You could live an entire lifetime in a hockey town up north and never get the chance to meet a living legend.
Even when the great Bobby Orr made an appearance at a sporting goods store on Long Island, N.Y., in the late 1970s, there was no guarantee. It was a once-in-a-lifetime shot to see Orr, the great Bruins defenseman, up close. But after standing and shivering outside the store in the cold for three hours, it seemed pointless. Most of us in the back of the line never made it in for a glimpse at our hero.
But in the hockey hotbed of Augusta, you would have no such trouble. In fact, just last week, you could have walked right into the civic center, grabbed a free club sandwich and posed for snapshots with the greatest hockey coach who ever lived.
There were no long lines of overheated fans stretched down Telfair Street on Friday morning, just a cramped roomful of 100 or so minor-league fans and the winningest coach in National Hockey League history, Scotty Bowman.
Less than a month after leading the Detroit Red Wings to a third Stanley Cup championship in six seasons and then announcing his retirement, Bowman was Augusta Lynx coach's Jim Burton at a team news conference. The main business of the day for the Lynx was the announcement of their affiliation with the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes after a six-month courtship, and the introduction of new general manager Derek Bundy.
It was the brand of hoopla that can really fire up small-town hockey fans, especially considering the Coyotes are owned and operated by the most universally recognized hockey name of all, Wayne Gretzky.
But the excitement seemed almost silly, dwarfed by the towering presence of Bowman.
"He's the best coach in history, so for me starting out in coaching, I wanted to pick his brain a little bit," said Lynx assistant coach John Whitwell, who retired from playing in April after four seasons with the Lynx. "I got to play golf with him, and it was a thrill. Just to hear what he thinks about the game itself was incredible."
Images of Bowman wearing a Red Wings cap and skating a victory lap around Joe Louis Arena with the Stanley Cup, hockey's Holy Grail, hoisted overhead were still fresh. It was Bowman's ninth dance with the Cup in 30 NHL seasons: He won three titles with the Red Wings, five with the Montreal Canadiens and one with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But there he was, the stocky little balding man in the blue shirt standing with the crowd signing Red Wings hats and pennants.
At one point, he was flanked by a 30-something guy in a black "Kickin' Ice and Takin' Names" Lynx T-shirt and a middle-aged woman with cubic zirconium-studded hockey sticks dangling from her ears. From a distance, without superstars like Yzerman and Fedorov as an entourage, he looked a lot like good old Uncle Lenny from Queens.
As fate would have it, the coach's daughter moved to Augusta a few years ago when her husband transferred for a job.
Last summer, Bowman was playing a round of golf at The Club at Jones Creek when someone in the pro shop told Burton about this famous hockey coach out on the course. "I can't remember his name, but I think he's the coach of the Red Hawks," the young pro shop employee said.
Burton and Bowman eventually hooked up on the golf course and became fast friends. They've played some golf and talked some shop, Burton tapping into Bowman's wisdom, Bowman taking a crash course in Minor Pro Hockey 101.
"I met Jimmy last year, and he told me he was a farmhand when I was with Buffalo in the '80s," said Bowman, who was coach and GM of the Sabres. "He asked if I remembered him from training camp that year. I vaguely did, but I cut him, and in those days, you see a lot of players."
But there's only one Scotty Bowman.
And for an hour or so last week, his presence made Augusta feel like, well. ... Hockeytown.
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425.
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