Red Wings coach Mike Babcock relishes the chance to coach Team Canada.
Babcock’s every move from behind the bench at the Vancouver Olympics will be dissected and debated in the hockey-crazed country. If the Canadians win gold in front of their fans, he’ll enjoy a a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
If not, he’ll never be able to forget it.
Babcock said it was “absolutely devastating” when Anaheim lost Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup finals — in his first season as an NHL head coach — but that disappointment likely would be trumped by falling short at the end of the month.
Babcock’s piercing eyes don’t blink and sharp tongue isn’t stunted, though, when pressed about his emotions as he approaches what might be the defining moment of his stellar career.
“It’s the biggest honor anyone coaching hockey could have. It’s the ultimate,” Babcock said. “I’m sure Ron Wilson coaching the U.S. feels the same way about it, but hockey is a religion in Canada, and it’s THE sport. That’s what makes it so exciting.
“Being the best hockey nation in the world means a lot to Canada.”
Babcock seems about as prepared and qualified as possible for the job. He helped the Red Wings hoist the Stanley Cup in 2008 and was a win away from repeating last year. He won more games in the playoffs (58) and regular-season (282) than any other NHL coach in his first six seasons. Former Wings coach Scotty Bowman, Glen Sather, Fred Shero and Babcock are the only coaches in the expansion era that started four decades ago to coach in three or more Stanley Cup finals in their first six seasons.
The Red Wings hired him after away from the Ducks after he climbed the coaching ladder with Cincinnati in the AHL, Spokane and Moose Jaw in the WHL, the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns and Red Deer College.
Babcock also paid his dues for Hockey Canada, becoming the country’s first coach to win a world championship (2004) and world junior championship (1997).
“He has a great track record as a proven winner,” said Hockey Canada executive director and Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman, who picked Babcock to coach the team he assembled.
Babcock’s duties in Vancouver will include being the face and voice for his team. The 46-year-old Babcock can handle a sea of reporters and TV cameras with ease by delivering stern messages in one breath and regaling the media with stories the next.
“He’ll be perfectly comfortable on and off the ice because he enjoys coaching and everything about it,” Yzerman said. “He’s a strong leader.”
During a relatively casual orientation camp last August in Calgary, Babcock’s style came across as clear as a Canadian lake.
Several of Babcock’s players were asked a couple weeks before the Vancouver Games begin for their impressions of him, and almost all of them said “intense” within the first few words.
“He’s very intense, very serious, obviously,” San Jose Sharks forward Dany Heatley said. “He expects a lot out of you. I had him before in a world championship in ’04. I know him a little bit from there. He’s very organized and knows what he wants you to do and expects a lot out of you.”
Babcock makes no bones about being brash at times.
“Do I handle everything right? No. Am I too harsh sometimes? Maybe,” Babcock once said in an interview with the Associated Press. “But players will always know where they stand with me and what pleases me because I’ll let them know, and I don’t play games.”
Babcock will have only one day to run a practice with his team before it plays Norway on Feb. 16 in the preliminary round. If the Canadians aren’t skating hard or don’t look focused — even if it’s a morning skate — they’ll hear about it.
“He’s very vocal,” Dallas stars forward Brenden Morrow said.
Morrow played against Babcock when he was coaching Spokane, was one of his players at the world championships and is on his 23-man roster in Vancouver.
“He’s a great motivator,” Morrow said. “He wants a lot of tempo and energy. For a quick tournament like that, trying to get guys together, he’s the right guy for the job.
“He knows the right buttons to push.”
Pat Quinn did, too, when Canada won Olympic gold in 2002 — the first in a half-century — but he didn’t have a magic wand when the aging team flopped to a sixth-place finish four years ago.
Babcock is quick to deflect questions about what went wrong in Turin, saying he just watched the games, but acknowledged there’s a “fine line” separating success and failure in a single-elimination tournament that hasn’t had a two-time champion since the NHL let its players participate in the 1998 Nagano Games.
The Canadians might be the favorites to win in storybook fashion, but defending champion Sweden and talent-rich Russia will be among the half-dozen teams with a shot to spoil the party.
Babcock dismisses the scrutiny he’ll face, saying he’s used to it in Detroit and insisting he won’t waste time worrying.
“It’s got to be the best job in hockey — bar none,” he said. “I wanted the job, and I’m going to enjoy it.”