Olympic coach Mike Babcock has respect of peers
Canada's bench boss 'loyal, focused, thorough'
Ken Hitchcock didn’t have to observe the heated competition at Canada’s Olympic men’s hockey orientation camp to predict success at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
That belief was embedded in his mind several months earlier, during his first sit-down with the man behind the bench, fellow National Hockey League head coach Mike Babcock.
"Focused, task-oriented and all-business," is how Hitchcock described Babcock, the successful Detroit Red Wings coach, in a recent interview. "He expects a lot of himself and gets through things quickly. He isn’t afraid to make decisions and I love it because it’s brief and to the point."
Babcock, who led the Red Wings to a Stanley Cup title in 2008, guided Canada to Olympic gold two years later, thanks to Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal against the United States.
He’ll be back on the ice in Calgary for Team Canada's Sochi Olympics orientation camp, starting this Sunday through Aug. 28, along with 47 Canadian players vying for a roster spot.
Three-quarters of the Team Canada coaching staff is returning, including assistants Lindy Ruff and Hitchcock along with Babcock. Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien replaces Jacques Martin this time around as an assistant.
"There was great chemistry on the whole [2010 Olympic] staff, not just Mike and myself but Lindy and Jacques," remembered Hitchcock, who has coached 1,158 NHL regular-season games, including the past 117 with the St. Louis Blues. "That staff was exceptional.
"I’ve never worked in an international competition where I felt more prepared, more aware, more ready. We had a staff that could get to the details very quickly."
Egos checked at door
Hitchcock expects the same in Sochi because "we get by the get-to-know-you stage" in a hurry.
"Mike demands that the egos and ideas you have get shelved at the door," he said. "It’s for the greater good of the team and the country. He expects the same from the players."
If you talk to the people who work closest to Babcock, the conversation quickly turns to his love and passion for the game, the Saskatoon native’s unmatched work ethic and trust in his assistant coaches.
Hitchcock, 61, said of all the coaches he’s worked with over the past 30 years, the 50-year-old Babcock is the closest to thinking the game the same way.
"We coach each other," said Hitchcock, who will be seeking his fifth gold medal and sixth medal overall in international competition with Canada. "He keeps the brakes on me and I keep the brakes on him. Our strength is we read off each other.
"When the [Olympic] competition starts, we both speak in very pointed terms and very brief sentences and we have a good relationship because of that."
Former NHL head coach Tom Renney also has a coaching style similar to Babcock's, but said the latter places a higher premium on certain parts of the game. Renney also was impressed with Babcock from a technical perspective while working under him for the first time in Detroit last season.
Looking for work last summer, Renney chose Detroit over offers from other NHL teams because working with Babcock would allow him to "grow, stretch, expand and reach" to become a better coach.
"We all like to think we’re the hardest-working guy in hockey," said Renney, who has had NHL head-coaching stints in Vancouver, Edmonton and with the New York Rangers. "Mike could look in the mirror every day and say that to himself and be pretty damn accurate. You want to follow someone that leads by doing. It’s not just lip service. He’s all-in every day."
Canada’s coaching staff met for four days around the NHL entry draft at the end of June to discuss lesson plans, technical plans and system of play.
But Babcock’s Olympic preparation began as soon as the eventual Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks eliminated his Red Wings in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals on May 29.
"He hasn’t wasted any time in observing players," Hitchcock said. "He’s not only observing players in the NHL, he’s observing the way they play in the world championships [in May] and other venues that have a big ice surface [like in Sochi].
"He’s going to have a lot of background on people before he makes the decision on … how he’s going to play [at the Olympics]. He’s a very thorough man. He’s not going to assume a guy [can play in a certain situation]. He’s going to want to see what the guy actually does in October, November and December [in the NHL]."
It’s believed the Canadian squad won’t completely take shape until early in the 2013-14 NHL season as Olympic rosters are not due until Dec. 31.
Babcock will also seek feedback from Hitchcock, Ruff and Julien like he does with Renney in Detroit.
"He views asking people for information as a strength, not a weakness, and as something that can make him and the country better," said Hitchcock.
"You couldn’t get a more loyal guy to work with. He’s very loyal to us [coaches], he’s loyal to the players and he’s very loyal to the country."