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In 2006, the Minnesota Wild shocked the hockey establishment by hiring a 24-year-old sports writer to be their director of hockey operations.
|Stan Bowman said he gained a new appreciation for life after his battle against Hodgkin's lymphoma.|
Chris Snow was covering the Boston Red Sox for The Boston Globe at the time, a position that seasoned sports writers would covet like free hotel points. Because of his proximity to the media and the novelty of the situation, the story made national news.
Five years before that, Scotty Bowman's son Stan got a similar job in the Chicago Blackhawks' front office. It elicited barely a whisper in Chicago. Working for the Blackhawks was like being in the hockey witness protection program.
What do Snow and Bowman have in common? Well, they owe their interest in hockey to their fathers. Snow's dad, Bob, wrote about hockey and had Boston Bruins season tickets. Bowman's father, well, he didn't invent hockey, but no one will put you in the penalty box for suggesting he had a big role in advancing it.
Three-plus years ago, then-Wild general manager Doug Risebrough knew Snow from his brief time covering the team during the 2003-04 season and liked that Snow was privy to the statistically enhanced front-office style of Theo Epstein's Red Sox.
Snow, who is working toward his goal of being a hockey general manager, would love to follow Bowman's path. Bowman, just 36 years old in his first year of being the team's general manager, is one of just a handful of NHL GMs who didn't play or coach hockey at a high level beforehand. Unlike, say, football or baseball, most NHL general managers played in the league. Bowman is also the league's youngest GM, three years younger than the Colorado Avalanche's Greg Sherman, who followed a similar career path.
"I don't know [Bowman] at all," Snow said in a phone interview. "But I'd like to get to know him. His education and background are something we have in common, not to mention the type of work he does now. I'm pretty interested to watch what he does in the next six to eight months. They have a tremendous team, and there's going to be some great challenges managing that roster."
Stan Bowman always has been a hockey fan. He didn't really have a choice. He was born in Montreal, where his father coached the Canadiens, then moved to Buffalo at 6 years old and watched his dad coach the Sabres. He and his family would later move to Pittsburgh and Detroit, where Scotty won Stanley Cups with the Penguins and Wings, and watch some great teams play in hockey's modern heyday.
When Bowman started with the Blackhawks, he was still a fan, and yeah, he was frustrated watching a once great team flounder while a once great league nearly collapsed into itself. A league that gave his family everything. So sure, he understood why the United Center used to play before sparse crowds. But looking back now, he knows he was there for the building of what could be the class organization of the entire league.
The roster is pretty well-balanced between players drafted by the organization, traded for and signed as free agents. It's an expensive, talented group, one expected to win a Stanley Cup or at least reach the finals this year.
"There's no shortcut going from a bad team to an elite team," Bowman said during an extensive 30-minute interview in his office. "We did it the right way. The only thing I hearken back to is, if you have to take advantage of drafting players early, you have to make sure you're drafting the right guys, and you have to make sure you're developing those guys. That's the way you build a franchise. It's hard to pluck players from here or there and just become a good team."
And the Blackhawks are a good team. Like most out-of-nowhere successes, this Chicago team took years to mature. And you can't write about Stan Bowman without mentioning Dale Tallon, the man he replaced at the top.
Tallon, the team's general manager until he was fired in July, not long after his team made it to the Western Conference finals, is still largely heralded for guessing correctly and often on high draft picks such as superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and making other deals such as trading for Kris Versteeg. He didn't do it alone, but he was known for his scouting prowess.
Tallon was the kind of GM whom everyone loved, from players to fans to media types. When he was demoted to a special-assistant status, giving him the same title as Scotty Bowman, conspiracy theories abounded about Tallon taking blame for an organizational mistake and Blackhawks president John McDonough pushing him out -- and Scotty Bowman pulling the strings.
And although I don't discount the personality conflict between McDonough, who has all but cleaned house since coming to the team in 2007, and Tallon, what really seems to have happened in Bowman's case is the Blackhawks rewarded a hardworking young executive who by dint of experience and good breeding was bound to be a candidate for other GM openings in the near future.
Bowman said those years of hard work in the front office learning his trade have inured him to any criticism on how he got his job.
"You always have to stand on your own two feet," he said. "Whether you're related to anybody or not. It's going to come down to your performance, your body of work. That's way I look at it. I was never concerned what people think or say."
Tallon has been too classy, too honorable, to say anything bad about the organization that employed him for so many years and still pays him today. Bowman, who has known Tallon for years and years, has nothing but great things to say about him.
"I talked to Dale a couple days ago," Bowman said. "We get along very well. He's a wonderful asset for me, both personally and professionally. He's been first-class, absolutely. He's been very supportive and, I think, looking at his skill, a big asset to the organization."
Was it tough to replace a good friend so publicly?
"Obviously, it was a strange transition in that sense," Bowman said. "I've thought about it since that time. When you take over for somebody, whether it happened this summer or next summer or three summers from now, there's always going to be some moment when you're replacing somebody else. Rarely do changes happen when one person decides to retire and the next person moves up. That's probably a storybook thing."
To satisfy all the conspiracy theorists, Bowman said he talks to his father regularly.
"I talk to him all the time," he said. "I rely on him daily. We talk about hockey in general and our team in particular. He has such a brilliant mind for the game. He sees trends. He sees things on a different scale. You and I could be watching a game with him and see one thing, and he points out things you've never thought of. Those are the types of things I tap into."
While his father was cementing his legacy in Pittsburgh and Hockeytown in the early '90s, Stan moved on to Notre Dame, graduated with degrees in finance and computer applications, and then moved to Chicago, joining the great herd of upper-middle-class climbers who moved to big cities to work as consultants.
Bowman worked as a computer consultant for accounting firm Arthur Andersen for a little more than five years before joining the Hawks. For him, it was the best of both worlds.
"I knew I was never talented enough to play," he said. "I mean, I always played hockey, but I never had the skills to go on. Once I got to college, I wanted to try something different so I didn't start my career in hockey. I wanted experience in the business world in different fields.
"But when it was all said and done, after a couple years of doing that, I realized this is OK, but I don't want to be doing this when I'm 40 years old."
Amazingly enough, he was named GM four years before turning 40 years old. Bowman never wanted to be a coach, so using his business skills to supplement his hockey leanings seems to have been a good choice.
"He does have a different pedigree, which might be the best pedigree out there, in that his dad has been maybe the most successful coach in all of sports," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "So that's a nice background."
But it wasn't as if Bowman's job was first-class flights and VIP suites. For one, he was working for the Bill Wirtz Blackhawks. For another, he was nose-deep in statistics and spreadsheets, doing "little projects" for GM Mike Smith such as projecting which players teams would keep in the pre-salary-cap era. After Smith was fired in 2003, Bowman later worked under Bob Pulford, in his fourth go-round, and Tallon.
"I did a lot of different types of work to start out with," he said. "I did some statistical-type analysis. I supported our scouting group. I came from a business world, so I had that as my skill set. And I had hockey as my background. Once I was here, I kind of evolved each year and started to do a little bit more. I started to do some scouting and some contracts. When I first started out, I was doing more analysis."
Bowman spent four years as a special assistant to the general manager and two as the director of hockey operations. He then moved into a role as the assistant general manager. He was known as being the team's unofficial "capologist." The team got into a bit of a cap problem in the past couple of years, signing big-ticket, cap-heavy free agents such as Cristobal Huet and Brian Campbell. In the spring, the team mailed qualifying offers to its restricted offers late, which drew a grievance from the players' association and cost the team money.
That meant the team had to overpay a few prospective free agents a little more to keep their services, which helped push Tallon out the door and left knowledgeable hockey observers unsure whether the team could keep its nucleus together, with this year's $58.6 million cap not expected to go up and the team adding scoring star Marian Hossa to a long-term deal this past summer.
The results turned out not to be fatal, as the team recently was able to re-sign Kane, Toews and defenseman Duncan Keith, who was drafted in 2002 in what should be considering the first move that made this team a potential powerhouse. Keith signed a cap-friendly 13-year, $72 million deal, while Toews and Kane signed identical five-year, $31.5 million deals.
According to Bowman, signing these three was never in doubt.
"We've been talking internally about this for a while," Bowman said. "You've got to identify the core guys that are critical to your team's success. Once you figure out who those guys are, you've got to keep them. You've got to do whatever it takes.
"So we decided that Toews, Kane and Keith were key components to the Blackhawks. They contributed to turning the franchise around. When you make that decision, you fit in everything else around them, and that's what we've tried to do."
One way the team was able to afford to sign them was that nifty trick of sending down AHL-eligible players Jack Skille and Bryan Bickell to Rockford on off days and calling them back up for games.
Because the NHL's salary cap is measured more or less on a daily basis and Rockford is only 90 miles away, the team can save significant money. Consider this: The NHL minimum salary is $500,000 (Skille makes more), which is about 10 times as much as an AHL salary. An AHL player makes a couple grand a day in the NHL and a couple hundred when he's down in the minors. It adds up, Bowman said.
"The concept is not a new concept," Bowman said. "Obviously, every dollar counts. We knew we were going into the year right up against the salary cap, so you've got to manage that. We planned it this way a couple years ago. We [the Hawks' AHL affiliate] used to be in Norfolk [Va.], and we decided to get closer to here, so we could bring a guy up the morning, have him practice, play the game and send him back after the game in order to save his salary for the day. We're fortunate that we've got them so close and the players can just drive in."
|Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said he relies on his famous father, Scotty, on a daily basis.|
Bowman is learning what a grind it is to be the boss. He travels on 80 percent of the road trips and spends hours and hours on the phone, having quick conversations with his scouts, his minor league guys and other GMs. He tries to leave by 6 p.m. on non-game days to spend time with his wife, Suzanne, and his two young boys, Will and Camden. He likes to read when he has the time (Malcolm Gladwell is a recent favorite) and, in the summer, play golf.
Bowman had a major health scare a few years back when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. It went into remission but reappeared in 2008. At the behest of a famous friend, Wayne Gretzky, he got a stem cell transplant at the Mayo Clinic. His cancer hasn't returned.
Bowman worked hard during his treatments, as his house guest at the time, Kane, attested. Kane, then an 18-year-old rookie, watched Bowman juggle his job responsibilities, his family and his health.
"He's one tough customer," Kane said recently.
"You step back and reflect on the big picture," Bowman said. "Family and what it all means. You take your health for granted when you're in your early 30s. I definitely appreciate things more."
Bowman certainly can appreciate his team, which, after Sunday's shootout win in Detroit, had the most points in the NHL. He still needs to get rid of some salary and possibly pick up some reinforcements for what looks like a long playoff run. Bowman said he likes his team as constituted, and it's hard to blame him. Next season, with a boatload of free agents, might be a different story.
"We've got Plans B, C and D, in addition to Plan A," he said. "We don't know which way to go yet. There are a lot of things that have to happen yet. We're sitting here in January, and we don't know how this year will end. We don't know what players are going to emerge as new core guys."
While Bowman prepares for the future, he's focused on the present.
If the Blackhawks win a Stanley Cup, ending the NHL's longest drought, people in Chicago might have a new name for Scotty Bowman: Stan's dad.Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.