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Hockey

Farewell to Rick Bowness, the Consummate Interim Coach

The now-former Stars coach left a legacy bigger than his old job title. But he never totally outgrew its profile, either.
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In the movie, Rick Bowness wins the Stanley Cup. That’s how the story ends for unlikely, likable protagonists, and no Stars coach embodied those two qualities quite like him.

The latter, in particular. It’s hardly the sum of Bowness’ qualifications, of course. He would not be the last head coach standing from the 1980s, nor would he have coached more games than anyone in NHL history without plenty of hockey chops. But beyond his skills as a coach, Bowness has survived, and thrived, for 42 years behind the bench in no small part because he is a good, decent man in the thoroughly indecent world of professional sports. He is gruff but fair, the sort of ex-player who latches onto a philosophy as amorphous as “coach the way that I would want to be coached” and manages to shape it into something meaningful.

The secret was always that he genuinely cares. His players know it, too. It shone in the day to day—the proverbial open door that Jamie Benn, his captain, insists was indeed open—but it peeked through in little anecdotes, too. For instance, when his players were lonely and isolated in the NHL bubble during Dallas’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, Bowness was the one who conspired to have their families send video messages from home. When former Stars defenseman Stephen Johns struggled through two years of post-concussion symptoms so severe that he contemplated suicide, Bowness helped shield him from rushing back to the ice. And when Johns finally made it back, Bowness was the one who wrapped an arm around him and told him it was OK not to force himself to do more than he could. “I can’t thank him enough for that,” Johns told The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro in 2020. “He cared about me, not just Stephen, the hockey player.” The occasional misstep notwithstanding—the Riley Tufte incident remains a prominent what about? on his résumé—how couldn’t Dallas play hard for a man like that?

So when Jim Montgomery was abruptly dismissed in December 2019, it only followed that Bowness, then 64 years old, would be his interim replacement. The Stars needed someone to respond to, and Bowness is built to steady a rudderless ship—to lead and guide and marshal a group of men in need of stability and direction. Do that without breaking too much tactically, and for a short while, the right man can steer the right team far further than they ought to go on the trade winds of good vibes and little to lose. That’s precisely what Bowness did in 2020 when the Stars came within two games of winning the Cup.

It’s also why the Stars haven’t gotten nearly so close since. After all, few interim coaches succeed once they earn the job long-term. Once they become the status quo instead of the shake-up, they lose the advantage of being the new voice in the room, the one who freshens up stale air. Sheer emotion is no longer enough, not that it’s so easy to tap into once they are the ones running every practice, every meeting, every game. It must be underpinned by something more substantial: the tactical know-how to hang with the very best. Expectations rise accordingly. Lose with someone else’s team, and you’re a victim of the hand you’re dealt. Lose with your own, and it’s time to stake a different card player.

Bowness didn’t exactly lose. Last year’s playoff absence came with more regulation wins than losses despite getting 14 total games from Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov. But he never won big, either, and each game laid more bare the reason why. His Stars just couldn’t score goals, a deficiency that tortured the fan base so much that, depending on the week, the question vacillated between whether Bowness had the chops to do something about it and how much he even wanted to. Whatever the answer, it was bigger than him, yet it was never so vast that Bowness couldn’t improve the Stars’ odds by playing younger and/or more offensively inclined talent or maximizing Miro Heiskanen’s talents by playing him on his strong side, to say nothing of loosening a button or two on his conservative schemes.

None of that happened because interim coaches with Bowness’ NHL tenure are interims for a reason. Few can reinvent themselves, and fewer still do so as sexagenarians. They are meant to do what the title implies: be placeholders, bridge one era to the next. Become historical footnotes.

Bowness, to his credit, transcended that. Brief as it was, he made his own era, and a piece of it will live on forever thanks to one of the most meaningful playoff runs in Dallas history. No one who watched them will forget how Rick Bowness’ Stars delivered hope, joy, and distraction when each was at a premium in September 2020. It was improbable and important, however imperfect the ending wound up being.

In a way, the same could be said about Bowness himself. The rise was so unexpected, and the reasons why inform two and a half seasons that frustrated even during the good times. The Calgary series was Bowness hockey stretched to its absolute limit, and no amount of Jake Oettinger heroics could save the Stars from reckoning with how limited it truly was. Once they lost, something had to change. The head coach became that something.

It’s not the ending Rick Bowness had hoped for. For that matter, it’s not the one we hope good men have. But it’s a genuine ending. There was a finality to his departure, plus a public show of appreciation instead of the quiet reversion to previous duties that interim coaches usually get, presuming they keep their old job at all. That’s much better than most interim coaches get, not that Bowness was ever most interim coaches. He was more than that but also every bit of that: blessed with unusual permanence while cursed with the usual flaws. That’s not what the script calls for, but Bowness left with a legacy. And that will do just fine.  

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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