Bowman, Irvin trade stories, share laughs from 66 years of friendship

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“And then Dick pulled me into the Montreal Canadiens dressing room for 10 minutes before I got out the back door to my car,” Bowman said. “We had no idea what would be going on outside.”

The friendship of Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history, and Dick Irvin Jr., the iconic, retired television and radio voice of the Canadiens, dates to the 1950s.

This rich, happy relationship is a riot, literally and figuratively.

Video: Bowman, Trudeau take in 1979 Stanley Cup victory

Hockey Night in Canada’s Dick Irvin Jr. interviews coach Scotty Bowman on May 21, 1979 following the Montreal Canadiens’ fourth consecutive Stanley Cup championship. It was Bowman’s fifth and final Cup with Montreal.

 

Their paths had crossed before March 17, 1955 — neither remembers those details — but their bond formed that night, amid the infamous Richard Riot sparked by the suspension the day before of Canadiens legend Maurice “Rocket” Richard by NHL president Clarence Campbell.

During a two-hour lunch Saturday in the suburbs of Montreal, over Bowman’s salad and Irvin’s grilled cheese sandwich, two old friends who hadn’t seen each other in perhaps a decade finished one another’s sentences, adding detail and frills to their tales while bouncing between decades to recall moments of two remarkable lives in and beyond hockey.

Their gentle tide of memories quickly swelled to a tidal wave, a stream of consciousness washing together the names of virtually unknown players with some of the greatest legends in NHL history. The conversation would jump to Montreal radio of their day and an open-line sports quiz show hosted by the late Danny Gallivan, Irvin’s Canadiens broadcast partner for 17 years, to Bowman walking 18 holes of historic golf with Tiger Woods.

We were still in the parking lot, on our way into lunch, when Bowman, who will turn 88 on Sept. 18, had a question.

Scotty Bowman behind the Montreal Forum bench of the Canadiens during the 1970s.

 

“Dick, you remember Bobby Carragher?” Bowman asked out of the blue.

Even if he’d not heard the name in a half-century, it was hardly surprising that the 89-year-old Irvin, like Bowman a hockey encyclopedia, recalled the little forward who played five Quebec senior-league seasons and starred in a Friday-night Montreal industrial league during the 1940s.

Working for a paint company by day, Bowman was coaching Junior B hockey in Montreal in March 1955, a 21-year-old hustling up to prime south-end Forum standing room for Canadiens games that cost him 50 cents with his arena pass. Irvin was a 23-year-old oil-company clerk who in the press box was keeping game statistics for his father, Dick Sr., in his last of 15 seasons as Canadiens coach. Bowman had been attending Canadiens practices, absorbing Irvin Sr.’s drills for use with his junior team.

The coach’s son pulled Bowman into the Canadiens dressing room through a haze of tear-gas smoke and the confusion of an arena being evacuated by police. Montreal had forfeited the game to the Detroit Red Wings after one period, the riot and the so-called Quiet Revolution that followed about to forever change the political landscape of Quebec.

Neither young man knew that come the 1970s, Bowman would be in that same dressing room, coaching the Canadiens to five Stanley Cup championships, four of them consecutively, while Irvin would be in the broadcast booth, calling the action.

Dick Irvin Jr. and his daughter, Nancy, with Scotty Bowman in October 2008 at the Montreal Canadiens’ unveiling of a Builders Row display saluting former coach Dick Irvin Sr.

 

Irvin was embarrassed that the first recognition from fellow diners Saturday was for himself, someone eager to remind him that he’s still celebrated for the nine-hole club record he shot in the 1980s at a nearby golf course.

“Of course, you know Mr. Bowman,” Irvin said, quickly changing the subject, the diner’s knees buckling.

Bowman was in Montreal for a few days, having driven six hours with his wife, Suella, from their summer home near Buffalo. The visit was for a Sept. 10 ceremony at the historic Verdun Auditorium, the 3,500-seat main rink in the refurbished two-sheet building in Montreal that was taking his name.

He was profoundly moved by the honor, having grown up a few streets from this address, his father, Jack, having worked on the auditorium’s construction as a laborer in the late 1930s.

Bowman was joined at the ribbon cutting by Denis Savard, the Verdun-raised Hockey Hall of Fame center for whom the second rink in the 82-year-old arena had already been named.

Beginning next year, the renovated facility will be home to the high-performance center of the Canadian national women’s program.

Scotty Bowman with the Montreal Canadiens during the 1970s, and Dick Irvin Jr. on the set of CFCF-TV Sports, freshly hired in 1961.

 

Bowman won his first hockey trophy in the Verdun Auditorium as a member of the city’s 1948 Quebec midget-class championship team, skating with future NHL players Don Marshall and Gordon “Bucky” Hollingworth.

Two years later, it was here that Bowman scored his first goal for the Junior A Montreal Junior Canadiens as a 16-year-old Junior B call-up.

“A tap-in, almost an empty-net goal, on a pass from Dickie Moore,” he recalled brightly, having been set up by the future NHL legend whom he’d talk out of retirement to play for his expansion St. Louis Blues in 1967-68.

His own playing career cut short by injury, Bowman turned in the mid-1950s to scouting, then coaching. He would become the most successful coach in NHL history, winning a record 1,244 times in his 2,141 regular-season games between 1967-68 and 2001-02, with 223 victories in 353 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Bowman won the Stanley Cup five times with the Canadiens, in 1973 and 1976-79, in 1992 with the Pittsburgh Penguins and in 1997, 1998 and 2002 with the Red Wings. He had five more championships in various capacities with the Penguins (1991), Red Wings (1998) and Chicago Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015).

Bowman’s roots are planted in Verdun, and the son of Scottish immigrants remains fiercely proud of his hometown.

Scotty Bowman, then coach of the St. Louis Blues, is interviewed by Dick Irvin Jr. in the late 1960s.

 

“I think back to my youth in Verdun, the players I looked up to,” he said. “Among the first was (1950s Canadiens defenseman) Dollard St. Laurent. With my father in 1954, I bought my first car from Dollard, who worked in the summertime as a salesman at a local dealership. Having my name on the arena now is a big honor. The rink has never looked better, and with the beautiful annex there’ll be a lot of ice for kids coming up in Verdun.”

Irvin, of course, comes from champion hockey stock. His father, Dick Sr., was the first captain of the Chicago Black Hawks, then found much greater fame as a coach, winning the Stanley Cup four times, with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1932, and with the Canadiens in 1944, 1946 and 1953.

The coach’s wife and two children joined him in Montreal from Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1951, Irvin Jr. attending McGill University and eventually finding his way to work as an oil-company clerk before joining Montreal’s CTV affiliate in 1961. Working as CFCF-TV’s sports director, on radio and on “Hockey Night in Canada” telecasts, he would be in the house for the final game of 26 Stanley Cup championships through his retirement in 1999.

The author of six hockey books, his most recent an autobiography published in 2001, Irvin refers to Bowman as “one of a kind,” joking that he often reminds his friend that he’s his second all-time favorite coach, beyond family ties.

Scotty Bowman with legendary Montreal Canadiens captain Yvan Cournoyer during the 2019 Hockey 911 event to benefit the Montreal General Hospital Foundation.

 

In 2019, Bowman’s life was explored in the biography “Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other” written by Ken Dryden, the legendary goalie of the 1970s Canadiens dynasty.

He remains the greatest in-game coach Irvin has seen, with an unmatched skill of making adjustments and shuffling his lines on the fly. It is almost uniformly believed that Bowman is the greatest bench coach ever.

Irvin and Bowman worked together in the broadcast booth over the years on a number of occasions, and during the coach’s last three seasons in Montreal, 1976-79, the final three of four consecutive championships, he was featured in Irvin’s five-minute pre-game radio segment.

“What do you ask a coach who never loses?” Irvin asked. “Scotty bailed me out all the time. No matter who they were playing, or how long an unbeaten streak his team was on, he always came up with a fresh angle. He obviously was able to do the same thing with his players.”

Irvin is happy to relate to Bowman a favorite story that has nothing to do with coaching, but rather the final 18 holes of the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. It was there that Bowman served as one of two USGA walking scorers for Tiger Woods, who would win the 100th edition of the tournament by a record-setting 15 strokes, and runner-up Ernie Els.

Scotty Bowman behind the bench of the Montreal Canadiens, with whom he won the Stanley Cup five times during the 1970s, including four consecutively between 1976-79.

 

Bowman and Woods had met at an awards show a year earlier, the golfer admitting during their amiable chat that he was more a fan of basketball than hockey. In the scoring trailer after the final round at Pebble Beach, Woods and Els verifying their scorecards, the champion turned to see Bowman sitting a few feet from him.

“Scotty Bowman. What are you doing here?” Woods said, so focused over 18 holes that he never saw Bowman walking almost step for step with him.

“Scotty phoned a few days later to share every single detail with me,” Irvin said, laughing. “I told him, ‘Scotty, I’ve been with you for six of your eight Stanley Cups (to that point) and I’ve never heard you this excited.'”

Two hours after the mention of Bobby Carragher, the friends were back in the parking lot, walking to their cars, Bowman off to pick up his wife, Irvin headed home. They were still spinning yarns, recalling names and events, and said they’d soon be in touch again by phone, which they’ve done regularly without fail for decades.

“I always got good standing room in the Forum in the ’50s,” Bowman recalled of the building where this special friendship began. “I knew what time to get to which door.”

Then, with a laugh: “And Dick, I knew some of the ushers.”

Photos: Dave Stubbs; Getty Images; Dick Irvin Jr.; Montreal General Hospital Foundation
Hockey Night in Canada video courtesy archivist Paul Patskou

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