EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) - Two nights after the Dallas Stars advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, their coaching staff was seated at a table for dinner in the NHL bubble right next to their counterparts from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper got to chat with former assistant Rick Bowness, who has the Stars in the final after taking over the head job on an interim basis in December.
“It was good to see him, and I congratulated him,” Cooper said. “We hadn’t clinched yet, so it was a little different situation. I could tell that obviously he was in a good spot.”
When Tampa Bay did clinch the Eastern Conference championship to join Dallas, it set up the first final in league history with a coach facing a former assistant, according to the NHL Coaches’ Association. Cooper and Bowness spent five years behind the same bench and in the same meeting rooms in Tampa Bay.
Now they are meeting for the championship after parting ways in 2018.
“We got the team back in the playoffs after they had missed it, we went to three conference finals, we went to the finals in 2015, so they were five great years,” Bowness said Friday ahead of Game 1 on Saturday night. “But as a coach, listen, there comes a point where you know it’s time to move on and I was ready to move on. There was a split that was good for both of us.
“I was ready to move on, they were ready to move on from me, so no hard feelings. That’s hockey. I was ready to move on, they were ready to move on, so it worked out great for both of us.”
Cooper and Bowness almost won it all in 2015, but the Lightning fell two victories short of the title against Chicago as injuries ravaged their roster. They also led 3-2 in the conference finals in 2016 and 2018, losing each time in seven games.
The 2018 defeat to the eventual champion Washington Capitals led the team to announce Bowness and fellow assistant Brad Lauer wouldn’t be back. Then-general manager Steve Yzerman said Tampa Bay’s defense, which Bowness was in charge of, wasn’t “quite good enough.”
There was a mutual feeling the partnership between Cooper and Bowness that dated to 2013 shouldn’t continue.
“We spent half a decade together and we had some pretty good runs, especially the one in 2015 and Bonesy was a big part of it,” Cooper said. “And then eventually you part ways. It was amicable. In this league, as you see, coaches change teams all the time and sometimes that’s needed for a fresh start and probably for both of us that was needed.”
Cooper hired Bowness heading into his first full season as an NHL head coach, looking for someone who could show him the ropes. Bowness had held some kind of coaching job in the league all but one season since 1991, seven years before Cooper diverted from his law career to start coaching high school hockey.
“I learned so much from him just about how the league works and how to have success in this league,” said the 53-year-old Cooper, who is 12 years younger than his counterpart. “I’m probably not sitting here today without a lot of the help of Rick Bowness.”
Many Lightning players feel the same way. Victor Hedman has credited Bowness for helping his career progression as a defensemen, and even forwards still around from 2013-2018 enjoyed the calming presence he brought.
“A guy with tons of experience, so much knowledge, such a passion for the game,” center Brayden Point said. “He was awesome. He was super good to me, and I think if you ask anybody that’s ever played for him, they’d say the same thing.”
That’s a lot of players: more than 60 in this NHL postseason alone, including at least one on 18 of the 24 teams that participated.
Bowness is in the final for the third time after helping the Vancouver Canucks get one win away from the Cup in 2011. It’s his first time here as a head coach, and he has the opportunity to be the second consecutive interim replacement to win it all after Craig Berube’s St. Louis Blues.
Bowness and the team have agreed to sit down after the season is over to discuss his future. General manager Jim Nill said Bowness has “definitely has earned the right to come back as the coach” if he wants the full-time gig.
Just like that’s not Bowness’ current focus, neither is the coincidence of facing his former boss and team in the final.
“It’s not weird at all,” Bowness said. “You roll with it, man. It doesn’t bother us at all. I was ready to go. You move on in life. So, it ends up being Tampa. If it was the Islanders, it was the Islanders. We were taking the same approach regardless.”
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