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Old friends Vigneault, Bowness are fast foes in East finals

NEW YORK -- New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was celebrating his 54th birthday on Thursday night when a good pal showed up to join the festivities.

Tampa Bay Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness is his rival over the next two weeks, but their friendship is forever lasting.

"They had just flown in and he came over and had supper with us," Vigneault told ESPN.com Sunday. "We’ve known each other a long time, we’re best of friends. I want him to do well, but I want to do well now. I want to get to the finals. And I know he wants to get to the finals."

Said Bowness: "I sent him a text before the series, 'One of us will be in the finals, and that’s a good thing.'"

If Vigneault had his away, the two friends would still be together on the same bench. But after seven years coaching together with the Vancouver Canucks, which had been preceded years earlier by also coaching the expansion Ottawa Senators together in the early 1990s, the two split up two summers ago, Bowness accepting the job with the Lightning before Vigneault eventually took on the Rangers’ head coach’s job.

"He didn’t wait for me, I wanted it to continue," Vigneault, said, chuckling when asked about their divorce. "He really had no choice. When we got let go from Vancouver, right away Steve Yzerman called him. He knew at the time that Dallas had called me and New York had called. But I was in a 10-day period [making up his mind]. During that 10 days, Rick got the offer from Steve. He liked his interview with [Jon] Cooper. He got good money. He told me, 'I can’t wait, I've got to go.'"

It was a tough phone call for Bowness, telling his pal it was time to split up. It was equally disappointing for both men.

"I could hear it in his voice," Bowness said of Vigneault. "And it was hard for me. Our families are very close. It hurt me because I enjoyed working with him. But I just wanted to challenge myself. But that was hard for me, too."

For Bowness, the challenge in Tampa Bay was too good to pass up.

"I had heard so many great things about Jeff Vinik as an owner, and the class of the organization, I had heard so many great things about Stevie as a general manager, my friends in the scouting world told me Tampa Bay had a lot of good young players coming up, which they did," Bowness said Sunday.

Thing is, he didn’t know anything about Jon Cooper. As in, had never heard of him.

"I had to Google Jon to see who he was," Bowness said. "He was a young guy and I had been West for 14 years, so I didn’t know."

For Yzerman, it was important to bring in a veteran hand for the young Cooper.

"Coop’s first year in the league, we were talking about surrounding himself with as much experience as possible," the Lightning GM told ESPN.com Sunday. "It was Coop’s decision, he met with Rick and really liked him."

As for Vigneault, as tough as it was, he accepted his friend’s decision.

"I was fine with it," Vigneault said. "We had been together seven years. I understood it. Tampa is a good young team. And even though I was talking to two teams, I still didn’t have a job yet. He had something sure."

It’s not the first time Bowness declined to follow Vigneault somewhere.

"When he first went to Montreal [in 1997], he wanted me to go with him," Bowness said. "But Phoenix had called me and I’m looking at them and they’ve got [Nikolai] Khabibulin and [Jyrki] Lumme and other guys, they had a real good chance to win a Cup. So I go to Phoenix and Khabibulin never shows up, he holds out and we traded him to Tampa. So I saw him [Khabibulin] in an airport one day and I said, 'I went to Phoenix because you were the goalie, because you can’t win a Cup without great goaltending, and you don’t show up!'"

Bowness and Vigneault finally got back together for a seven-year run in Vancouver (2006-13), one that fell just one win short of a Stanley Cup, losing to the Boston Bruins in 2011.

During that time, their relationship continued to grow.

"Alain and I had a great rapport, we worked together very closely," Bowness said. "I remember when Newell Brown came to work with us in Vancouver, he said: 'You guys are like an old married couple, you always hooting and hollering at each other.' We challenged each other, that’s what was really good. We both learned from each other."

Vigneault makes it clear the Eastern Conference finals will not change how they feel about each other.

"It's a great relationship," said Vigneault. "He saw both my girls grow up. ...

"We've known each other so long, we've grown together. It's a friendship."