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Lightning's Rick Bowness nears rare 2,000-game milestone

Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness on the bench with his team during a recent game against the Detroit Red Wings. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness on the bench with his team during a recent game against the Detroit Red Wings. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Feb. 7, 2015

TAMPA — For Rick Bowness' family, the countdown began a few weeks ago.

With the Lightning associate coach set to spend his 2,000th career game behind the bench tonight against the Kings — a feat believed to be achieved only by Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman — his three kids reminded him of the milestone through text messages.

"Dad, 1,995" … "Dad, 1,999."

That was fitting because it was the voice of his oldest son, Ricky, chiming in from the backseat 20 years ago that kept him from quitting the game he loves.

It was around midnight on snowy New Year's Eve 1995 and Bowness, recently fired as Senators head coach, was driving his family in his silver BMW 750 through upstate New York toward his next job as an assistant with the Islanders.

When you're a grinder like Bowness, moving becomes second nature. The former wing had been bought, sold, called up and sent down as a player in parts of six NHL seasons, and now he was fired for the second time as a coach. Time to pack up their lives. Again.

"I looked at my wife, Judy, and said, 'Oh, my God, what are we doing to our kids?' " Bowness said. "Ricky, who was in the backseat, said, 'Don't worry, Dad, we're a hockey family.'

"So we kept driving."

They certainly did. The whole family will be at Amalie Arena tonight for Bowness' big night: sons Ricky, 34, a sports information director at the University of Denver, and Ryan, 31, a scout for the Jets; daughter Kristen, 28, a physical education teacher in Phoenix, and, of course, Judy, his high school sweetheart and wife of 37 years. Bowness said there's no way he'd be where he is without her.

"Every day in this league is a great day. I never take it for granted, probably because I wasn't a very good player," said Bowness, 60, who had 18 goals (55 points) in 173 NHL games as a player and compiled a coaching record of 123-289-48. "Forty years in pro hockey is the furthest from anything I could ever dream up."

Bowness, in charge of the Lightning defense, has been the head coach for the Jets (1988-89), Bruins (1991-92), Senators (1992-96), Islanders (1996-98) and Coyotes (2003-04). He has coached Ray Bourque, Randy Carlyle, Adam Oates and Steven Stamkos. He has worked alongside the "Great One," Wayne Gretzky.

"There's nothing he hasn't seen," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said.

Except one thing. What drives Bowness, besides his passion for the game — "He eats, sleeps, breaths and drinks it," Judy said — is his burning desire to win a Stanley Cup. He came close as an assistant in Vancouver, losing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2011.

If he's never a head coach again, that's fine, as long as he can hold hockey's holy grail.

"That's my dream," he said. "I don't have (a Cup win). So I'm going to keep going."

•••

Hockey is in Bowness' genes.

His late father, Bob, signed with the Canadiens. Rick heard stories about his dad going to camp with Jean Beliveau, getting one shift with Maurice "Rocket" Richard.

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Unlike his father, Rick did make the NHL. But from the beginning, knew he'd have an uphill climb. A 100-point center in juniors, Bowness was a second-round draft pick of the Atlanta Flames in 1975. He got a wakeup call from coach Fred Creighton.

"He said, 'You don't skate really well. We'll put you on the wing,' " Bowness said. "And he was right, I didn't."

It was a fight for survival, and Bowness wasn't afraid to drop his gloves. In one game in the minors, he broke a knuckle tendon in a fight (to this day, he can't keep the middle and index finger apart). The next game, Bowness squeezed his swollen hand into his glove and scored a hat trick.

During a CHL championship series with Tulsa, he turned the series around by knocking down Dallas toughman Dave Logan with one punch.

"I got lucky," Bowness said.

In Bowness' NHL debut, against the "Broad Street Bullies" Flyers, he fought Dave Schultz on his first shift.

"In that era, you had to show you were willing to fight unless you were elite players like Mike Bossy," Bowness said. "No-name grinders like me, you had to try."

•••

Bowness said he got into coaching to stay in the game.

He started as a player-coach of the Jets' AHL team in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in the 1982-83 season.

"It was so funny," Judy said. "He'd get a penalty and be standing up in the box coaching. The ref would tell Rick, 'You can't coach from the box.' He said, 'Well, show me where you say in the rule book I can't.' It looked ridiculous, but he did it."

Bowness met Judy at age 16. Their first date was a movie (neither can remember what it was). They spent their early years apart, with Bowness playing, and they wrote letters to each other every day.

"I still have them," Judy said.

Judy said all the moving was hard but it was a good life lesson for their kids. Plus, "we didn't know anything different. It was our life."

The first time Bowness was fired was in Boston in 1992. Despite dealing with 55 player transactions and spending most of the season with stars Bourque and Cam Neely hurt, Bowness led the Bruins to the conference final, having swept the Canadiens for the first time in team history. Boston lost to Mario Lemieux and the Penguins — who went on to win their second straight Cup — and then Bowness lost his job. The Bruins wanted Brian Sutter.

"I'm going home thinking I'm going to get (a contract) extension," he quipped.

•••

After seven seasons as an assistant in Vancouver, Bowness was looking for a job again in 2013.

He had four options, including joining good friend Alain Vigneault with the Rangers.

"He's never been without a contract in 40 years," Judy said. "That's amazing."

The Lightning was interested, hoping for a veteran coach to pair with coach Jon Cooper, who was set to start his first full NHL season. Bowness said he had to find out who Cooper was on the Internet. "Never heard of him."

But Bowness heard from scouts that the Lightning was a team on the rise, with a nucleus of young talent, a great general manager in Steve Yzerman and a great owner in Jeff Vinik. Plus, Bowness loves working with young players.

"They keep me young," he said, smiling.

Defenseman Jason Garrison said Bowness brings positive energy every day. "Only a few days a year you might see a bad day from 'Bones,' " he said.

Cooper said Bowness has been an invaluable resource, from helping him navigate through NHL buildings to adjusting to the waves of emotions from wining and losing.

Cooper called Bowness' 2,000 games a remarkable feat, which speaks to his character.

"Good things happen to good people," Cooper said. "And that's what's happened to Rick."

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.