In news that I’m happy to be able to break here first, Canada has successfully defended its gold medal in men’s Olympic hockey yesterday. Teemu Selanne was declared the tournament’s most valuable player, which is nice and certainly well-deserved for the
gritty veteran [update: have just learned the IOC licences the rights to the adjective gritty in this market for the duration of the Olympics].
Personally, I would have given it to Scotty Bowman. Granted, I realize he’s not technically a player. Or involved in these Olympics in any way to the best of my knowledge. In fact, it’s entirely possible I haven’t thought this through completely. But you’ve come this far, so why not hear me out?
The team that Canada put on the ice in Sochi is quite possibly the most dominant international squad ever assembled. Certainly, the semi-final and final games must go down as two of the most flawlessly played hockey games by any team, in any context, ever. The back-to-back gold medals there and in Vancouver are arguably the international equivalent of a hockey dynasty, and I would contend that the road to that dominance begins with Bowman, the 13-time Stanley Cup winner. (That’s like three or four more than you thought it was, isn’t it? Go back and look at the teams he has been involved with. From the Lafleur Canadiens, to the Lemieux Penguins, to the Yzerman Red Wings and the Toews Blackhawks, Bowman has had a hand in virtually every great hockey team since he started coaching in the NHL nearly 50 years ago.)
It is no accident that the two key figures associated with selecting and coaching the team in 2010 and again in 2014 have strong ties to the Detroit Redwings, the site of Bowman’s second great dynasty: Steve Yzerman, and Mike Babcock. Yzerman, who played under under Bowman for a decade, and Babcock, who followed Bowman in his coaching duties, while the latter was still involved in as a consultant with a team. Both obviously bring their considerable gifts to the job, and undoubtedly have their own ways of evaluating and motivating talent; at the same time, both also bring with them the experience of working with Mr. Bowman.
This is how Jim Kelley of Sports Illustrated summed up Bowman and his approach to the game in a character sketch form a few years back: “his lasting legacy to both teams and to hockey was his ability to get all the players to buy into a system that put the team ahead of individual goals. His players worked just as hard to prevent a goal as they did to scoring one.” Sound familiar?
Ken Dryden’s immortal hockey book, The Game (seriously, if you consider yourself a true student of the game and haven’t read it yet, you have two choices: go find a copy, or just give up this tired charade) gives further insight into what that system looks like. “Not long ago, I [Dryden] asked him [Bowman] his most important job as coach. He sat quiet for a moment, brow unfurrowed and thinking, then said simply, ‘To get the right players on the ice.'” Later, Dryden expands on the point, saying suggesting that the “system” isn’t a system at all. “No one has ever heard of a ‘Bowman system’…. Bowman’s teams are different. Immensely talented, immensely varied, it is a team literally good enough to play, and win, any style of game. For it, a system would be too confining, robbing the team of its unique feature—its flexibility…. He believes that while he can set a constructive tone for the team, and can prepare these players physically and tactically, reminding them from time to time to their annoyance that they are not playing as they can, ultimately what drives them is them (pp. 46-48).”
Dryden continues with what I expects comes as close as anything ever written to a formula for guaranteeing elite performance:
“He knows that we are strong, and are weak; that we can be selfish and lazy, that we will always look for the easy way out, and when we find it, that we will use it. He knows that each of us comes with a stable of excuses, “crutches” he calls them, ready to use whenever we need them. The team with the fewest crutches will win, Bowman believes. So he inserts himself into our minds, and anticipates these crutches—practice times, travel schedule, hotel, the menu for our team meal—then systematically kicks them away, leaving us with no way out if we lose. And when we don’t lose, we get our revenge, we pretend that we did it ourselves. We want him to have no part of it; and he lets us (p. 49).”
I could go on, but you get the point. Coaching and managing supremely gifted players is as challenging in its own way as coaxing the most out of players of limited ability. Mike Babcock and Steve Yzerman have found a way to do just that. I think it’s fair to say that they learned many of those skills from the master. So here’s to you Mr. Bowman. A grateful nation thanks you.