EDMONTON | Thirty-five years virtually continuously behind an NHL bench. In terms of age, Rick Bowness is not the oldest hockey man in office, but in terms of longevity, the Stars coach tops the list. To say that this adventure began in Sherbrooke, in the fall of 1982, with the Jets of the American League.
“I was the Reggie Dunlop on this team,” Bowness told the author of this line, hours before his fourth game between his Stars and the Lightning in Edmonton.
A marginal player in the NHL after all, the New Brunswicker had a clause in his contract with the Winnipeg Jets, stipulating that the day he passed behind the bench, he would see his salary be adjusted accordingly. What he did not know when signing this agreement was that, two seasons later, he would become the player-coach of the school team for this concession.
“It farted a bit in my face because it happened a lot earlier than expected,” said the 65-year-old, with a burst of laughter.
It was Franco-Ontarian Ron Racette that the management of the Sherbrooke Jets had entrusted the task of leading this first season. Sadly, Racette had to have a brain tumor removed in July, leaving the team without a coach.
Coach, even in punishment
As an alternative, management turned to Bowness fresh off from the Jets camp.
“I already knew I wanted to be a coach, so I accepted without hesitation. It was quite an experience. A lot of stuff has happened this season, but I've learned a lot. ”
A lot of stuff, but few victories as evidenced by the 22-54-4 record of the team, good for the last place, by far, of the circuit.
“It was our first year in the American League. We were coming from the Central League (Tulsa). We shouldn't even have been there. We did not even have enough players from our organization, ”he said still incredulous 37 years later. Bowness still laughs today when he recalls some wacky episodes from that season.
“Usually when a player comes back to the bench, he sits down. There, I had to stand and walk behind the bench, ”he said.
“Our penalty bench was next to that of the players. So I coached even when I was in punishment, he continued. Sometimes the ref would scream to let me know that I was not allowed to do this. I then asked him to show me where it was written in the rule book. ”
Driven into retirement
The more the season progressed, the more it became evident that the Sherbrooke Jets would not make the playoffs. Faced with this fact, Bowness decided to put away his player equipment and settle for a jacket for the last 15 games of the season.
In the following campaign, with Racette back to health, Bowness settled for the role of assistant player-coach. The experience lasted 21 matches, the time that Tom Watt was fired by the big club, in November 1983.
The Jets then asked Bowness to retire and support Barry Long, the new head coach, behind the bench for the Winnipeg Jets.
” I accepted. I was only 28 years old. I told myself that I was still young and that, if that didn't work out, I would go back and play a few more years in the minors. ”
In the end, he never returned.