Bowness jumps into deep end Make no Bones about it, new Jets coach might have to work miracles
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His official title is head coach. But Rick Bowness is going to have to wear a few other hats with the Winnipeg Jets given the current state of affairs.
Teacher. Psychologist. Motivational speaker. Public relations guru. Firefighter. Some might even go so far as to suggest miracle worker.
Yes, it’s safe to say the 67-year-old hockey lifer known as “Bones” has no shortage of challenges as he begins his newest adventure, tasked with leading a talented but deeply flawed squad out of the wilderness. Bowness might want to watch his step, considering the number of hot spots still smouldering around here.
“This is a very good hockey club. For whatever reason it lost its way last year,” Bowness said Monday at his introductory news conference at Canada Life Centre.
After getting to the Western Conference Final in 2018, the Jets have been heading in the wrong direction ever since. They’ve missed the playoffs two out of the last three years, their well-respected head coach (Paul Maurice) quit in the middle of the season, and the likes of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Pierre-Luc Dubois could all soon be on the move.
Off the ice, the news isn’t any better. The club failed to sell out a single game last year, and fan anger threatened to turn to apathy. It didn’t help matters when their prime coaching target, Dauphin’s Barry Trotz, decided he’d rather sit the upcoming season out rather than work in his own backyard.
Now the monumental task turns to Bowness, who appears to be walking into this with his eyes wide open. Case in point, a rather damning comparison he shared about how tough the Jets were to play against just a couple years ago versus the version he saw last year.
“There was something missing. You could feel it and you could see it,” he said.
“There was something missing. You could feel it and you could see it.” – Rick Bowness
At the top of the list has to be Scheifele, the first-ever Jets 2.0 draft pick whose play sagged noticeably last year and whose words at the end of the campaign suggested a frustrated star who wanted a one-way ticket out of town.
“I’m kind of aware. We talked about that,” said Bowness. It’s noteworthy that the 29-year-old centre was among the first players he spoke to after accepting the job offer this past weekend.
“I was very encouraged after talking to him,” he said.
“He’s excited about next year. I think he’s one of the guys that knows the team didn’t achieve the success that they wanted. He was very enthusiastic and looking forward to training camp. Honestly, when I hung up from him I was very encouraged. And I know he’s a great player and he’s a huge part of any success this team is going to have. And you talk about buy-in, it just sounded to me, just with the tone of his voice and the words, that he’s in. And he’s all-in.”
That would suggest the Jets are going to try to make it work with Scheifele, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent in two years and would fetch a hefty return on the trade market. They’re clearly counting on Bowness, who has a reputation as a terrific communicator who gets his teams to play responsibly in their own end — most recently during the past three years in Dallas where the Stars were one of the NHL’s stingiest outfits.
As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. And there were far too many nights last year where the likes of Scheifele didn’t seem very interested in that kind of work. It led to plenty of public pouting and even finger-pointing from players, with the likes of Dubois, Nikolaj Ehlers and Paul Stastny lobbing verbal grenades.
“So that’s when I say the team kind of lost its way a little bit, it all starts there,” Bowness said of the frustration seeping out of the dressing room and becoming a five-alarm inferno.
“The Xs and Os of our game don’t work if there’s issues, that they’re not being held accountable to each other and they’re not all on the same page.” – Rick Bowness
“The Xs and Os of our game don’t work if there’s issues, that they’re not being held accountable to each other and they’re not all on the same page. You’ve got to fix those issues, off-ice, and that’s what I talked with (general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff) about right away. All I can tell you from what I’ve seen from the outside is the way the team played was totally different from two years (ago), and it had nothing to do with the Xs and Os. It was the competitiveness. Just in talking to the players I’m aware of more, now, of what went on. And we’re going to address those issues, which I’ve already started to do. And we’re going to correct them.”
Bowness said he’s not afraid to go “old-school” and use punitive measures to send messages when the situation warrants it. There will be no country club atmosphere, he insisted. Cheveldayoff said based on what he heard privately at those exit meetings last spring, someone like Bowness is sorely needed.
There’s no question True North is trying to tap into Bowness’ easy-going demeanour and likeability to try to sell the fan-base on the move. There he was on Monday doing all kinds of additional radio, television and podcast interviews, recording videos for the club’s social media channels. The team even showed Cheveldayoff embracing him at the airport Sunday night on the traditional “hug rug.”
What isn’t as clear is how much different the current roster might look by opening night on Oct. 11, with plenty of trade winds swirling. Bowness believes a strong foundation is already in place, along with a healthy dose of incentive in addition to his fresh voice and the clean slate he’ll bring with him.
“Myself, my coaching staff, when we get it all together, we’re going to work very closely with ownership, with management, everyone associated with this organization, and we’re going to get it back on the right track and get this team back into the playoffs.”
Easier said than done, and actions ultimately speak louder than words. But if Bowness can accomplish the various tasks, he might be able to add another label to his resumé, one that has eluded him his entire career: Champion.
He just might want to keep a compass, along with a firehose, handy.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.