When Rick Bowness stepped down as coach of the Dallas Stars in May, almost everyone, including Bowness, assumed that this was the end of the line for the 67-year-old coach. He had coached in the NHL for four decades. He had served 13 of those as a head coach with Winnipeg, Boston, Ottawa, the New York Islanders, Phoenix and Dallas, advancing to the Stanley Cup Final with the Stars in 2020. It was time to retire to Scottsdale where his son, Ryan — then the director of pro scouting for the Pittsburgh Penguins — kept a house.
Eight months later, Rick is back in the place where he got his first NHL head coaching gig and the Jets are one of the biggest surprises of the NHL. Heading into Sunday’s game against the Coyotes at Canada Life Centre in Winnipeg, the Jets led the Central Division with a 28-14-1 record.
I caught up with “Bones” for a five-question Q&A ahead of that game — and less than two weeks ahead of his 68th birthday.
When Petey and I had you on the show last winter, I really thought that you would retire when your contract expired at the end of last season. What brought you back?
“Honestly we were all set to retire. I had a couple of calls and offers to go to teams as the associate coach, rebuilding, but I had no interest in doing that at my age. [My wife] Judy and I talked about it and I said, ‘Listen, it’s been a long run — a lot longer than we ever thought possible. We’ve got everything in life we can ask for. We’re happy and healthy. Maybe it’s time.’
“I was ready to take a consulting job as a senior advisor coach or something like that. The original plan was to go to Scottsdale and then Ryan got the assistant general manager’s job in Ottawa so they sold their house in Scottsdale and moved to Ottawa. We’re not going to retire in Ottawa. We’d probably have ended up in Florida where we’d spend six months at home in Canada (The Maritimes), maybe five months in the States, and then another month of traveling. We’ve never been to Italy or Switzerland so we want to get to Europe.
“The very next day after we made the decision, Winnipeg called. I didn’t know if they were calling me to get some insight from an outsider’s perspective of their organization and their team. Then the call began and I started to realize, ‘Okay, this is an interview for the job.'”
“So Judy and I sat down as we said, ‘OK, if we’re gonna go back, we need two things. We need to work with really good people. Well, I’ve known [True North Sports & Entertainment chairman] Mark Chipman, [Senior Vice President] Craig Heisinger and [GM] Kevin Cheveldayoff a really long time. I know they’re really really good people, that would be fun to work with.
“The other thing was I wanted to go to a team that had a chance to win. Winnipeg had a bad year last year, and that’s been beaten to death, but I knew the team was better than its record last year and I thought I could come in and help turn things around so we said, ‘OK, let’s take another kick at it.'”
From the outside, Winnipeg has a reputation as a place where players and staff don’t want to go. What were your thoughts on going to a perceived NHL outpost?
“I worked for the Winnipeg Jets for nine years. My daughter Kristen was born here. The city gets a bad reputation but the people of Manitoba are wonderful people. We had a lot of good friends here and we really thoroughly enjoyed living here the first time. We weren’t one bit worried about coming to Winnipeg at all. I mean, the license plates say ‘Friendly Manitoba’ and that’s just right on. The people are wonderful and there’s a very passionate following for the team so I had zero concerns about that.
“When you’re not here, you can form your own opinion, but I can tell you that when we played here, and when we coached here, everyone loved being here. I don’t know what happened between the 80s and now.”
A lot of analysts looked at that team and said, ‘They’re in decline. This is going nowhere.’ What convinced you otherwise; that you might be able to craft something like you’re crafting right now?
“I think what people were building that speculation on was the culture surrounding the team and the bad vibes that came with that. That didn’t scare me at all. I figured I could get in there and change it, to be honest. We got a lot of negative press here about the culture here and the attitudes of the players. That’s part of coaching today so I wasn’t intimidated by that one bit.
What is driving the Jets’ resurgence?
“It’s a good team. It was a better team than it showed last year. We’ve got a world class goalie in Connor Hellebuyck. It starts with that. No matter what the coaching does in the NHL, you’ve got to have a top-tier goalie and Connor gives us that.
“I just remember coming in here prior to last year for a couple of years, and it was a very hard team to play against. I know they lost [Dustin] Byfuglien and [Jacob] Trouba but it was still a tough team to play against. and I knew it was a better team than it showed last year. The base of a good team was here. It was just a matter of getting them back to pulling all in the same direction.
“I had a lot of talks with players over the summer and the immediate thing I found out in talking to the key guys was that it wasn’t nearly as bad as people perceived it to be. It’s one of those things that snowballs, and one little thing happens, and all of a sudden, it becomes a major issue. But when you delve into it, the players were confident and the culture wasn’t nearly as bad as the perception of it. You talk to Josh Morrissey. Like 13 of the players were at his wedding. Those things don’t happen on a team with a bad culture.
“Now you look at it this season, Mark Scheifele has 26 goals. They always told me Blake Wheeler was a slow starter but now he’s playing great. Morrissey and Hellebuyck are having the kinds of years that win guys trophies. Pierre-Luc Dubois has been outstanding at both ends of the ice. He’s a big power forward that’s very hard to play against with and without the puck. You have a world-class player in Kyle Connor. Niki Ehlers can score. The pieces were here. It was just a matter of putting them all together and getting them all on the same page. We’ve been able to do that so far.”
How long will this ride last for Rick Bowness?
“(Chuckles) As long as I continue to enjoy it. What I always told Judy is ‘When I wake up in the morning and I don’t want to go to the rink, then I know I’m gonna retire.’ We haven’t had one of those mornings yet.”
Top photo of Rick Bowness via Getty Images