It's not the place you'd start your search for the NHL's next great coach.
Crammed in the back of a tiny European automobile, heading north up the A-1 motorway along England's North Sea coastline, passing time with your 20-something buddies as you head through towns like North Charlton and Newton-On-The-Moor, Adderstone and Berwick-Upon-Tweed as you made your way towards Scotland to buy cars that you'd immediately sell to make some money. No hockey arenas in sight. No kids playing the sport on driveways as you drove by.
But that is exactly the place where you would have found Mike Babcock on any given Tuesday or Thursday in the winter of 1987-88. The same Mike Babcock that guided the Red Wings to a Stanley Cup finals in back-to-back springs and has coached Detroit to four consecutive 50-win seasons, and who led the Anaheim Ducks to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in his first NHL season, who won a gold medal at the World Championships, another gold at the World Junior Championships, and won a Canadian university national title.
Babcock has coached hockey in many places and at many levels over the past two decades. The career path that led him to a Stanley Cup, however, started in the inauspicious setting of an English coastal resort town, Whitley Bay, in 1987.
“That's how I got started,” Babcock said. “The imports (non-British players) were good, but the hockey wasn't as good as in other (European) countries. What was great was you could speak the language. You had a real good life there. I loved it.”
Babcock was a 24-year-old graduate from the prestigious Montreal college – McGill University – when he packed his bags for England. He was living in Montreal in the spring of 1986 when the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, when Patrick Roy was a rookie making history, when a 24-year-old defenseman named Chris Chelios was fast becoming a legend in the heart of hockey in French Canada.
It was education that first brought Babcock to England – a teaching job at Northumberland Community College. But the former McGill captain found hockey in the English northeast and signed on as a defenseman/coach for the Whitley Warriors of the British Premier League (BPL).
With a current population of 35,000, Whitley is now known by the English as a dormitory town – we'd call it a bedroom community or commuter town – for nearby Newcastle. When Babcock arrived in 1987, Whitley thrived as a tourist destination for northeast England and Scotland.
The Whitley Warriors played out of the Whitley Bay Ice Rink. From the mid-80s through the early-90s, Whitley and local rival the Durham Wasps were two of the teams fighting for the BPL championship. Pro hockey in Britain isn't among the best in Europe. Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic host much better leagues. Italy and Switzerland are better.
But the combination of education and getting an opportunity to coach as well as play lured Babcock to England. His one season with Whitley led to Babcock being hired as head coach at Alberta’s Red Deer College in 1988.
“What happened was because you've got the word coach on your resume, that means you've had some experience,” Babcock said. “When the Red Deer College job became available, now I had experience. Even though I had never done it. I never stood behind the bench in my life and changed lines. Any player that goes from being a player to being a coach, having confidence with your suit on and speaking to the players when you're doing it that way and doing it as a player with your equipment on … it's a big transition. There's no question about it.”
As a player-coach in Whitley, Babcock didn't have to worry about suits or changing lines on the fly. He ran practices and tweaked strategy and lines between periods of games.
While Babcock played the game at defense – he was named to the six-player Premier Division all-star team after the season – Terry Matthews ran the bench. Matthews was a 47-year-old and former Whitley Warriors star who was named to the British Hockey Hall of Fame the year that Babcock came over to coach. The former forward was named the BPL's coach of the year the season after Babcock departed.
“I think the big thing there is when you're a leader and wearing your uniform, it's a totally different thing than when you're a leader and wearing your suit,” Babcock said. “Leadership as a player, part of it's talking, but more of it is when the heat's on, do you deliver?
“I had a guy named Terry Matthews. He ran the bench during the games. I just helped with practices. I never said anything. I never changed the lines or did any of that during the game. In between periods I did, but not during the games.”
Off the ice, Babcock quickly became familiar with the English northeast. To earn extra money, he and four friends used to drive to Edinburgh every Tuesday and Thursday in one car. When they got to Scotland, they'd buy four cars at auctions, drive them back into England and sell them by the weekend.
There were college classes during weekdays and hockey practices two nights a week. The Warriors played mostly on weekends, two games in two nights.
“I can tell you one of the best things I did as a coach over there was I got the guys to drink on Monday and Tuesday instead of on Friday and Saturday,” Babcock joked. “That might have been the biggest thing I got done.”
On the ice, the Warriors had a remarkable season. Whitley finished two points behind the Murrayfield Racers for first place in the BPL with a 27-7-2 record. The Warriors were second in the league in goals scored to rival Durham, averaging 10.3 goals per game in 36 games. Defensively, the Warriors allowed 7.1 goals per game – fourth best in the 10-team circuit.
Babcock, a defenseman, produced 34 goals and 132 points in 36 games. He was third on the Warriors in scoring behind fellow Canadian imports Scott Morrison and Luc Chabot. Morrison, a forward, joined Babcock on the Premiership all-star team.
In Babcock's final game in England, Whitley traveled to London to play at Wembley Arena for the league title.
“You were there (as an import player) to generate offense,” Babcock said. “I was real fortunate that I had two other really good imports in Scott Morrison and Luc Chabot. Our team had never done very well and we lost in the Wembley finals. I don't know if we even made the playoffs the year before. It was a real good year and I enjoyed it a lot. I had a lot of fun doing it.”
Babcock signed a contract to return to Whitley the next fall. In the interim, however, Red Deer College offered him the head coaching position. The Whitley job had given Babcock enough experience to advance his coaching career. The 1987-88 season with the Warriors became Babcock's lone season as a pro player.
“I had promised my folks by 1990, I'd get a real job,” he said. “It was just one of those things. You've got to get on with it eventually. Sometimes growing up isn't as much fun. The college life, even being a pro hockey player and single the responsibilities aren't quite there. Suddenly when you're a professor and a coach at college, you've got some responsibilities.”
Babcock spent three seasons at Red Deer College, winning the Alberta College Championship in 1989. From there, he became a head coach in the Western Hockey League, first with Mouse Jaw, then with Spokane. That led to a two-year stint with the Cincinnati Ducks of the American Hockey League – a prelude to Babcock's NHL career.