Jan 30, 2012

Defining Mike Babcock

Steven Lampert & Christopher Nardi

“Regular” is not a word to describe Mike Babcock. It’s the opposite of regular to be the only coach in NHL history to have won an Olympic gold medal, a World Championship gold medal, and a Stanley Cup. In the eyes of professional sports, Mike Babcock is anything but regular.

The Tribune sat down with Babcock, a McGill graduate, for an exclusive interview to discuss his hockey roots, life as a Red Wing, his Olympic experience, and life off the ice. 

Roots

Babcock began his playing career at the University of Saskatoon, but took a gap year  to pursue his dream of becoming a professional hockey player. Realizing  his chances of playing in the NHL were slim, he decided to resume his academic and university hockey career at McGill as a visiting student following heavy recruiting by Head Coach Ken Tyler. Babcock doesn’t take his McGill experience for granted. 

“I’m proud to have gone to McGill. When I was here, I didn’t know what McGill was about,” Babcock explained. “I didn’t know that everyone I met studied harder than me and had a plan way different than mine. That affected my life. I’m thankful to have been part of something bigger.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1986 and brief playing and coaching stints in the Western Hockey League (WHL), he landed a coaching job at the little-known University of Lethbridge in Alberta. He didn’t expect much from the opportunity, but the experience turned out to be a launching point for his career. 

“That wasn’t my dream job, that was the only job I could get,” Babcock said. “The Lethbridge administration were cutting their program. We went there; they had never been in the playoffs. We won the national championship. It was a miracle. That was the best job in coaching I’ve ever done. Things just came together. That gave me impetus.”

His improbable success in leading Lethbridge to the CIS championship propelled him back to the WHL before being selected as Head Coach of Team Canada during the 1997 IIHF world junior championship. They won gold and his success opened doors to the NHL. He was hired as the bench boss of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2002. 

From the onset of his NHL coaching career, Babcock found success. He guided Anaheim to the Stanley Cup finals in only his first season behind the bench, and his existing relationships with the Red Wings’ front office from coaching their American Hockey League affiliate in Cincinnati led to his hiring in Detroit in 2005. 

Life as a Red Wing

Hard work is what brought Babcock to Detroit, and over the years, this same principle became the foundation on which the Red Wings’ organization is now built. One of these principles, particularly stressed by Babcock, is a team-first environment. 

“The Red Wings is bigger than anybody … it’s about the team. When you come to our team, the veterans run the show, not the guy you trade for. He doesn’t affect the culture. He just fits in,”  he said. “What we try to do is create a demanding, supportive environment.”

Working in a city known as Hockeytown, Babcock is fully aware of the expectations for  his team and the pressure that accompanies it. The Red Wings currently hold the record for the longest streak of postseason appearances in all of North American professional sports (1991-2011). Yet, this doesn’t seem to faze management, the players, or Babcock. 

“There is pressure, but what pressure in life means is that you have a chance. If you’re 15 teams in the league, there’s no pressure. Is that what you want?” Babcock asked. “To me, pressure is a great thing, makes things exciting. We have a chance because we have good players, we’re well-structured, have good management, and that leads to healthy pressure.”

Though Babcock underplays the role of pressure in such a hockey-crazed city, it inevitably remains a strong presence in the locker room. Playing through a gruelling 82-game season, with extra exhibition and playoff games, Babcock consistently needs to find ways to motivate his team in order to bring them together on a nightly basis. 

“Motivation, in my mind, is ‘what’s in it for me?’ Now, how do you get 23 people to find what’s in it for them and be on a team? You give up some individual rights for team rights, but the reality is, they all still want to be important. That’s what I do, I manage people.”

The Olympic Experience

His ability to bring together such a dynamic group of talented players is what earned him the trust of Team Canada’s management team. He was named Head Coach of the men’s hockey team for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. Once the roster was set, Babcock began the difficult task of turning 23 star players into the world’s best hockey team all the while keeping egos in check and managing the tremendous expectations from Canadians. 

“It wasn’t an all-star team, it was a team,” Babcock explained. “The best team wins at the Olympic games, not the best talent.”

To illustrate this point, Babcock recalled a story from the summer player selection camp that set the tone for the rest of the journey. 

“Steve Yzerman said something unbelievable at the summer camp. He said to the guys, ‘The management team, Ken Holland has more experience than I have, and so do Doug Armstrong, Kevin Lowe, and they’ve been willing to take the title of assistant. Ken Hitchcock has more experience than I have, and so do Lindy Ruff and Jacques Lemaire, and they’ve all been willing to take the title of assistant. If you think your ego is getting in the way of anything going on here, you’re wrong. It’s cut off now.’”

Despite the pressure, Babcock was overwhelmed with the immense support Canadians offered him and his team throughout the Olympics. Following their loss to the US during the preliminary rounds, Babcock spoke about how each player’s family offered immeasurable support, which combatted the intense negativity of the Canadian media. 

“When we lost to the US, we went to the Hockey Canada House that night where the families were waiting, and I always joke that we won something that night. The people were unbelievable.”

Thanks to the incredible support they received, members of Team Canada were able to turn the pressure of winning into the impetus behind their run to the top of the podium. The loss to the US served as a reminder that there were other teams who were driven by the same forces. 

“Every championship we’ve ever won, something went wrong and we got through the adversity, we stuck together and we got better because of it,” Babcock noted.

Babcock beyond the game

Babcock stresses the fact that work has never become a burden because it’s his passion. 

“It’s all about finding something you love so much that you don’t work, because you can’t work as much as you need to in order to be the best … It’s impossible, because the amount of hours you have to put in, you can’t do it if it’s work. You have to live it.”

He is aware of the heavy time commitment that his job demands, so he feels the need to give back to his family and create lasting moments. One of these moments came in 2009, when the Chicago Blackhawks welcomed the Red Wings to Wrigley Field to participate in the annual NHL Winter Classic, the league’s only outdoor event. For Babcock, the experience was unforgettable in many regards, from being able to play in such a renowned field to having the opportunity to skate with his family before the game. These o
pportunities were his way of giving back to his family and, in the meantime, celebrating the game of hockey. 

“Memories to me are about moments in your life. You don’t remember half of the stuff, but you remember moments. That’s a moment. That’s what you’re trying to do, you’re trying to create moments in your life. That’s what you think of.”

There are rumours that next year’s Winter Classic will be held in Detroit, something that Babcock would love to experience.

Defining Babcock

Throughout his life, Babcock always earned his opportunities. With his incredible success, it would be simple for him to be satisfied with his accomplishments and become complacent. Yet, what defines Mike Babcock is not what he has accomplished, but the fact that he has never lost sight of the principles that have guided him. In turn, he has always managed to transfer his disposition onto his players and coaching colleagues, translating attitude into success on every level. 

“There are a lot of coaches [and] players that do it one year and don’t work the next year. I’m not interested in that. Every single year we have to find a way to make it happen. If we do what we did last year, that’s not good enough. That’s the other thing. As soon as you get complacent, people are going past you. That’s life, but it’s exciting.”

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