Tom Rowe once told his wife he would never become a coach. That was 12 years, five teams and 191 victories ago.
When he broke into the NHL as a right wing in 1976, Rowe never imagined that he’d be a scout, broadcaster or assistant general manager, either. But he has.
His is a career of serendipity and firsts. How many guys score their first NHL goal in the first shift of their first game? Rowe did. How many Americans had scored 30 goals in one season before Rowe netted 31 for the Washington Capitals in 1978-79?
As Rowe settles into his newest role -- coach of the San Antonio Rampage -- he does so with a perspective unlike any in pro hockey. Rowe has worked every angle of the game, including one that nobody can teach.
On Sept. 7, 2011, a plane carrying a Russian hockey team -- Yaroslavl Lokomotiv -- crashed shortly after takeoff into a riverbank, killing all 37 players, coaches and support staff aboard. Rowe was asked to rebuild a traditional power.
He arrived in Yaroslavl, a city of 600,000, 160 miles northeast of Moscow, and began a task for which there is no manual to follow, no person with experience to consult. The victims included several former NHL players -- Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei and Karel Rachunek among them. Also among the deceased was Rowe’s friend, head coach Brad McCrimmon.
“I knew him really well,” Rowe says. “I played against him in the National Hockey League. And I interviewed him for a head coaching job a long, long time ago when I was running Lowell of the AHL.”
Rowe himself had been out of coaching for a year. He left a scouting job with Carolina in the NHL for a city riven by devastation. The crash occurred as Lokomotiv was leaving to start the 2011-12 season in the Kontinental Hockey League. Other teams offered players. Yaroslavl declined and canceled its season.
“The incredible part of the story is just how important that team was to the city Yaroslavl,” Rowe says. “The people live and die with the team. They follow it like I’ve never seen before. It was just an incredibly close-knit community. That was a real tragic part of it.”
Rowe walk into a surreal mix of heartbreak and passion. The people of Yaroslavl wanted to cheer again, wanted to pull for a team that had won three Russian Super League championships since 1997, but they first needed to find a way to grieve.
The franchise found ways to help. The team posted portraits of players and coaches inside its arena. Fans placed flowers beneath the photographs. A black ribbon with the date of the crash was affixed to each Yaroslavl jersey. Before each home game, a Yaroslavl bell was lowered above the ice and sounded three times to honor the victims. Tears flowed.
Building a new team was another challenge. Rowe cobbled together a blend of Russians, Scandinavians and locked-out NHL players. He combined the best features of the Russian and North American games with a roster that ranked among the league’s youngest. The average age of his players: 24 to 25.
Most on the new team knew players who had perished. When Lokomotiv left for its first away game in 2012, players looked out the plane windows. The bank of the Volga River tributary came into view. Hearts fluttered with emotion. Minds raced.
“We flew right over the spot where the team crashed,” Rowe says. “It made for a very somber travel day.”
Remarkably, Lokomotiv began piling up victories -- nine straight at one point -- and attracted international media. The Globe and Mail from Toronto visited. The New York Times dispatched a reporter to Russia. The headline: “Still Grieving, Locomotive is Winning Anew.” The Times gave much credit to Rowe.
“We didn’t have the most talented group,” Rowe says. “But everybody knew the importance of why we were there and that’s why we had a great regular season and went to the playoffs. I don’t think anybody expected that.”
Rowe asked 18- and 19-year-olds to deliver in big games. He implemented a defense-first philosophy. The team bought in. As Lokomotiv’s Niklas Hagman, a three-time Olympian from Finland, told The Times, “I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of something like this, where we’re winning all the games like 2 to 1 and 1-nothing.”
Yaroslavl lost Lokomotiv to tragedy one season. The next season, the citizenry was cheering a playoff team. Lokomotiv lost in the first round. But Rowe emerged with yet another mark of distinction. He coached a miracle team.
Now he’s in San Antonio and embracing a new challenge. “I had a bunch of scouts call me and tell me the Rampage is one of the better teams in the league,” Rowe says. “I’m absolutely loving the guys and their personalities. They want to work and win. And I’ve told them: The expectations are to win championships. That needs to be everybody’s goal.”
In Yaroslavl, Rowe set out to build hope and recovery. What he never imagined was how far hope and recovery would spread. In every road venue, opposing fans chanted “Loko.” During the national anthem, they sang the name of Rowe’s team. “That was pretty amazing,” he says.
In 1973, Rowe played his first pro hockey game for the London Knights. Forty years later, he’s still in the game, living a story that turns like no other.