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What Triggered ’92 Penguins Cup & ’93 Failure: A Chat w/ Scotty Bowman

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Pittsburgh Penguins Scotty Bowman
Scotty Bowman: NHL: JUN 30 2013 Entry Draft

The 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins won their second straight Stanley Cup. It’s revered in Penguins history as the first of back-to-back championships and a team stuffed with as many Hall of Famers as the dynastic Edmonton Oilers or New York Islanders before them. Memories of the Penguins 11 straight wins to close the Patrick Division FInals, Wales Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final galvanize the team as sterling silver unbeatable.

The 1993 team was even better but met a disastrous fate which sent the franchise on a tailspin. Six players, both head coaches of the 1992 team and the General Manager, have since been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

But those are just the bullet points.

The 1992 Penguins did not have an easy task. They were the defending Stanley Cup champions, lost their head coach Badger Bob Johnson to cancer and struggled through much of the regular season.

“We were so close to not doing it (in 1992). We were down 3-1 (in the first-round series) to Washington, so we had to go home and come back again,” the head coach of that team, Scotty Bowman, told PHN. “Sometimes, you could have lost when you won. You forget about that stuff.”

The 86-year-old legend chatted with Pittsburgh Hockey Now for nearly an hour on Tuesday night. He drips hockey knowledge and life lessons, like the above. Bowman flits from one topic to the next and back to the original, weaving a tapestry of plotlines which aren’t apparent until the end and a larger picture emerges like a cathedral’s stained glass window with colors and storylines blended into a bigger reality.

He is currently enjoying the weather in Florida, where he lives seven months a year. Bowman is avoiding cabin fever with daily walks and said his neighborhood is much quieter after the snowbirds raced home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Bowman is a repository of NHL history and knowledge. He’s not only had a front-row seat, but he’s also been a guiding hand on three modern dynasties and had an advisory role on the Chicago Blackhawks teams which won three more Stanley Cups. Bowman has 14 Stanley Cup rings, including five as the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens (1973, 1976-1979), one as the boss of the Pittsburgh Penguins (1992), and three with the veteran Detroit Red Wings (1997, 1998, 2002).

There isn’t a need for too many follow up questions with the coach. He’s got it covered.

Bowman has two rings from his few years with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he firmly credited Bob Johnson for them. Bowman was the Director of Scouting for the Penguins in 1991.

“(Johnson) was such a research guy. He was really the guy who turned things around. He took tapes from the previous season. I don’t think (the Penguins) made the playoffs the season before,” Bowman said before he veered into Johnson’s statistics at Wisconsin, where Johnson often had a power-play conversion in the 30% range and veered back. “He was a great offensive coach. We had a great offseason. We got (Joey) Mullen and Jaromir Jagr. Two Hall of Famers, you know.”

Only 30 years later, and Bowman readily remembers Johnson’s power-play statistics at the University of Wisconsin. Bowman accepted the scouting position with the Penguins because it meant he wouldn’t coach.

“I wouldn’t say I was burned out, but I was done coaching. My family was settled. My kids were in high school,” Bowman conceded.

But the call came from GM Craig Patrick in the fall of 1991. Johnson was battling cancer, and the Penguins needed a coach. Bowman vowed to keep things as they were from the 1991 Stanley Cup team. There were few changes, and the Penguins core remained the same, centered around Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Paul Coffey, and an emerging Jagr.

“I didn’t come in with new stuff. Bob was a tremendous offensive coach. One of the truly great minds of the game,” Bowman praised. “A unique coach.”

As Bowman and I chatted, he several times mentioned the St. Louis Blues. Not the 1960s Blues which he coached to three straight Stanley Cup Finals, but the 2019 Stanley Cup champion version. From their launch to finding an unheralded goalie, to ultimate success, trigger points of a season became a theme as we talked.

I shared with him the moment the 2016 Penguins championship launched. Then he shared what changed the 1992 Penguins.

“That trade the second year. We got Rick Tocchet and Kjell Samuelsson. THAT changed the team,” Bowman said emphatically. “Looking at (Tocchet’s) record. Oh my goodness, it turned the team around.”

“We were a .500 team. That team had a Cup hangover.”

Bowman credited Tocchet’s bruising play and leadership intangibles, which are still on display in Arizona, where Tocchet is the head coach, as the ignition of the 1992 Penguins. That record Bowman referred–Tocchet had 30 points, including 14 goals in just 19 games with the Penguins. Then he had 19 points in 14 playoff games.

Once the Penguins got rolling, they could not be stopped. They won three straight to close out Washington in the first round, but the New York Rangers and Adam Graves took a 2-1 series lead in the Divisional round after Graves’ two-hand chop broke Mario Lemieux’s wrist. Ron Francis stepped to the fore with Jagr, and the Penguins won three straight games to close out that series, too.

The Penguins didn’t lose again. They swept the Wales Conference Final against Boston and swept the Chicago Blackhawks.

The 1992 Penguins lifted their second straight Stanley Cup. Premier power forward Kevin Stevens, who is now a scout for the Penguins, used the word “dynasty.” The sky was the limit, and 1993 was to be the coronation of the next great NHL dynasty, and another one with Bowman at the helm.

But the best-laid plans don’t always turn out as we expect.

1993 Pittsburgh Penguins

Bowman didn’t spend too much time analyzing the 1993 Penguins failure. We asked a couple of different ways. Surely there was some magic moment or reason one of the greatest teams assembled of all-time didn’t win the Stanley Cup.

There wasn’t.

“(1993) was as good of a team as you could get. Last 18 games of the season, it didn’t lose,” Bowman said, referring to the Penguins record-setting run to close the season with 17 straight wins before a 6-6- tie with the New Jersey Devils in the final game of the regular season snapped the string.

“Bad breaks. Mario wasn’t 100%. We lost Kevin Stevens (to a gruesome facial injury),” Bowman said.

Lemieux came back from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma that season and torched the league with 160 points in just 60 games. It remains one of the greatest individual seasons in NHL history, but it also took a toll on Lemieux.

And that was as much as the brilliant coach could say about the 1993 team which came up short. Sometimes, life isn’t fair. And every Penguins fan who stared at the TV screen in disbelief, or lingered around the arena with crushed hopes, remembers that game. New York Islanders forward David Volek scored an overtime winner from the blue line in Game 7. It was every bit the soul-crushing blow to Penguins fans, as Sid Bream chugging around third to beat Bary Bonds throw months earlier was to Pirates fans.

“We had a strong three years. Our centers, Mario, Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, one, two, three. Three Hall of Fame centers,” Bowman recounted. “It’s not easy to win two in a row, even tougher to win three.”

Bowman repeated the life lesson referring to the inverse and how close the 1992 Penguins came to not winning.

“Sometimes, you could have lost when you won.”

 

*PHN chatted with Bowman on several topics, including the current game and Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. We will have more fresh content in the coming days. Please check back and share!

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