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Babcock demands accountability from players, himself

Thursday, 06.05.2008 / 1:22 AM / 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs

By Shawn P. Roarke - NHL.com Senior Managing Editor

Mike Babcock is not about making easy or popular decisions, and winning the Stanley Cup proves his methods have merit.
 Babcock's post-game press conference
PITTSBURGH -- Detroit coach Mike Babcock has never been shy about making the tough decisions.

In the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, Babcock refused to dress future Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Chelios for even one game. He pulled future Hall of Fame goalie Dominik Hasek four games into the first-round series against Nashville and Hasek, much to his consternation, never saw the ice again. 

Sure, it would have made for a feel-good story had either of these living legends played in a game of the Stanley Cup Final, allowed to have one last victory lap, so to speak.

But the thought never crossed Babcock's mind. It's not because he is not sentimental. Quite the contrary, he has quite the soft side and a keen understanding of good theater. Rather, he believed it not to be in the best interest of his team.

In the end he was proven right, guiding the Red Wings to their fourth Cup in 11 years with a six-game decision against Pittsburgh, capped by Wednesday night's 3-2 win. It was Babcock's first Cup.

"Well, you know, I probably haven't come to grips with that," Babcock said afterward. "But to be able to share this journey with the guys and to be able to share it with the city of Detroit, and obviously my family, that's very emotional. I'm sure I'm going to have some emotional moments in the next week just thinking about it.

"But to have your name on the Stanley Cup, (that's) pretty special."

For a man who demands accountability from the Detroit players, he knew he had to be accountable to them by making the best possible tactical decisions without letting emotion rule the day.

"They're very, very special (players)," Babcock said during the series, talking about all the big names that dot the Red Wing roster. "So like I said, they deserve your respect. But a big part about the Red Wings is we're about winning. (General Manager) Ken Holland says that all the time. And we do whatever we can to win.

"So, when you make hard decisions, personally sometimes, as much as it is personal for them, it's not about them. It's not about me, it's about winning and that's just what we do."

That statement pretty much sums up Babcock's philosophy. He is about winning, first and foremost. And he'll make the hard decisions to deliver the results he has been tasked to deliver.

"I'm the coach. They play. I have a good relationship with a lot of them. None of them would consider me their buddy. I'm not like that and I've never been like that. But in saying that, you know, we think we treat our players fairly. We probably treat them all different, just because they are different. I think that's important. I think there's a human side to sports, and I think if you understand that and you deal with people fairly and honestly and with respect, you have a chance to get a lot out of them."

Babcock got the most out of these 2007-08 Red Wings by being hard on the team when he had to, but also by letting the core of veteran leadership run the ship most of the time.

When Detroit lost Game 5 in triple OT -- a loss at home with the Cup in the building -- Babcock didn't say anything to the players after they trudged into the dressing room.

"I don't talk after we win, and I don't talk after we lose," Babcock said. "(I) basically just said: 'Hey, it's not easy. Keep your head up, let's get going.' But they're big boys. They understand this."

They understand it a little better when they see the coach holding himself as accountable as he holds his players.

After a loss here in Game 3, Babcock placed the blame squarely on his own shoulders, suggesting that his distribution of ice time was sub-par.

It took some people by surprise that the coach would be so critical of and forthright about his decisions, but it shouldn't have. Babcock has always been direct.

"I'm from Saskatoon, and that's what you do," he said, when pressed why he would fall on his own sword after Game 3. "Bottom line is players make mistakes. Coaches make mistakes.

"I think it's a process, just like you as a writer or anybody else in here, you're trying to get better all the time. If not, somebody else has your job."

It'll be hard for anyone to take Babcock's job now. After all, he is a Stanley Cup-winning coach. A coach who is respected by his veteran players, who have been there and done that three times before Babcock even arrived on the scene.

Nicklas Lidstrom, the team's captain, has been impressed with what Babcock's brought to the club since taking the coaching reigns in 2005.

So what makes Babcock so good, good enough to win 162 regular-season games in his three-year tenure and seven playoff rounds?

"I think he's real good at knowing when to be a little looser on the group, knowing when to push us a little bit more at other times," Lidstrom says. "I think he's got a good feel of the group that he has. He's been with us for three years. I think it's been a learning process for him, too, to get to know the players.

"And I think he knows us real well as a group, and he knows when he can push us a little bit more."

The learning-process reference from Lidstrom has to be music to Babcock's ears. This coach is all about learning; believing every win and, more importantly, every loss, presents an opportunity to become a better coach, a better leader of men.

"To me, this is a great learning opportunity -- no matter how many times you've been here, how many times you've won," Babcock says of the playoffs. 

With Wednesday's result, it is clear that Babcock has expertly learned his coaching lessons -- tutorials that begin with Moose Jaw in the Western Hockey League back in 1993 and continued through stops with the University of Lethbridge, with Spokane (WHL), with Cincinnati (AHL), with Anaheim and now with Detroit.

His mastery of coaching was put into focus during the Final when a reporter asked Lidstrom to compare Babcock to Scotty Bowman, the legendary coach who piloted Detroit to three Stanley Cup victories in six years, from 1997 to 2002.

"They're similar in the way Scotty could be real intense, too, behind the bench and really stay on us," Lidstrom said. "And other times he would kind of leave the team alone. I see the same things with 'Babs,' too. I think 'Babs' is more hands-on, where he's involved in a lot more decisions than maybe Scotty was.

"I think their coaching style is very similar, too, where they want to be the intense, don't let the group be too loose at times, and at other times, you have to get on them a little bit. And knowing who to push and who to leave alone a little bit. So I think they both had that, how to react to different people, where some you have to stay on and push a little bit. Others you're going to have to encourage a little bit. So I see a lot of similarities in that."

The most striking similarity, however, is that Scotty Bowman and Mike Babcock are now the last two coaches from Detroit to raise the Stanley Cup. And that, without a doubt, is pretty special company to be keeping.

Quote of the Day

I didn't even know how to celebrate. I threw my hands up, they gave me a hug, so I guess that's all I needed.

— Sabres forward Tim Schaller on scoring his first NHL goal Sunday against the Bruins