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Mike Babcock embraces NHL's traditions

Maple Leafs coach is leading his second Original Six team

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- Hockey history and the traditions of this grand game have been in Mike Babcock's blood since the bone-chilling games outside his home at 15 Wapoos Bay.

The Toronto Maple Leafs coach recalls those early-1970s games of his youth, played during his four-year stay in Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, where his father, Michael, worked as a mining engineer. Today, he can recreate those marathons as though he's just come in off the frigid road.

"We had no streetlights," Babcock said. "And on quiet nights, when it was 40 below zero and the wind wasn't blowing, we'd ask to get some candles and put them on the chunks of snow that were our goalposts."

Babcock, a few years from turning into his teens, joined other hardy kids in the neighborhood for games that ended just short of frostbite.

"We were so far north that it was always dark," he said of Leaf Rapids, a speck on the map that's 600 miles north of Winnipeg. "Honest to God, we played so much road hockey. The sky … that street was lit by the stars and the moon. It was so cold that the sponge-rubber puck would turn to rock, but you had your snowmobile suit on so it didn't hurt as bad."

You will find no NHL coach who is closer to his roots or more attuned to hockey's history and its legends than Babcock. The 53-year-old native of Manitouwadge, Ontario, has embraced every facet of the game, from his minor-hockey days in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to the captaincy of the McGill University Redmen in Montreal, from his humble start as a community college coach in Alberta, to his history-making achievements behind the benches of NHL, Olympic and IIHF World Championship teams.

He is hockey's only "Triple Gold" coach; winner of the Stanley Cup, Olympic gold (twice), and the Worlds. He's also led Canada to gold in the IIHF World Junior Championship and coached the University of Lethbridge (Alberta) to the Canadian university title, making it five diamond-studded rings in his trophy case.

You are reminded of Babcock's respect for hockey every time he visits Bell Centre (home of the Montreal Canadiens), which he does with the Maple Leafs and did for a decade before that as coach of the Detroit Red Wings and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, as they were then known. Without fail, he will take a long moment to absorb Montreal's peerless hockey history and he's always delighted to discuss the icons of the game.

Another reminder came June 15 in Detroit at the funeral of Red Wings legend Gordie Howe, which Babcock attended with his wife, Maureen, their daughters, Alexandra and Taylor, and their son, Michael III.

"We all went because of the way Gordie treated my kids, who he met all the time in Detroit," Babcock said. "It had nothing to do with the hockey player he was. He was a man. He was awesome. Those are special things. That's just the way it is."

As the funeral ended, Babcock met Canadiens icons Yvan Cournoyer and Guy Lafleur on the church steps, greeting both with "sir."

Sitting three rows in front of the Babcock family had been former Boston Bruins great Bobby Orr, probably one of the few legends that Taylor Babcock, 19, had not met.

Orr was Mike Babcock's favorite player in his youth, the reason he wore No. 4 playing for the peewee and bantam Saskatoon Bruins.

"Bobby was my guy," he said by phone from his summer home in Michigan, out running his dog over their dozen acres. "I got my picture taken with that statue of Bobby (outside TD Garden, the Bruins' arena), and it's on my office wall here at the lake.

"I must have talked about Bobby so much. Taylor told me, 'I wore No. 4 my whole life, too, it's my soccer number and it's what I wore playing hockey.' But Bobby left the church before I could introduce her to him. She's dying to meet him."

Babcock said he was "never a Habs fan, ever" until he arrived at McGill in the early 1980s to pursue a degree in physical education. While at McGill, he attended his first NHL game.

"I never went to any games, I never got to meet anybody," he said. "I wasn't in a situation like my kids, who have met everybody. I just was in love with the game from afar, more in love with playing it than watching it.

"I remember the energy that Yvan played with, like it was yesterday. I was never a Leafs fan, either, and I never believed in my lifetime that I'd be involved with the Leafs. Never, ever, never."

That changed in May 2015 when he signed an eight-year contract with Toronto. After beginning his NHL coaching career with Anaheim, coaching there from 2002-04, he moved to the Red Wings and then last season to the Maple Leafs, his second Original Six team, with yet more history to absorb.

In Detroit, Babcock had begun paying tribute to the past, placing the names of Red Wings icons above vacant dressing-room stalls. He has imported that tradition to Toronto, still feeling his way into the storied past of a franchise that is on the doorstep of its centennial celebration and working to claw its way back into contention.

By all indications, the Maple Leafs will commemorate their century in grand style.

"Ideally, we're going to start having a team to match," Babcock said. "We're sure going in the right direction. What we try to do is have the names up (on stall nameplates) of the guys who are still alive and still come around. Whoever might be coming around that day, we try to have them up.

"I'm not yet tied in quite as tight to those guys as I was in Detroit. But (Toronto legend) Dave Keon, for example - when he came in this past season, well, he and the Leafs had broken company for a long time. For him to come back and be in the room again, it was spectacular for him. I could just tell.

"Red Kelly is another guy. I know his son real good. We've got to get Red down there so he can see it. When these legends go in there and see their names in the stalls, not only is it good for our young guys, but it's good for them."

Babcock fondly recalls Paul MacLean, an assistant coach for him in Anaheim and Detroit, using the NHL as the standard to which he compared anything that was particularly good in life.

"We'd go out for a good meal and Paul would say, 'Babs, that's NHL,'" Babcock said. "Anything that would be spectacular, he'd say, 'Babs, that's Original Six.'

"What I like about that is that it's paying back to the great past. Our problem is, Toronto's past is 1967 (the last time the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup). The gap is too far."

Indeed, Johnny Bower is the only living goalie to have won a championship in Toronto.

"That's ridiculous," Babcock said. "When you see that man, you just go, 'Whoa …' When I saw 'the Chief' (former captain George Armstrong) last season, when he was bronzed in a statue on Legends Row … even Borje Salming or Darryl Sittler, you want to be around those people. When Sittler is around, you enjoy him."

Babcock will take the Maple Leafs to Saskatoon, his minor-hockey home, Oct. 4 for a preseason game against the Ottawa Senators. This month, he will bring his 2016 World Cup of Hockey coaches (Babcock is coaching Team Canada in September) to the city for a charity golf tournament.

They will visit Gordie Howe Bowl, the stadium named for the legend who called Saskatoon home. It was in that city that Canada announced its 2010 Vancouver Olympic team, a group with whom Babcock won the first of his two gold medals.

"I wasn't going to go to the announcement but (Red Wings GM and Team Canada associate director) Ken Holland said, 'That's the Olympic team and you're from there. Go there,'" Babcock said. "That was the most emotional thing I've ever been involved in. It was my town, my place."

Babcock was given an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the University of Saskatchewan this spring and delivered the convocation address.

"I went to the graveyard on that visit to visit Mum and Dad," he said. "I thought, 'I'm from here. Gordie Howe is from here. It's unbelievable.'"

If he is a million miles from road hockey in Leaf Rapids, Babcock holds those memories, and his roots in this sport, with great reverence.

For all that has changed in his life, from a frozen sponge-rubber puck in a tiny town to coaching on a global stage, one thing remains exactly as it was under a cold, star-splashed Manitoba sky more than four decades ago:

"We would start every game on the road, every night, with the national anthem," Babcock said. "It was classic."

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