One thing you learn quickly covering Mike Babcock every day: no coach values and structures each minute more than the Maple Leafs head coach. His practices are high-tempo exercises in near-perpetual motion, and when he’s blown the final whistle of the day, he’s off the ice in short order and moving on to his next task.
The veteran bench boss makes the most of each interaction he has, including an exclusive interview with MapleLeafs.com where he discussed his philosophies on coaching, his early days in Toronto, and much more. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
MapleLeafs.com: From the time you began coaching until now, how has the role evolved from your perspective?
Mike Babcock: I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, I’m a schoolteacher by trade, I started at college hockey, I went to junior hockey, I went back to college hockey, I did the American Hockey League and I’ve done the NHL, so I’ve done a lot of different things. For me, the game continues to change and grow, and yet, in lots of ways it’s the same.
People continue to change over the years, and yet, normal athletes you’re dealing with are real good people trying to get better, and trying to be the best they can be. And your job is to help them do that. You demand out of your players that they continue to get better, and I think it’s important to do the same for yourself and make sure you’re working at trying to get better.
I don’t really have a lot of answers there; the game’s much more technical, there’s more video, there’s more analytics, there’s more information, there’s more people. It takes way more time, because there’s more information.
MapleLeafs.com: You’ve spoken a couple of times about "night and day" the perception vs. the reality, with Dion, Lou, for example. What about working and living in Toronto – the perception-vs-reality?
Mike Babcock: I hadn’t been in Toronto very much, didn’t know much about the city. I love the city. Obviously, the fan base here is spectacular, and they love their Leafs, which is great. I come from a real good spot in Detroit, where the fan base is fantastic, and it’s is a real good place to live. I don’t have any kids at home anymore, this has been an opportunity for my wife and I to live downtown, which is a way different thing in itself, so that’s been good.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Detroit. It was fantastic. But the change is invigorating. It’s way different, and the challenge is massive, as you can see here. It’s been a lot of fun thus far, we’ve just got to be patient, keep grinding, keep getting better everyday, and we’ll build a franchise.
MapleLeafs.com: Favourite parts of the city so far?
Mike Babcock: I live in Yorkville, so that’s where I know. I don’t know much else. We practice here, I live in Yorkville and I know where the ACC is. I don’t know much else. I’ve been out to Cambridge waterskiing a few times, other than that I haven’t done anything. Over time, I imagine I’ll get to know it better.
MapleLeafs.com: I know you've made a point of speaking out in the past about mental health, and that’s been an incredibly important issue for you. I know you've also said you want to make this a safe place for Leafs players to play. Is that connected in a way, where mental health is taking up, maybe not your entire mindset, but that factors into it more with players?
Mike Babcock: I never thought of that part, but mental health is a huge deal for me, just because it affects one in five Canadians, it affects people all around us, it’s a huge issue and it’s one we don’t talk about enough. People suffer in silence, and I can’t imagine anybody suffering in silence, so I think that’s important.
The second thing I would say to you is (about) making it safe for the players: I think our players, you can tell it by talking to them right now, they feel pretty good. And when you feel safe, that doesn’t mean it’s friendly and cuddly. I never said that at all. It’s “do your job, do it well, we’re gonna look after you,”. I think Lou’s real good at that, I try to be good at that. I’m trying to create an environment that’s demanding and yet supportive, and that pushes people to be better.
We expect relentless effort every single day. Period. And you have to be all-in, every day. Is that easy? No, that’s not easy, but when you get used to it and it becomes the culture you’re involved in, I think that makes it easier for you.
MapleLeafs.com: People refer to the modern-day NHL as a younger player's league. How has that changed your focus as a coach? Is it more about teaching in general?
Mike Babcock: Yeah, I don’t believe that necessarily. I believe the best players get to play as long as they want, and the rest of us can’t keep up as time goes on. But the greatest thing about fitness and if you really want to commit to fitness and off-season and in-season training, you can make your career last longer.
There’s no question you’ve got to be able to skate, though. You’ve got to be able to skate to play. You have to be able to play fast, but if you don’t have any hockey sense, that’s no good, either. Going fast and not knowing where you’re going is not very good, either.
MapleLeafs.com: When you're trying to build trust with players, are there occasions where you can actually see guys clicking in behind the eyes with them believing in what you're selling, or is it a more gradual thing?
Mike Babcock: I think you know for sure. You know by how you interact, you know who’s all-in. You question everyday, you say to yourself, “Is this guy in? Is that guy in? Is he in?”. We’re about a third of the way through (the regular season), and as I meet with them and I talk to them about that, I know by how they compete, how hard they go in the gym, how hard they go in practice, whether they’re all-in or not. There’s nowhere to hide in sport. You can talk all you want, that has nothing to do with who you are. It’s what you do every day. So they know, and I know, it doesn’t matter what I say, it’s what I do, and it’s the same for them.
MapleLeafs.com: What's the biggest mistake a coach can make - not necessarily at this level, but if you were talking to amateur coaches, what would you say?
Mike Babcock: I just think the biggest thing you have to do is, when they give you a title called “coach”, you should be proud of it. But it comes with a huge responsibility, and the huge responsibility is you make sure they love the game more when they leave than when they arrived.
And the second thing is, you’ve got to be ultra-organized. You have to make them better, and in order to do that, you’ve got to be prepared yourself. So this thing of, “I wasn’t able to get my practice plan done, I was at work,” none of that matters. You get it done, you get it organized for the kids, and you help them become what they’re capable of becoming.
MapleLeafs.com: How has your relationship with Brendan Shanahan changed over the years?
Mike Babcock: First year I knew him when he played for me (in Detroit), I don’t know, you’d have to ask Shanny whether we had a good relationship or a bad relationship. I thought we had a good relationship. He scored 40 (goals) in 40 (games) at age 37, so I’d say it was pretty good. He went to the Rangers after that, and I’ve talked to him over the years. I feel real honoured in the fact that two players I hold in high regard and that I coached in Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan – Steve Yzerman had me coach the Olympics for him, Shanny’s hired me to do this - you must have done something right, or they wouldn’t have hired you.
MapleLeafs.com: How do you decompress? Are you a music guy or a book guy away from the rink?
Mike Babcock: Books, but family for sure. I love to hunt, I love to waterski. One thing about me, I have a life outside of hockey, no question about it. And I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing my life, and trying to be full-in wherever I’m at.
MapleLeafs.com: Last book you read, or maybe your favorite book?
Mike Babcock: What am I reading right now – there’s a ton of them – I’m reading Urban Meyer’s “Above the Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Season”. But I’m reading all the time.
MapleLeafs.com: When you talked recently about bigger nets in the NHL, that made a big ripple in the hockey waters. If you could make one change to the game, would that be it? Or is there something else you’d do if you had the chance?
Mike Babcock: I’d have to think about it for sure, but I think – I know no one believes in what I believe – but I think we change the game every day by leaving the nets the size they are. And the math would tell you that. You can say anything you want as a purist, (but) the math flat-out tells you that we’re changing the game.
MapleLeafs.com: I agree. I always wonder, when they build new rinks, they make the seats bigger because human beings have grown, but that proportionality hasn’t extended to the nets.
Mike Babcock: But they haven’t made the ice bigger. But I don’t want it international size. I’d take half the distance between this and international too, and make (the ice) a little bit bigger.