Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other

Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other



The Pequod Review:

Ken Dryden's biography of the legendary NHL coach Scotty Bowman has a unique structure. Rather than profiling Bowman's life in standard chronological fashion, Dryden instead asked Bowman to pick eight of the greatest NHL teams of all time and provide his coaching analysis of each team. As Dryden would later explain it:

I think that part of the reason why there hasn't been a book really about Scotty before is that usually sports books, and books from coaches, are about stories... and Scotty doesn't experience in stories. He doesn't really think in stories. He's too practical. He's a coach. So instead of focusing on what he's less comfortable with, put him back into a place where he is most comfortable. Make him a coach.

This format allows Bowman to focus on the teams themselves, and to show how and why they were successful. He has some unique insights, especially as it relates to the two teams (out of the eight) that he himself coached — the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens and the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings. In his chapter on the Red Wings, he describes how he changed the playing style of the team's captain to focus more on defense:

After the Wings lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1994, Scotty sat down with Steve Yzerman, his captain. "I said to him, 'You've got to play a lot differently if this team is going to win." For Scotty, everything had become clear. "The team was good offensively, but really weak defensively, and when it got into the playoffs it didn't perform. Yzerman had been there since '83. He had been captain for a long time. One year he had scored 65 goals, another he had 62. The year before I got there he had 58. But they still couldn't do anything in the playoffs. He wasn't playing a two-way game at all."

His meeting with Yzerman was a big risk, but as always, so absorbed in the team that personal feeling often didn't occur to him, Scotty may not have even realized it. He knew that, deep down, deeper even than stardom and money, a player wants to win. He knew that because he knew that about himself, and he knew that even the pain of being "called out" and embarrassed is nothing like the pain of losing. He knew that Yzerman wanted to win. He knew that Yzerman couldn't win playing this way, or with the team playing this way. Still, not every player can see past a kick in the guy to the prize on the other side...

Hearing Scotty's words, Yzerman might have sulked, or he might have turned against Scotty and fought back, and though Devellano and Holland had no chance in taking Scotty on, Yzerman did. He was the guy who had saved the franchise. It wasn't Ilitch giving away cars at games that had started to fill the acres of empty seats at "The Joe." It was Yzerman, and Ilitch knew that. If Yzerman wanted to, he could play the media too. Scotty was never any good at that. Yzerman could turn the fans passionately and angrily against Scotty. It wouldn't have been that hard. 

But Yzerman relented; his scoring would plummet and the Wings would go on to win three Stanley Cups in the next eight years.

Scotty is full of a lot of interesting anecdotes like this one. Dryden and Bowman don't always go deep enough — in some ways, I would have preferred him picking one team and illustrating Bowman's points in greater detail, with play diagrams, statistics, and key moments from specific games. For this reason, Scotty doesn't come close to matching Dryden's earlier masterpiece The Game (1983). But it's another well-written and compelling book about a great coaching mind.