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Babcock's leadership key to Canada's repeat hopes

Thursday, 10.31.2013 / 3:00 AM / 2014 Olympics

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Babcock's leadership key to Canada's repeat hopes
Mike Babcock's steady approach in Vancouver nearly four years ago is another reason why Canada is hopeful for a gold-medal repeat at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Early in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when Canadians from British Columbia to the Maritimes began to wonder if the country's gold-medal dream was turning into a nightmare, coach Mike Babcock did not.

As the tournament progressed and Canada lost to the United States, concern grew among Babcock's countrymen and countrywomen that the hosts were in danger of folding under the intense pressure.

Babcock, though, never veered off path.

"Steady on the rudder," Babcock said when asked what he learned in Vancouver. "There's going to be adversity. The greatest plan on your napkin is going to be thrown out after Game 1 and you're going to have to adjust. But just do what you do."

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Babcock shuffled Canada's lines and defense pairs, and made a controversial change in net from Martin Brodeur to Roberto Luongo after a 5-3 loss to the U.S. Canada went on to blast Russia 7-3 in the quarterfinals, survive for a 3-2 win against Slovakia in the semifinals and then beat the Americans 3-2 in the gold-medal game thanks to an unforgettable overtime goal from Sidney Crosby.

"We didn't start real well in Vancouver but kept getting better each game," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said. "That's what [Babcock] emphasized. It's about winning the last game."

Babcock's steady approach in Vancouver nearly four years ago is another reason why Canadians are hopeful for a gold-medal repeat at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. His personality and confidence are two reasons why he was asked to reprise his role as coach of the Olympic team by Canada executive director Steve Yzerman.

"He's a strong leader," Yzerman told NHL.com and NHL Network. "He's a strong guy that will take everything into consideration and make hard decisions. He's focused. He has attention to detail. He's surrounded himself with a very good coaching staff. He's gathering information and is always looking to get better. But most importantly he's a strong leader that a team like this needs."

The players bought in to Babcock's approach in 2010. Several likely will return to the Olympics with him early next year. They don't expect anything to be different.

"It's the energy he brings to the rink, the preparation that he brings," Crosby told NHL.com and NHL Network. "He's had a lot of success for a lot of different reasons, but the things that stand out to me are the energy and the preparation. Every detail matters to him and going into a short tournament like the Olympics I think the details matter even more. Those are all things he does really well."

Babcock's preparation for the 2014 Olympics started immediately after he was asked to coach the team. He went about surrounding himself with people he trusts and respects.

Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock were on his coaching staff in 2010 and will be back for 2014. Claude Julien, a recent Stanley Cup-winning coach, will join the staff in Sochi.

They believe the chemistry they have will help them get through whatever adversity the team will face.

"There is pressure in the NHL, pressure in the NHL playoffs, but there is pressure and stress in the Olympics because you're carrying the weight of a nation on you," Hitchcock told NHL.com and NHL Network. "We have great chemistry as a staff. It's a bunch of confident guys that are very experienced and know what it takes to win, especially at the Olympic level. That familiar ground is definitely going to help us in Sochi."

Since the tournament will be played on the larger, international ice, Babcock felt his staff needed someone who understands the nuances of the game on the big sheet. That's why he asked Ralph Krueger, who coached overseas for nearly two decades, to be a consultant to his coaching staff.

"When I coached in [1997] in Geneva at the World Juniors and in '04 at the World Championships, the penalty killing scared me to death and I didn't have anybody to [ask], 'Does this work?'" Babcock said. "We've got a guy now. To me that's a huge confidence builder."

Babcock's preparation for 2014 continued in August at the Canadian Olympic team orientation camp in Calgary.

"He knows what he wants."
-- Scott Niedermayer on Canada coach Mike Babcock

He wanted to show the 45 players in attendance the systems the Canadians will use in Sochi, but prohibitive costs for insuring all the player contracts meant he couldn't practice what he was talking about on the ice. So Babcock sought advice from some people he knows in the coaching business to determine the best way to relay the information to his team in a setting that would be conducive to learning.

He spoke to Michigan State University basketball coach Tom Izzo and Detroit Lions quarterbacks coach Todd Downey. They convinced him to put the players through what essentially was a walk-through, similar to what football teams do the day before games and what Izzo has his basketball team do in hotel ballrooms before games.

Babcock had the Hockey Canada staff lay out a ball hockey surface complete with all the lines and markings and he broke the players into two groups so they could practice in T-shirts, shorts and sneakers. The energy that Crosby was talking about was evident as Babcock was all over the place, demonstrating what he wanted the players to do.

"I believe if you have gold-medal preparation the results look after themselves," Babcock said.

To get the results, Babcock feels he has to have a direct approach with the players. He does things quickly and they have to catch on just as fast.

"He knows what he wants," Scott Niedermayer, Canada's captain at the 2010 Olympics, told NHL.com. "You don't have a lot of time to go through things [at the Olympics], work things out. The way that tournament happens, it comes at you pretty quick. He was direct, not a lot of gray area, this is how we're going to do it, and he did a good job. He got us all on the same page."

Babcock will have to do it again once the team assembles in Sochi.

There will be adversity, lineup changes and perhaps a goaltending controversy like there was in Vancouver. Babcock will have to deal with the pressure of expectations while trying to guide his team through some stiff competition.

People around him in Sochi and fans back in Canada undoubtedly will overreact at the smallest detail in a game and the most inconsequential decision he makes. Nobody knows better than Babcock what his team is up against, but he won't wonder about his approach or waver in his beliefs.

That's why he's back behind Canada's bench.

"Being through a lot of opportunities in the past, having experience allows you to be calmer, more sure of your plan and steadier for longer," Babcock said.

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