Winnipeg Jets' Bowness retires from coaching after 38 seasons in NHL

WINNIPEG — Rick Bowness walked off the ice last week after his Winnipeg Jets were eliminated from the playoffs by the Colorado Avalanche and he knew the day had finally arrived.

Time had come for the 69-year-old head coach to retire after 38 seasons in the NHL.

“Coaches have always told me — and I'm talking to the older coaches, older than me — and they've always said, ‘You'll know when it's time,’” Bowness said at a news conference Monday at Canada Life Centre.

“And when I was looking around and just, I wasn't happy with the job I had done, and it just hit me then, it’s time.”

He told his assistant coaches an hour after the Game 5 first-round elimination loss to the Avalanche that he planned to retire and they asked if he wanted to think about it.

“But I knew. I knew in my heart it was time,” said Bowness, whose wife, Judy, was at the back of the room watching the man she’d been with since they were both 16.

Family life was also a big reason for his decision.

Bowness left the Jets twice this past season for personal reasons. He was away for more than a month after Judy suffered a seizure last October. He also missed time to have a minor, undisclosed medical procedure in March.

“Those are life-changing moments. They are, they are,” Bowness said. “And I'm still dealing with some minor issues that I've got to get resolved.”

The Moncton, N.B., native guided the Jets to a 98-57-9 record during his two seasons behind the bench, leading the team to the playoffs each year only to be bounced out in five games in both opening-round series.

The early exit was especially stinging this season, when Winnipeg finished second in both the Central Division and the Western Conference while matching a franchise record with 52 wins.

When the Jets won Game 1 of the series against the Avalanche, Bowness became the oldest head coach to win an NHL playoff game.

He’s also a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, recognizing the top head coach in the NHL.

Bowness had called a few of his players to give them his news rather than have them hear it elsewhere.

Jets captain Adam Lowry said players suspected retirement might be around the corner because Bowness was quite emotional after the 6-3 Game 5 loss.

He described Bowness as a “tremendous” human being and communicator, who was interested in their lives away from the rink and made each player feel a big part of the team no matter their role.

“I think the NHL's a better place because of people like Rick and the amount of time and sacrifice him and Judy and their family have had to put in over their incredible career,” Lowry said.

“He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Most games coached, ever (2,726). You talk about someone who left it better than when he came in, I think Rick really embodies that."

Bowness’s hockey career came full circle with the Jets.

The former right winger played 45 games for the club in the 1980-81 season and played and coached with the organization for nine seasons until 1988-89. He was head coach for the team’s last 28 games in 1988-89.

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff sat beside Bowness at the front of the room, with associate coach Scott Arniel, co-owner Mark Chipman and players such as Lowry also in the audience.

“He's always putting the organization or the players or other people ahead of himself,” Cheveldayoff said of Bowness. “And I said to him, 'It would be very selfish for me to sit here and think that you were being selfish without telling you, Bones, you owe this to yourself.'

“Just a great hockey coach and an even better person.”

Cheveldayoff wouldn’t talk about the team’s search for a new head coach, saying the day should be about Bowness and his contributions to the team and game.

Arniel told reporters he’s interested in the vacancy, but declined to talk about it for the same reason.

He was glad Bowness was going out on his own terms after a “fantastic” career that included a lot of mentorship.

“He's been around a long time and he has touched a lot of people, whether it's coaches or whether it's players,” Arniel said. “He's just been a great inspiration for a lot of people.”

Bowness served as a coach for eight different franchises. His 2,726 games as an NHL head coach, associate or assistant coach are the most by anyone in league history. He’s also the third coach in league history to hold a head-coaching position in five different decades, along with Pat Quinn and Scotty Bowman.

“When I leave, I just want to be remembered that I just love the game and I respected the game,” Bowness said, emotion cracking his voice.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2024.

Judy Owen, The Canadian Press