Bowkus monumental helping shape California’s youth hockey landscape
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If you’re debating the Mount Rushmore of California youth hockey coaches, you’d be hard-pressed not to include Jack Bowkus on that distinguished shrine of four.
A trailblazer who never surrendered his blue-collar approach towards his craft, Bowkus was revered as a respected and trusted leader and mentor thanks to his hard work and brutal honesty that helped launch the careers of so many young players and coaching counterparts and, along the way, bring the state’s hockey scene to unprecedented national prominence.
Bowkus, who this past season led the Los Angeles Jr. Kings’ 14U AAA team to California Amateur Hockey Association and Pacific District titles and a berth to the USA Hockey National Championships, passed away the night of March 28 after a two-plus-year battle with cancer.
He was 53.
In addition to his decorated coaching resume that spanned well over two decades, Bowkus was a dedicated father to his 22-year-old son, Austin, along with being a loving son, brother and friend to so many in the hockey community and beyond.
“True friends – and coaches – are hard to find, but you got the best of both with Jack,” said Helen Alex, the Jr. Kings’ director of finance and one of Bowkus’ closest confidants who managed over a dozen of his teams throughout his career with the Jr. Kings. “He was one of a kind. So real, so genuine, and that’s why he was loved and respected by so many people. He’ll be impossible to forget.”
Few knew Bowkus better than Shawn Pitcher, currently a Jr. Kings coach whose lasting friendship with his colleague extended over 25 years. Bowkus’ integrity, says Pitcher, was non-negotiable.
“Just a good man,” he said. “And as a friend, he always had your back and you couldn’t ask for anything more.
“An exceptional coach. He found his niche, what he was good at. He found it working with kids and making kids better – not only on the ice but off the ice, too, with good morals and strong values.
“And as good of a coach as he was, he was even a better dad and a great friend. Just a good human being.”
His former players echo those sentiments, among them Jonathan Blum, whom Bowkus coached for six years with the California Wave. When he was selected 23rd overall by the Nashville Predators in the 2007 NHL Draft, the defenseman became the state’s first-ever born-and-bred player taken in the first round – a watermark moment for California hockey.
“Growing up playing so much hockey, he was almost a second father to me,” Blum said of his former coach. “He taught me everything – from a hockey standpoint and off the ice, how to be a better person. In every aspect, he was a huge influence on me. I put a lot of trust in him.”
A San Jose Sharks draft pick in 2018, Jake McGrew played two seasons for Bowkus during his pivotal 16U AAA seasons when recruitment to the higher levels was of paramount importance.
“He made me the hockey player I am just with the little things he did and how he pushed me to be the best player and hardest worker I could be,” said McGrew, a forward who this past season played an injury-shortened campaign with the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Spokane Chiefs. “He helped me a ton.”
And when it came to assessing talent, few would argue there were any more honest and dependable than Bowkus.
“Once a kid spent some time with him, coaches at the higher levels knew what they were getting,” said Pitcher. “They were taught the game of hockey and not asking themselves, ‘What has this kid been doing the last 4-5 years?’ They believed and trusted in him. His word was golden.”
Bowkus began to establish his coaching legacy back in 1995 when he moved out to Southern California along with Pitcher and Jeff Turcotte.
At the time, he and Turcotte – boyhood friends from Lansing, Mich. – were in the bar business together in Florida. Pitcher, meanwhile, was playing minor pro hockey in the area.
Turcotte accepted a job to become the hockey director with the Westminster Wave (now the California Wave) with Pitcher alongside him. Bowkus followed to the West Coast soon after, also joining the Wave as a coach.
“We kind of had the best jobs in the world,” said Pitcher. “You got to go to work with your best friends.”
Over the next few years, the three architected the Wave into a tried-and-true national powerhouse – something California hockey had never seen before – and along the way groomed a number of players for high-level junior hockey, the NCAA and even the NHL.
In addition to Blum, who also played two seasons with the Wave under Turcotte, the program proved instrumental helping shape the paths of NHL draft picks Cameron Cepek, Colin Long, T.J. Miller, Rhett Rakhshani and Mitch Wahl, among others, along with current Predators forward Rocco Grimaldi. Along with Rakhshani, another Bowkus pupil with the Wave, Shane Harper, also reached the NHL.
The band broke up when Bowkus accepted a coaching job with the United States Hockey League’s Indiana Ice in 2005. At the same time, Turcotte and Pitcher moved on to take coaching jobs with the emerging LA Hockey Club program, which played out of Lakewood and Westminster.
Bowkus returned to Southern California after a year in Indy, this time accepting the hockey director role with the Jr. Kings thanks to Alex, who at the time was on the Jr. Kings’ board of directors and offered a strong recommendation to then-Jr. Kings president Rosemary Voulelikas to hire the gifted coach.
“You find diamonds in the rough in players, well we found ours in coaches with Jack,” said Alex. “He made our club what it is now. He always had the best players come tryout for us, play for us, everything.”
Bowkus, Pitcher and Turcotte reunited when LA Hockey Club and the Jr. Kings merged in 2012.
“We’ve always been buddies and have done a lot together,” said Turcotte. “We kind of counted on each other whenever stuff went bad or our teams didn’t play well to kind of boost each other up, or when our teams were doing well to pat each other on the back, so it’s always been a special friendship.”
The bond between the three, on and off the ice, says Pitcher, was nearly inseparable.
“We were all away from our families, so we had each other as family,” he said. “We talked to each other on a daily basis. For 25 years, we probably saw each other 5-6 days a week. It was pretty special.”
“For me, it’s the friendship, the camaraderie and also the respect,” Turcotte said of Bowkus. “Coaching with him and against him, it was pretty special.”
With all the right intentions, Bowkus wasn’t one to mince words. He had an unwavering conviction of what he expected from his players – and parents – on and off the ice. And, more often than not, his straight-shooting, no-nonsense approach got results.
McGrew, who won a Pacific District championship under Bowkus in 2015-16 on a talent-laden Jr. Kings 16U AAA team that also included future NHL draft picks Cole Guttman, Jack St. Ivany and Dustin Wolf, knows firsthand the level of commitment Bowkus demanded.
“If he wasn’t pushing you, then he really didn’t care, so I took it as, ‘Yeah, this might hurt my ego or hurt my feelings, but he’s doing it because he wants to get the best out of me and be the best player I can be,’ said McGrew.
“I think the way he coached and pushed, I turned them into positives like, ‘Hey, if he’s getting after me, that means he believes in me and is giving me the time of day, which is a good thing.’”
Blum, who’s spent time in the NHL both with Nashville and the Minnesota Wild and this past season played professionally in Sweden, remembers a few instances when Bowkus put his budding prodigy to the test.
“He was always harder on me, that’s for sure,” said Blum, who enjoyed a fruitful junior career with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants before turning pro. “But now I know and realize why, because he saw some promise in me and didn’t want me to waste my opportunity, so he pushed me every day and for that I’m very thankful.
“You’d hate him one day, love him the next. That was kind of his personality and he definitely had a different approach. He wanted to push guys to be their best and get every ounce of hard work and energy out of them because he wanted the best for everyone.”
A member of the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team, Blum recalls a weekend in San Jose when Bowkus caught 5-6 players – Blum among them – out of their hotel rooms after curfew the night before playing for a state championship, which the Wave ultimately won.
“There was an outdoor track across the street from our hotel and, after that game, he made us stay in our full gear – no skates – and run around it with our trophies for an hour,” said Blum. “He didn’t care.”
In remembrance and thanks to his former coach, Beau Bennett, who played his Midget seasons under Bowkus with the Jr. Kings, shared on his Instagram soon after Bowkus’ passing a threat from the coach to kick the highly-skilled forward off his 18U AAA team unless he improved his work ethic.
A few years later, Bennett became a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2010 NHL Draft and is still toiling in the pro ranks under contract with the Arizona Coyotes.
“Jack did that to me, too,” said Blum. “It was Pee Wee, maybe Bantam. I didn’t have a good game. We maybe won, 5-2 or something, but I had a turnover or two and he wasn’t happy, and he came in the locker room and I still remember him just chewing me out to the point where I was almost crying. I had a week to get stronger and make sure I never played like that again and, like I said, if I didn’t improve in a week, he was going to kick me off the team.”
“The truth always hurts,” Alex added. “But hearing it from a coach like Jack, the underlying message was always, ‘Hey, this is what I think of you right this very second, but I know you have potential and you can do this,’ What I used to tell the boys is, ‘When Jack stops yelling at you, that’s when he’s lost faith in you.’”
For as much as Bowkus did for his players on the ice, behind the scenes he worked just as meticulously off it. While continually keeping a steady pulse on his already-extensive coaching and scouting network and establishing new contacts along the way, he always made time to pick up the phone to ensure those at the higher levels had his players on their radar.
“He made so many connections and provided so many options for players to have chance, and if he really believed in you he was going to do his best to help you reach your goal, and that’s something I think people take for granted,” said Blum.
“I don’t think I’d be in my situation if it wasn’t for Jack. Being such a young age, developing me as a person, every day pushing me to my limits.”
And as many elite-level players Bowkus came across – he worked for the Dallas Stars as a skills development coach for over a decade and trained dozens of pro, college and junior players during the off-season at El Segundo’s Toyota Sports Performance Center – he always had a soft spot for cultivating an underdog he believed in, helping them without fanfare with whatever resources he had at his disposal.
After all, Bowkus himself scratched and clawed his way to a successful career in the WHL with the Saskatoon Blades before playing minor pro in the U.S. and a few seasons in Germany.
“Everyone wanted to do lessons with Jack and there was a lot of times kids couldn’t afford it, but he believed in that player,” said Alex. “He put confidence in players who never had any and, if he saw potential in them, there’s no way he wasn’t going to give them a chance.”
That planted the seed for Bowkus’ highly-regarded Cali Prospects Camp, which has operated annually for 10-plus years at El Segundo’s Toyota Sports Performance Center. The showcase, designed for Bantam and Midget players of all skill levels from across the West Coast, attracts dozens of professional, college and junior scouts – again, thanks to Bowkus’ vast scouting reach – and has helped place countless players at the higher levels.
“That’s why he started it,” Alex said of the camp, which, in addition to Austin, is operated by Bowkus’ father, Ray, and brother, John (Bowkus is also survived by his mother, Margaret, and brother Jared and sister JoAnn). “Mainly for the kids who got overlooked, for the kids who couldn’t afford to fly away to a camp that cost them room and board and everything else.
“All the years I knew him, he was always making sure a kid got what they wanted if they worked hard enough for it, and most importantly got what they needed.”
When news broke of Bowkus’ passing the morning of March 29, the outpouring of admiration and respect for the coaching giant shared on social media was instantaneous and overwhelming.
Current and former players, coaches, administrators and beyond at all levels worldwide extended their appreciation of Bowkus’ lasting friendship and influence, posting photos, stories and well wishes remembering a true legend blessed with a kind heart, sharp wit and a keen understanding of the game.
“It just shows you how impactful he was and how he developed those relationships and those players,” said McGrew. “They think of him as the biggest role model and biggest influence of their youth career, and I think that speaks to how good of a person he was and how good of a development coach he was getting guys ready for the next step. I think that’s why guys respected the living hell out of him.”
“He coached a lot of kids, and a lot of good kids playing professional hockey right now,” Blum added. “Everyone knew who Jack was. He was a California pioneer. A legend.”
Just days after his death, the Jr. Kings put a GoFundMe in play in an effort to assist with Austin’s educational and professional goals. The initial $25,000 benchmark was reached – and then some – within 48 hours (still open, the fund raised north of $40,000 as of mid-April).
“I went over to see him right after Christmas and he was telling me stories of how Sidney Crosby was reaching out to him, texting him how he was doing and all that kind of stuff,” McGrew recalled. “To me, that just speaks to how good of a guy he was and how much guys at that level respected him and that just trickles down. It was really heartwarming to see all the support.”
Jeff Bain, one of Bowkus’ former players with the Jr. Kings, also created a “BOWKUS MADE ME” Facebook page, which shares plenty of inspirational and comical anecdotes and memories of a demanding but fair coach who helped shape their futures as responsible young men, both personally and professionally.
“You’d think he’s just touched Southern California hockey, but it goes well beyond that, like all over the world,” Pitcher added. “He got to know and work with a lot of people and was well-respected by everybody.”
In the end, it was Bowkus’ genuine, selfless spirit that resonates loudest.
Said Pitcher, “Anyone would love to have him as a best friend.”
Photo/Jeff Berting Photography
— Brian McDonough
(June 24, 2020)