Few coaches have ever had as strange a tenure behind the bench as Rick Bowness has with the Dallas Stars. From the day he was called upon to become the interim head coach to the season pause and the eventual Stanley Cup Final run, Bowness’ five decades of coaching experience has given him the unique ability to help his team succeed in some of the most bizarre circumstances.
Bowness Journey to Stars Coach
Rick Bowness’ NHL coaching career started way back in Winnipeg in 1984 when he was promoted from the Jets’ AHL Affiliate Sherbrooke Jets to the NHL squad, where he served as an assistant coach until 1987. Perhaps Bowness’ most memorable moment as a coach in Winnipeg came in a game against Calgary when Bowness actually threw a punch at Flames forward Tim Hunter, something that is hard to imagine from the even-keeled coach we see behind the Stars bench today. A youthful Bowness would eventually return to the Jets bench and begin his head coaching career in 1989 before shipping to Boston the following season.
Since breaking into the NHL with Winnipeg in the 80s, Bowness coached six other franchises in the Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators, New York Islanders, Phoenix Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks, and Tampa Bay Lightning, before landing in Dallas. He was added as an assistant on a revamped staff led by Jim Montgomery, who was coming over after having success at the University of Denver, where he led the team to an NCAA Championship in 2017. Montgomery was a good coach for the Stars in his first campaign, getting the team to double overtime of game seven of the second round against the eventual champs in St. Louis, where their season came to a sudden end.
The next year Montgomery’s team got off to a horrendous start, winning just one game in their first nine before correcting the ship and rocketing towards the top of the standings. Montgomery was a winning coach for Dallas, where he went 60-43-10 and was by all accounts an effective leader, which made the news so shocking on Dec. 10, 2019, when the club announced they fired Montgomery, citing professional conduct as the reason for his termination. While the news was unexpected and jarring to fans and players alike, it represented an opportunity for a 65-year-old Rick Bowness, who was getting another chance at the helm as interim head coach.
Bowness took over and led the Stars for just over three months before they skidded out of control, losing their final six regular-season games heading into the COVID-19 pause. Finally, in August, the NHL returned to play in the Edmonton bubble, where after going an underwhelming 1-2 in the round-robin play, the Stars kicked off a historic playoff run. Bowness took the Stars all the way to their first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years, a run that provided some great hockey memories during a trying time around the globe.
In his somber press conference following the Lightning’s game six win which clinched the Stanley Cup, an exhausted Bowness praised his team, saying “we left everything on the ice, and from a coaching perspective that’s all you can ask.” Safe to say Bowness’ first season behind the bench was quite an unexpected one. He earned the dropping of his “interim” title in the offseason.
A Delayed Start
On the heels of a trip to the Stanley Cup final, there was a ton to be optimistic about for Bowness’ squad and the return of hockey to American Airlines Center in Dallas. Unfortunately, the Stars hit another speed bump when they accounted for 17 of the league’s 27 positive COVID-19 tests and were forced to shut down training camp and delay the start of the season. Eventually, on Jan. 22, it came time for puck drop.
In Bowness’ first games without the temporary tag, the Stars looked like the reigning Western Conference champs. Despite the absence of Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop, the Stars shot out of the gates, winning their first four games by a combined score of 19-6, including a 7-0 thrashing of the Nashville Predators. The Stars had 10 of their 19 goals coming with the man advantage, accumulating a ridiculous 56% rating on the powerplay.
Bowness utilized a healthy mix of young blood and hungry veterans to pick up a 4-0-0 record off the bat. Dallas’ two former first-round picks made a nice first impression when Ty Dellandrea scored his first goal against the Detroit Red Wings, and in the same game, Jake Oettinger got his first start and victory as an NHL goaltender. On the flip side, grizzled 36-year-old American Joe Pavelski picked up four tallies in as many games, proving that his Edmonton playoff performance was no fluke.
Things were feeling good in Dallas. With fans back in the building, Bowness’ team took care of business and left town riding the highs of four wins, an undefeated record, and a successful blackout jersey debut. In Raleigh, however, the good feelings came to an abrupt halt.
The Stars got outplayed and suffered a 4-1 beatdown via the Hurricanes elite powerplay and fell in the shootout in the rematch the following night. The first of many post 60 minute heartbreaks.
Starting with the trip in Carolina, the Stars began a lengthy skid where they lost 12 of the next 14 games. Over that span, they got into injury trouble with Roope Hintz bouncing in and out of the lineup and the loss of Alexander Radulov, who will not be returning this year.
Throughout that span, Bowness and the Stars could only muster 2.1 goals per contest and looked decades removed from the dynamite offense that led their Cinderella run a short three months prior. Nothing reinforced that fact more than a late February stop in Tampa Bay, where the reigning champions pounded the Stars by a combined score of 7-0 over two games.
On paper, this was a mismatch and an old-fashioned beatdown courtesy of Bowness’ ex-team, but he didn’t see it the same way. In his postgame, Bowness reasoned that his club was the better 5-on-5 team for most of the game, but that “special teams were a complete disaster” and they “sucked the life right out of our team,” a far cry from the unstoppable 55% success rate that they boasted through the first four tilts of the season. Nonetheless, through the success and the agony, Bowness didn’t change his mentality and didn’t lose the ship.
The Winter Storm and Bench Removal
In mid-February, the entire state of Texas suffered from a terrible winter storm that sidelined the club for nine days. During that span, the team was largely unable to practice and was then thrust into a schedule that includes 43 games in 76 days ending on May 10 in Chicago.
Bowness was not shy about the danger in the schedule, commenting on the fact that it would likely result in injuries to his most-used players. (from ‘Rick Bowness on Dallas Stars’ busy schedule: ‘I see injuries written all over it’, Dallas Morning News, 02/24/2021) Despite that, Bowness turned his attention to the task at hand, as he has done in so many situations throughout his short tenure as coach. “We’ll deal with it the best we can.”
Rolling with the punches has been a theme for the Stars and Bowness this year. Things got even weirder for the coach when he was removed from a game against the Carolina Hurricanes for a false positive COVID-19 test. Bowness was then forced to remain in Raleigh and watch the Stars’ next game from his hotel room before joining the team for their second game against the Blackhawks on April 8 when he and the Stars picked up a much-needed 5-1 victory.
In many ways, this Stars season has been defined by overtime struggles. Bowness’ team leads the NHL in overtime losses with 12 on the year, giving them an overall 5-12 record past 60 minutes. Between Jason Dickinson’s overtime winner against the Red Wings in the opening week of the Stars season and their next post-regulation win, which came in Columbus via Radulov’s shootout goal on March 14, the Stars dropped six straight. Unfortunately, the shootout win in Columbus didn’t represent a turn of fortune in overtime.
The Stars would go on another six-game losing streak in games that required more than three periods of play. Most importantly, the Stars dropped four to the Predators, who they trail by two points in the standings. Three of those games ended in the shootout, while only one was put to bed in the five-minute three-on-three action, coming on a breakaway goal from Eeli Tolvanen off of an egregious Denis Gurianov unforced turnover. Following the loss, Bowness couldn’t quite diagnose the reason for the growing pile of overtime losses, saying, “It’s something different every game.”
As of late, the team has turned it around with wins in their last three overtime games, thanks mostly to the stellar play of Jamie Benn at center. Although it is nice to get back into the win column past 60 minutes, a considerable amount of damage has already been done, specifically with the aforementioned losses to Nashville. Despite that fact, the Stars remain within striking distance of the Predators.
The Road Ahead
It seems that adversity has followed Bowness and the Stars wherever he takes them, so the final seven games of the season are sure to offer up some form of drama. The road ahead is an uphill one for the Stars, coming off a shutout defeat in Tampa Bay and heading to Nashville for the most important tilt of the season. The game is the second stop in a seven-game road trip to conclude the season, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Bowness’ tenure, it’s that we should never count this team out.
Peter is a Dallas Stars writer at THW. He grew up playing hockey in Los Angeles and Dallas and has followed the Stars closely for over a decade. He currently studies psychology at Stanford University and plays on the hockey team. You can find more of his work at MuffinHockey.com and weekly NHL recaps at the Stanford Daily Newspaper. To make article requests or ask questions, contact him on twitter @MuffinHockey.