Bowness does it his way Jets coach knows no other way than to demand accountability from players
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One has never performed on stage. The other never coached a hockey game in his life. But it turns out Rick Bowness and Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, have at least one thing in common.
“I’m going to do it my way,” Bowness said Wednesday during an interesting media session down at Bell MTS Iceplex.
He sure is. And what a breath of fresh air that has brought around here for a club sorely in need of more accountability and structure. Barely a week into training camp and it’s clear the new bench boss of the Winnipeg Jets doesn’t suffer fools, nor is he here to try and pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.
He’s calling them as he sees them, which includes taking some of his biggest stars to task following Tuesday night’s pre-season game for some bad habits that reared their ugly head. Specifically, shift lengths that were far too long, and the ensuing sloppy, slower play that resulted despite a 5-3 victory over Ottawa.
Although Bowness didn’t name names, it’s obvious he was talking about Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers, who were all north of a minute in their average shift length. That may have been acceptable under the old regime, but it’s clearly not going to cut it under his watch.
Naturally, the subject came up again less than 24 hours later following a pair of training camp skates. And Bowness wasn’t backing down on his public criticism.
“What am I supposed to do, pretend it’s not happening? I’m going to tell you what I see happening. The players will hear it first, but I’m not going to pretend it’s not going on,” Bowness explained.
It’s no secret he wasn’t Winnipeg’s first choice this past summer, with Barry Trotz being the original target. But when the Dauphin native elected to take at least a year off from coaching, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff called up the former Jets 1.0 player turned coach who thought he might just coast into retirement after a mutual decision to part ways with Dallas after last year.
“If I’m going to get fired, I’m going to get fired doing it my way. I’m not going to do it anybody else’s way.”
I asked Bowness if the deal included the ability to run things exactly as he wanted, with no handcuffs or limitations from upper management. Not surprisingly, he pulled no punches with his reply.
“If I’m going to get fired, I’m going to get fired doing it my way. I’m not going to do it anybody else’s way,” he said.
“If I get fired because of it, I can live with myself. If I get fired trying to be someone I’m not, I couldn’t live with myself. That would drive me nuts. I’ve been fired a few times. You walk out and it’s, ‘Listen, I did it my way. It didn’t work and it’s time for a change.’ I can live with those things. But to be somebody you’re not, I can’t do that.”
At 67 and with his pedigree, Bowness doesn’t have to worry about ruffling any feathers. Unlike a lot of his colleagues around the league, he’s very much living in the moment and not worried about his next coaching job. Changing a culture and shedding some of those troublesome traits obviously can’t happen overnight. But you can see Bowness slowly but surely putting his stamp on this squad.
The biggest move was stripping Blake Wheeler of the captaincy despite having no heir apparent ready to take over, a move designed to widen the leadership group and give others in the room a chance to spread their wings and have their say.
We also learned that Bowness put out a call for players to return to Winnipeg earlier than usual this off-season to prepare for training camp, which the majority heeded despite being under no contractual obligation to do so.
Another example: Bowness didn’t like what he saw on Tuesday from the non-playing group, who had a messy, disjointed practice. He cracked the whip on Wednesday, and the pace and intensity was noticeable.
“I didn’t like the drills. I hate bad drills, I hate bad practice habits, and you’ve got to address it,” said Bowness. “We talked about it before practice, we need a sharper practice, and we got a sharper practice.”
“I didn’t like the drills. I hate bad drills, I hate bad practice habits, and you’ve got to address it.”
The status quo had to go. And there will be no comfortable, country club atmosphere any longer. Of course, whether that translates on the ice remains to be seen, with the puck dropping for real on Oct. 14. All the messaging in the world won’t amount to much if the players ultimately ignore it.
“Listen, it’s pro sports. Every game’s not a Picasso,” said Bowness. “In any sport. When you see things you don’t like, you address them and stay on top of them. The message from the coaching staff, regardless of the sport or the team, has to be clear and consistent. And you need a buy-in from your players.”
That is especially true for the more established, core members, who were singled out by Bowness as needing to lead by example. Message delivered. And, it appears, message received.
“Bones has been an awesome communicator. I think that’s something that we all really respect from him,” Scheifele said Wednesday. “He’s talking to us each and every day about everything he wants to see and wants to change and what he wants to focus on each and every day, and that’s a huge positive.”
Scheifele admitted to being “a guy that extends a little bit” when it comes to his shift length and that’s something he will be more cognizant of in the future. In fact, Bowness said there was a noticeable improvement between the second and third period, after he raised a little hell during the final intermission inside the room.
“You don’t win taking 50-plus-second shifts. You go back and look at the best playoff teams and you’re buzzin’ for 40, 42. If you get caught out there for a minute, odds are you weren’t working as hard as you could for the full minute, otherwise you wouldn’t be on the ice still,” said forward Mason Appleton.
“So I think that’s something that needs to continue to get better. Not pointing fingers. I think there’s times when I’m stuck on the ice too long, too. That’s a committee thing, and it’s just a mindset of going out there for 40 seconds and I’m going to work as hard as I can, and when the time’s right I’m getting off the ice.”
“He’s right. As veterans we have to be better in a lot of situations. Last year wasn’t good enough.”
Defenceman Nate Schmidt said the Wheeler move “got everybody’s attention across the league, not just ours” and made it clear it would not be business as usual, even if much of the same roster remained intact from the group that missed the playoffs last year.
“One thing I like about Bones is that he’s said it to the guys before he says it to you. We make sure we get our feel for it that way and you’re hearing it first-hand. I have a lot of respect for that,” he said. “He’s right. As veterans we have to be better in a lot of situations. Last year wasn’t good enough.”
No, it certainly wasn’t. But Bowness is hoping that by doing things his way, the hockey team will be singing a much different tune this season.
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.