Scotty Bowman was named coach of the Wales Conference team in the 1980 National Hockey League All-Star Game as a reward for leading Montreal to first place a year ago. But if the assignment had been awarded on the basis of what's happened this season, Bowman still would get if for the job he has done with the resurgent Buffalo Sabres.
After guiding the Canadiens to yet another Stanley Cup in 1979, the moose-jawed Bowman took his determined talents to Buffalo, where he could be general manager as well as coach. The turnaround for the Sabres, who had gone dull around the edges, was immediate.
They arrived at the All-Star break leading the Adams Division and with an overall record second only to that of the amazing Philadelphia Flyers. The Sabres lead the NHL in fewest goals allowed and are a close third, behind Philly and the Los Angeles Kings, in goals scored.
One of Bowman's favorite interpolative statistics is the differential a team shows between the goals it has scored and those it has given up. In this unlisted category his club is just behind Philadelphia, with a 66 figure to the Flyer's 68.
He has achieved so much so soon in Buffalo through three basic means: He solidified an inconsistent defense; he unleashed superstar center Gil Perreault; and he expanded the coaching staff in both manpower and technology.
Though it was often overlooked in Montreal because the Canadiens skate and score so spectacularly, Bowman's successes have always been founded on sturdy defense. He had barely unpacked his suitcases in Buffalo before he shipped out four marginal defensemen and replaced them with players like John Van Boxmeer, who consider helping their goalie and forwards more important than rushing the puck themselves.
"When you have three quick forward lines like ours and you're playing in a relatively small home rink, the defensemen have to make quick head-manning passes up to the forwards," Bowman says. 'We're doing better at that. And we're using six and seven defensemen so that all of them stay fresh."
Consequently, the Sabres have allowed 26 fewer goals than they had yielded at this stage last season, while scoring 33 more.
"In the past this was an offensive team with no brakes," says Bowman. "We're playing a lot more two-way games these days.'
Strapping veteran Jim Schoenfeld is the cornerstone of the defense, and he made the All-Star team along with teammates Perreault, Danny Gare (the high-scoring winger), and Don Edwards ( the hardworking, winningest goalie in the NHL). Not far behind Schoenfeld is the equally strapping Jerry Korab, who is called "King Kong" for sufficient reason, while youngsters like Larry Playfair and Lindy Ruff -- now there's a combination of names for a defensive pair, Playfair and Ruff -- have developed quickly.
Perreault (pronounced "pair-o"), one of the finest forwards in the game for most of the last decade, has been a steady scorer and playmaker all along, but this year his play is touched with a transcendent quality heretofore missing. He has scored 30 goals and 40 assists, but also had been outstanding on the power play, killing penalties and playing forward instead of center as needed.
"I've always thought he could be one of the two best players in the NHL, along with Guy Lafleur," Bowman says. "I had him on the Canada Cup team in 1976 , and he played brilliantly. I thought he was the best forward on the Challenge Cup team against the Russians last year. This year he's taking control more, being more dominant. He's more relaxed with the puck, and he's more conscious of defense when he doesn't have the puck."
Perreault forms the other half of a mutual- admiration society with Bowman. He appreciates deeply that Scotty has gone on record as saying he can play on a level with Lafleur, and he respects Bowman's intellect and coaching ability.
Actually, Bowman is doing much less coaching now than he did in Montreal, leaving most of the actual on-ice teaching to assistants Roger Neilson, formerly the head coach in Torronto, and Jim Roberts. When the Sabres made their first visit of the season to montreal, where Bowman's teams won five Stanley Cups, Scotty didn't even accompany them, sending along the explanation that he was on a scouting trip.
During games he does attend he usually sits upstairs in the press box and communicates with his assistants on the bench or in the locker room by two-way radio.
He has given Neilson, his probable successor in the near future, a free hand to expand the team's use of videotape, computers, and other modern technology that has been slow to come to hockey. At Neilson's direction, the statistician is taking a course in computer science.
The restless Bowman, meanwhile, is talking suprisingly about wanting to coach college hockey when his Buffalo contract expires, saying he's growing tired of the pro environment. The day could't come too soon for his exasperated opponents.