Mike Babcock will step behind the bench Thursday for his 1,000th game as an NHL head coach when Toronto takes on the New Jersey Devils at Air Canada Centre. But don’t make the mistake of thinking he’d planned or hoped for this to happen when he was a younger man. Indeed, like a lot of us, the 52-year-old grew up envisioning a future for himself entirely different from the job he holds today.
“Really, I thought I was going to be a professor at McGill University for the rest of my life,” said Babcock, who graduated from the Montreal university in 1986 with a degree in physical education. “I loved being on campus, loved teaching, thought that was what I was going to do. I went to play overseas (in England) one year, I ended up being a player-coach; that gave me the experience to apply for a (coaching) job. I just wanted to go to the Calgary Stampede, applying for a job at Red Deer College gave me a free way to the Stampede. I had no interest in stopping playing at that time when I got that job. I lost my way, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Babcock left Red Deer College after three seasons and spent two years with the Western League’s Moose Jaw Warriors, then returned to the Canadian collegiate scene with the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns for a year; after that, he took over the coaching reins of the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs for six seasons, then moved to Cincinnati of the American League for two years before he was hired to coach the Anaheim Ducks in May of 2002. He still remembers the particulars of the first NHL game he coached – a win over St. Louis in which Ducks players Andy McDonald, Stanislav Chistov and Alexei Smirnov were the stars – and why wouldn’t he? That Anaheim team missed the playoffs by 25 points the year before he arrived, and under his guidance, they came within one win of a Stanley Cup championship.
It’s that type of growth and turnaround Babcock lives for to this day, and one of the reasons he chose to join the Maple Leafs last summer after a highly successful decade – and one NHL championship – with the Detroit Red Wings.
“It’s the interaction,” Babcock said when asked after the pre-game skate Thursday what he most enjoys about the profession. “It’s being around young people, the best in the world at what they do, trying to get better. The other thing I know about players – I’ve probably had two in my whole time in 25 years of coaching that I didn’t think tried to get better. The rest try to get better every day, and I think when you’re sharing something with them that they think can help them get better, I think most people are all-in.
“Most coaches that I know love their players and are doing everything they can to make them better. My goal as I’ve got older is I want to make them better people first, and better players second.”
Babcock’s current group of players didn’t have much experience with him prior to this year – veteran wingers Joffrey Lupul and P-A Parenteau are the exceptions, with both having encountered him with the Ducks organization in 2002 – but, to a man, all of them have nothing but good things to say about his effect on them as individuals and the Leafs organization as a whole.
“I feel like he’s the exact same as when I met him,” said Parenteau, who was drafted by the Ducks in 2001. “A very intense guy, demands respect, and I think the guys appreciate him in this locker room.”
“I’d heard a lot of good things about him, that he’s an extremely hard worker, that he’s extremely honest, all that kind of stuff that you hear is true,” added defenseman Morgan Rielly. “He’s a great guy to work for, because he just tells you how it is.”
That said, Babcock has continued to evolve in the way he teaches and understands the game. That’s natural and necessary, just as it is for players who want to enjoy a lengthy on-ice career.
“Maybe his personality hasn’t (changed), but his coaching tactics and ways he thinks about the game has changed, because the game is always evolving,” said Lupul, who will also celebrate a milestone when he plays his 700th career NHL game Thursday. “I think if you want to be successful, you’ve got to be able to keep up with that curve, or you’re going to be left behind.”
Babcock has a well-earned reputation as one of the most straightforward people in the game, but he’s not a stony-eyed taskmaster who doesn’t want to relate to his players.
“When it comes to meetings and on the bench on the ice, he’s pretty business(like),” Lupul said. “But when you see him around the room, he likes to crack jokes and kind of be one of the guys in that way. If there’s something you did wrong on the ice, he doesn’t hold it over your head in the locker room, which I think is nice. I have played for coaches that kind of did that – they see you walking down the hall and give you the stink-eye. But he doesn’t do that. He separates that pretty well.”
As one of the most decorated coaches of his era – he also has two Olympic gold medals and an IIHF World Championship to his credit working with Team Canada – Babcock could rest on his laurels, but that’s not who the Saskatchewan native is. He remains as driven to succeed as ever, but he’s also better-equipped to have empathy for the athletes who work for him, something he attributes to being a devoted family man.
“The other thing that’s happened to me for sure is…having my kids grow up and having my kids be athletes,” said Babcock, who has three children with his wife, Maureen. “I’ve become a way better coach, because I understand what they go through and the mental grind it can be.”
With seven years left on his coaching contract in Toronto, Babcock will be looking at more than 1,500 games as an NHL coach by the time it’s completed. But having already spent more than a quarter-century behind benches, he thinks there’s a lesson young people can take from the long journey he’s had.
“I’ve got college-aged kids, and I always say to young people, the job you’re going to have hasn’t been invented yet,” Babcock said. “To go through struggles trying to figure out what your career is going to be is an important thing to do, (but) I think your parents, sometimes when you’re an 18-year-old kid in high school, they want you to know what you want to do with the rest of your life. That’s crazy. You don’t even know who you are. Grow up, experience some ups, experience some downs. Live a little, and then if you’re fortunate and you love what you do – if you love what you do, you have a chance to be great at it. If you don’t, you’re never going to be great at it.”