The Maple Leafs are enjoying some down time in the off-season, but the break taken by modern hockey players is increasingly short. Soon – if they aren’t already – the team will head back to gyms and arenas across North America and in Europe, all with a focus on one thing: impressing head coach Mike Babcock to the point they lock up an NHL job with an up-and-coming, increasingly-competitive Toronto organization this coming season.
And those Leafs players who got to know Babcock in the 2015-16 campaign know they’ll be given every opportunity to succeed under the meritocracy he established in his first year in Toronto.
“You earn everything,” veteran centre Brooks Laich said in early April of life under Babcock, who spent the previous decade in Detroit before signing with the Buds in the summer of 2015. “He’s not a guy that’s going to give you anything. He’s a fair guy and an honest guy; he’ll tell you when you do something right, and just the same, he has no problems telling you when you do something wrong. With him, all you want to play for is a coach that lets you earn it, play for an honest guy who lets you learn. And as a student of the game, I just love to learn – and so to pick a hockey mind like (Babcock’s) every single day? Pretty neat to experience.”
“He’s been great,” added blueliner Jake Gardiner. “He’s a guy that knows each player individually as a person and a player, and knows exactly how to coach each player and get the most out of each guy. I think he’s done a really good job of that this year.”
As one of the most accomplished members of his profession, Babcock commanded respect the minute he joined the franchise, and his impact was immediate and profound. Practices became more high-energy; there was an obvious improvement in on-ice structure, particularly on the defensive end; and Babcock’s famous work ethic resonated with all of his players.
On the outside, media could see Babcock continue his longstanding tradition of exercising by running through the concourse before practices. But most of that was merely surface motivational material, and material players admitted they didn’t know all that much about while the season played out. What had a more lasting effect on them was the day-to-day work Babcock put in to give them a chance to win as a group and grow as individuals. Indeed, when your bench boss is exerting maximum energy in pursuit of a Stanley Cup, there can be no excuses for a player to not put forth the same effort.
Babcock’s knowledge of the Xs-and-Os of the sport put him among the elite at what he does, but for Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, Babcock’s ability to withstand the pressures and responsibilities that come along with coaching one of the NHL’s most storied franchises made him an ideal choice – and he proved so last year. Although he missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04 (and only the second time in his 13-year NHL coaching career), Babcock more than capably managed a positive message about the team’s direction and future, both to an omnipresent media contingent and to the dressing room.
Few could’ve done it as well as Babcock did, and it’s difficult to make a case anyone could’ve done it better.
“He’s a great fit for Toronto, and he’s a great fit because he’s a great coach, he’s a teacher, he’s been on big stages before in the NHL and the international stage, so I don’t think that bright lights or pressure affect him in a negative way,” Shanahan said at the end of the season. “I think it energizes him and I think he loves being here. There are a lot of great coaches in the NHL; I think Mike is one of them, and I think he’s probably the best fit for Toronto.”
The 53-year-old Babcock used some of his off-season to focus on his non-hockey-related loves, including waterskiing at his cottage and spending time with his family. But just like his players, Babcock will get back to work sooner than later – especially this summer, when he’s got to prepare to serve as coach for Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
If you spend enough time in Babcock’s presence and get a sense of how much passion he has for the game, you’ll know that’s going to be a labour of love – and that his players will follow his lead.
“He’s probably one of the best coaches in the league right now,” winger Milan Michalek said. “He’s got lots of respect from everybody, and you know that everybody’s going to give 100 percent every night and do every detail. That’s huge.”