Babcock's success rooted in hard work
Mike Babcock was dripping in sweat. He had just returned from his daily run along the riverfront outside Joe Louis Arena. The sparkle from coaching the Canadian men's Olympic team to gold in Vancouver only 11 days previous was not evident because of Babcock's current predicament with the Detroit Red Wings.
He was less than 24 hours removed from a devastating 4-2 home loss to the Calgary Flames. Local reporters were waiting for him to explain what buttons he was going to push to get the Red Wings into the playoffs.
There is concern around Motown. The Red Wings are in ninth spot with 16 regular-season games remaining. Detroit hasn't missed the post-season since 1989-90.
"You have to do it right," Babcock said after he finished his briefing session with reporters. "There will time in the summer to reflect on the Olympics when I'm in my boat at the lake."
After Sidney Crosby swiftly deposited his shot through the pads of United States goalie Ryan Miller in overtime to clinch gold for Canada, Babcock celebrated with his players and his family until midnight. Three hours later, he was driving to the Vancouver airport to board a plane bound for Denver to rejoin the Red Wings. The party was over.
"We have a lot of work to do here," Detroit forward Johan Franzen said. "He can enjoy his gold medal at night when we're not playing.
"He's all business. He doesn't take a day off and he doesn't expect us to either."
Maybe that's why Babcock became the first hockey coach in history to win an Olympic gold medal, a world championship and a Stanley Cup. He also steered the Lethbridge Pronghorns to the 1993-94 Canadian university championship and Canada to the 1997 world junior title.
"Don't get me wrong, it's a lot of hard work," the 46-year-old Babcock said. "But I feel extremely lucky."
As he discussed his career path on Wednesday, Babcock momentarily drifted from his current conundrum with the Red Wings and back to the Olympics. He called the Olympic experience "awesome."
There was a twinkle in his eye as he described outings with his family around Vancouver on off days. He recalled a trip to Granville Island, dinner in Yaletown and a walk through the jam-packed crowds at Robson Square downtown, as well as attending the women's hockey final and the men's curling final.
Babcock also revealed how he and assistant coaches Lindy Ruff and Jacques Lemaire would walk from the athletes' village to the rink before games and feed off the energy of the people in the streets. He also would walk back after games.
"I really enjoyed the Olympics," he said. "I always wanted to be there as an athlete, but wasn't good enough. In many ways, I'm glad I experienced it as a coach because I'm older and I could appreciate it more."
'He is a straightforward guy'
Mike Babcock had gone down to the cafeteria in the athletes' village one night to get a tea, when he noticed Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette sitting there talking to sports psychologist Wayne Halliwell. Rochette had just lost her mother, Therese, 55, to a heart attack in Vancouver and had decided to battle her emotions and compete in the Winter Games. Babcock knew what the 24-year-old Rochette was going through. He lost his mother, Gail, to cancer when she was 50 and he was 28. The Red Wings coach has a strong belief that his mother watches over him. He says a little prayer to her during the anthems before every game.
"I didn't know exactly what to say," Babcock said. "I could have just walked away and said nothing, but I had been there.
"I just told her that she will be blessed and her mother will be watching over her. I don't know if it helped, but that's what I felt at the time. The next day, we saw each other from across the room and she smiled and gave me a big wave."
Rochette, of course, won bronze and carried the Canadian flag in the closing ceremony.
Babcock's players appreciate his work ethic and understanding of the game.
"Just look at his track record and you know he understands the game and how it should be played in order to be successful," Detroit defenceman Brad Stuart said. "He is a straightforward guy and he will tell you exactly what he wants from you."
This is a trait he learned from his father. Babcock recalled how years ago he asked his Dad about life as a man and about being a boss yet remaining a friend to his workers. He wondered how his father — a hard-rock mine pit boss — could become so angry with his miners yet remain popular with them.
"Dad, how can you get people to work so hard?" the son queried.
"You can't ask people to work hard if you don't work hard yourself," Babcock Sr. replied.
Although just a boy at the time, the sentiment stuck with Babcock. The young Babcock had no idea on this day he would later become a hockey coach — a boss of boys in junior and later men in the pros.
"Everything I believe in comes from this philosophy," Babcock said. "I want to be successful. I always say to the guys. 'I want us to work hard and be able to be proud of that work ethic.' But if you ask for that, you better practice it."
This work ethic was apparent as a player. Once a Maple Leafs scout told Babcock after a game, "Kid, you did a lot tonight for a guy with no talent."
The no-talent kid was born in the Northern Ontario mining town of Manitouwadge. His family moved to the Northwest Territories when he was two. Six years later, it was on to Thompson, Man., and, in another six years, Saskatoon became his home. He didn't watch hockey growing up because there was no television in his Northwest Territories home.
So when he first played organized hockey, at age 12 in Thompson, Babcock had to learn what offside was, among other rules. Four years later though, he played a season with the Saskatoon Blades followed by a campaign under Dave King at the University of Saskatchewan.
Then, it was out to Kelowna, B.C., for another year of junior. Then, it was off to Montreal to study and play hockey at McGill University for four years. He earned a bachelor of education degree and a post-graduate diploma in sports psychology at McGill.
"My big hockey moment, as a player, came when we won gold for Canada at the World Student Games in Battle Creek, Mich., for Dave Chambers," Babcock said. "A few months later [September 1985], I received a tryout with the Vancouver Canucks. I was an average player, a defenceman who scored 21 goals in my final year of junior. I was not overly skilled, not overly tough, not overly anything."
Tom Watt was the Canucks coach at the time.
"He called me into his office and asked me what I had going for me," Babcock said of the day he was cut. "When I told him that I was working on my masters degree at McGill, he seemed so relieved."
'I had no idea what I was doing'
After McGill, Babcock went to England to coach and play premier division hockey near Newcastle and returned to Canada to start his coaching career at age 25.
He began by taking Red Deer College to a league title. At the Canadian community college national championship, however, Red Deer lost 3-2 to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).
"I had no idea what I was doing," Babcock said. "But that was a good thing because it didn't complicate things for my team."
Losing to NAIT was a good thing for Babcock. Sure, he previously played under respected coaches like King, but Babcock never really had a mentor. Perry Pearn, now an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens, coached NAIT back then. Babcock studied Pearn's systems on videotape.
Later, at the Canadian university level, Babcock broke down the systems employed by University of Alberta coach Bill Moores and later in the Western Hockey League, it was Don Hay's team in Kamloops that Babcock learned from.
"There always has been someone to push me, someone I have stopped and learned the ropes from," Babcock said.
Babcock's coaching life has not always been a smooth ride. After the Red Deer College experience, he went to coach the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL and was unexpectedly fired on June 8, 1993, when he had a disagreement with ownership.
That hiccup, however, proved to be a blessing. Looking for a job, he found himself at the University of Lethbridge, coaching a program that had never won a playoff game.
Halfway through the season, the school administration said this would be the last season for the hockey team. Well, Babcock not only saved the program but U of L won the national championship.
All of sudden, the school had a hockey tradition. The coach had a reputation. Since then, he's gone from Lethbridge to Spokane to Cincinnati to Anaheim to Detroit and piled up wins along the way.
A constant at every stop is his dedication to exercise. Babcock is an avid runner and gym rat. After practice, he dons his sweats and pounds the pavement for at least 20 minutes — sometimes as long as 45 minutes — or he hits the weight room.
"It depends how much time I need to think," he said. "The better shape you are in, the less sleep you need and you get no sleep in this game, so you might as well be in shape."
And no time to enjoy the Olympic victory. Well, that can wait until the summer, when he's on his boat on Emma Lake, about 20 minutes outside Prince Albert, Sask.
"I'm so proud to be a Canadian," said Babcock, who, next week, will give speeches both at U of L and Red Deer College during a Red Wings trip out West. "I can't think of a better way to show my pride than to coach Canada [to gold] at the Olympics."