are difficult and the travel’s difficult (and) it’s hard on the family life, because it’s something you want to do, you don’t look at it as a job. I wanted to try to find something that I was passionate about and make it a career, and that’s how I ended up getting into hockey.”
There was only one problem.
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Stan received his cancer diagnosis in February 2007. Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He went through one round of treatment. Then he had a relapse right away and had to go through more treatment.
“I wasn’t doing well,” Stan said.
In the back of his mind, Stan always had thought it would be special to work with his father. But even after Scotty retired as a coach upon winning the 2002 Cup, he was entrenched in Detroit with a job for life as a consultant for the Red Wings. And Scotty was sensitive to the idea, anyway.
Wings owner Mike Ilitch once brought it up. “He said, ‘How’s your son doing?’ ” Scotty said. “I said, ‘He’s doing OK. He’s with the Blackhawks.’ They were not a good team at the time. They were struggling. He said, ‘Well, why don’t you bring him here? We’ll give him a job.’ I said, ‘No, he’s fine. He’s got to do it on his own.’ I was happy that I was with Detroit and he was with another team.”
Cancer changed everything.
After the Wings won the 2008 Cup, Scotty asked if he could leave to join his ailing son in Chicago. The Wings gave him their blessing and let him go to work for a Central Division rival. “It was a difficult time personally,” Stan said. “To have him there work-wise and personally was a nice comfort.”
Stan recovered. His cancer is in remission. He said he feels better than ever before, and he’s optimistic despite the uncertainty of the future.
“You have to live your life,” said Stan, wearing a purple ‘Hockey Fights Cancer’ tie last month at the United Center. “You can’t be playing the what-if game like it’s going to come back. It could come back next week. It could never come back. But I’m not going to let that alter the way that I go about my job every day and go about my life, because we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
It only reinforces the decision Stan made to spend his days doing a job that isn’t really a job.
“In hindsight, I certainly grew up a lot and learned a lot through the process,” he said. “I don’t know if I would want to experience it the way that I did, but I think it probably did help me gain a lot of perspective going through that.”
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Though Stan and Scotty are on the same team now, they don’t work together too closely. Stan runs things in Chicago. Scotty, still going strong at age 77, spends much of the season in Florida, scouting Tampa Bay Lightning games. He’s more of a resource for director of player personnel Marc Bergevin and coach Joel Quenneville.
“I don’t speak to Stan as much as people think I do,” Scotty said. “Stan’s got his own people.”
It’s hard to say Stan is following in his father’s footsteps too much, either. Scotty’s greatest talent was adaptation. He evolved with the game over the decades, altering his tactics to suit the times or to stay ahead of the curve.
But the biggest thing Stan took from his father might have been this: A team is only as good as its best players. Role players are important, but they can’t carry the load most of the time. To win consistently, you need to have top-end players and get the most out of them.
Stan kept that in mind last season, when he signed stars Jonathan Toews(notes), Patrick Kane(notes) and Duncan Keith(notes) to extensions, knowing the salary cap would force major changes in the offseason whether the ’Hawks won the Cup or not.
The ’Hawks lost 10 men from their championship team, but Toews, Kane, Keith, Marian Hossa(notes) and Brian Campbell(notes) all are signed through at least 2014-15. Dave Bolland(notes) and Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes) are signed through 2013-14.
“So much was talked about our salary cap situation,” Stan said. “But teams would love to have the quantity of good players that we have. When you have that many good players, there’s only so much money to go around, so it causes a problem managing it. But I wouldn’t want the alternative.
“There are certainly teams out there that are dying to find these core players. We’ve been able to find them. Now we’re going to keep them, and we’re going to try to build around them, so that we can keep this thing going year to year.”
Stan pointed to the Red Wings’ sustained success, of which his father was a big part. The Wings have kept a lot of continuity from management to the coaching staff to the core players, creating a strong foundation and a winning tradition. The momentum keeps things rolling even as changes are made.
“When you have that … you’re not going to win it every year,” Stan said. “But you’re going to be a team that is in the mix every year, and that’s what we’re trying to build here. We’re still in the beginning stages of it, but we want this to be something that isn’t just, ‘We won the Cup last year.’ That was great, but we want to maintain that level of excellence over time.”
It’s a high standard to live up to. But this is the job Stan Bowman was born to do.
“That’s right,” he said, smiling. “Absolutely.”