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Canadian Olympians trust, believe in Babcock

Monday, 01.20.2014 / 3:00 AM / 2014 Olympics

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Canadian Olympians trust, believe in Babcock
There's no doubt among the members of Canada's Olympic hockey team that Mike Babcock is the perfect coach for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Mike Babcock likes to say that gold-medal preparation yields gold-medal results. The players who were with him at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics can claim that they have their gold medals in part because of that very philosophy.

Canada won gold four years ago and will try to defend it next month with Babcock behind the bench at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

"Everything was laid out there for us when we got to the Olympics," Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith told NHL.com. "We were very well-prepared in what we wanted to accomplish on the ice as far as our systems and the way we wanted to play as a team. It was also communicated to us very clearly about what the other team's tendencies were, how they played their systems and the players on their team. That was one thing that stood out for me was how well prepared we were as players."

That preparation has players like Keith and the 10 others who played for Canada in Vancouver trusting that Babcock again is the ideal coach for them in a short tournament.

While his success in the NHL is well known -- Babcock is a Stanley Cup champion (2008), a three-time Cup Finalist (2003, 2008, 2009) and the third-fastest coach in history to reach 400 wins, behind Scotty Bowman and Glen Sather -- he has had great success in international tournaments.

Babcock is the only coach in the International Ice Hockey Federation's Triple-Gold Club (Stanley Cup champion, Olympic gold medalist, IIHF World Championship gold medalist). He also won gold coaching at the 1997 IIHF World Junior Championship in Geneva.

"He's quick, to the point and he's huge on details," New York Rangers forward and returning Canadian Olympian Rick Nash said. "He makes sure you know all the information you need to know and he's intense. Guys come in and feed off of his intensity and his game plan.

"Sometimes it's tough to judge in just two weeks, but for the short tournament he's honest, up front, tells you how it is and that's all you can ask for in a short tournament. It's pretty amazing. He's a pretty talented coach."

Keith said he particularly likes that Babcock treats the players like the professionals they are. He's optimistic but not rah-rah. He's hard but not stubborn.

"It's not a movie here. It's not 'Miracle,'" Keith said. "There doesn't need to be any heroic speeches. We all know that whether it's in the NHL or at the Olympics. As players, when you're treated like men, you're going to play like men."

Babcock started to get the players prepared for Sochi at the Canadian Olympic orientation camp in August. The 45 players in attendance were not allowed to skate because the prohibitive cost of insuring their contracts, so Babcock instead put them through drills on a ball-hockey court built to mimic the international ice sheet they will play on in Russia.

He prepared himself by speaking to his coaching friends, including Michigan State men's basketball coach Tom Izzo, for advice on how to best utilize what essentially was a walk-through on a foreign surface. Izzo puts his players through walk-throughs in hotel ballrooms to save them from extra time in the gymnasium.

The goal at the camp in Calgary was to make sure the players in the camp (23 were selected for the Olympic team) understood the terminology and some of the systems that Babcock and the coaching staff plan to use in Sochi.

Once the players left Calgary they were left alone. Babcock didn't want to fill their heads with information during the NHL season because he didn't want to take their focus away from their teams. However, when the Canadian team gets together for its first practice in Sochi the hope is what they learned through those drills at the orientation camp will make the transition easier.

"The reason we did it this summer is so they can turn the light bulbs on quickly," Babcock said. "They'll have seen it and know the terminology and understand what's expected. I'm not concerned about that one bit. Plus, the hockey IQ is off the charts with this group so I'm not concerned about getting up to speed and running.

"The other thing is you're not going to be as good in Game 1 as you will be as the tournament goes on. We all know that you get better."

The second part of that comment is just as important as the first for Babcock. Staying true to that line of thinking was one of the keys that helped Canada win gold in Vancouver.

The Canadians were not playing nearly close to their best at the start of the tournament. They blasted Norway 8-0 but needed a shootout winner from Sidney Crosby to beat Switzerland and then lost 5-3 to the United States in the third and final game of group play.

The pressure was mounting and people across the country were nervous about Canada's chances at a gold medal in its home Olympics. But Babcock stayed composed and never let the outside pressure influence his decisions or his players.

Mike Babcock is the only coach in the International Ice Hockey Federation's Triple-Gold Club (Stanley Cup champion, Olympic gold medalist, IIHF World Championship gold medalist). He also won gold coaching at the 1997 IIHF World Junior Championship in Geneva. (Photo: Getty Images)

"Even right through the end we really felt that [we were a work in progress] and I was very comfortable with that," Babcock said. "I know the media isn't and the fans probably aren't, but that's life. … That's why you've got to understand and make your own decisions on how you're doing based on what you think and not on what the public thinks."

Keith said the players fed off of Babcock's optimism throughout the tournament.

"We did understand obviously what was at stake and the pressure and everything, but there was always that positive reinforcement from him and the rest of the coaches and management for that matter that we can do this, that we can play our best," Keith said. "There was a belief there that we could really accomplish something special."

Canada routed Russia 7-3 in the quarterfinals, got past Slovakia 3-2 in the semifinals and needed Crosby's memorable overtime winner to beat the United States 3-2 in the gold-medal game.

Now Babcock has to try to get the Canadian team, complete with 14 players who were not part of the 2010 squad, to do it again in Sochi, where everything from the ice surface to the time zone to the living quarters to the food and family atmosphere will be different.

In Sochi, they'll be playing on a surface that has a bigger neutral zone and is 15 feet wider, equating to an extra 3,000 square feet. They'll be in an unfamiliar place between nine and 12 time zones away depending on where they play in the NHL. The food will be different. The Olympic Village will be different. And some might not have their families with them.

But they will be prepared.

Babcock said the Canadian team had a conference call earlier this week to discuss the family program so the players who do have family members going to Sochi know that they're going to be looked after. He said they have more calls set up to talk about what he called the sleep program so the players know how to properly train their bodies for the drastic time-zone change.

"All those things are just an ongoing process so when you land everything is ready to roll," Babcock said. "Obviously we've got to have things looked after and buttoned down just like in Vancouver with no surprises, but we're going into a different country with a different culture so there are going to be some things that come up. A little adversity never killed anybody, but we want to be ultra-prepared.

"As a coach who has been [to the Olympics] and had success one time you never want to look back and say we didn't do enough the second time because we won the first time," Babcock said. "I'd rather over-prepare then underprepare and make sure that we've got everything done. That's what we're trying to do."

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2014 OLYMPICS POLL