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Babcock recalls his 'wild' northern childhood

by Ann Jacobs Mooney / Detroit Red Wings
At a very young age, Babcock learned to fish (right insert) and hunt big game, such as this deer, and small game, like bird (left insert).
The first nine years of Mike Babcock’s childhood were perhaps the only years of his life when hockey didn’t play a part.

“Where I was, I had skated but we didn’t have a hockey rink. I lived in the Northwest Territory and there was no hockey. There was curling in our town,” commented the Red Wings’ coach.

Babcock was born in 1963 in Manitouwadge, Ontario, but his family moved up to the Northwest Territory when he was about three.

“There were lower than 200 people … 25 houses stuck right in the mountains in a place called Tungsten, in the Northwest Territory right on the Yukon border, way up north. I never watched TV as a kid because we didn’t have TV in my town. We were so far up. So it’s not like I was a hockey fan (at) that time.”

When asked if his experience at curling had any influence on his hockey playing, Babcock laughed. “No, none. Zero. No. We always played sports – we just didn’t have hockey.”

In addition to curling, there were many other outdoor activities that were a huge part of Babcock’s early childhood. “When I grew up, I lived in the Northwest Territory, and I fished every single day. I used to go to the pump house. I walked down there, and I’d catch grayling. I had my own trap line before I was eight.”

His dad, also Mike Babcock, was a mining engineer, and he remembers those days well. He recalls that his son would use his trap line to catch marten and mink.

“I’d skin them and we’d stretch them, and they’d hang in his room,” he described. “My passion is hunting and fishing. And I took him with me all the time, all the time, from the time we went to Tungsten when he was about two or three.”

Within a few years, his only son was a very efficient fisherman. “He’d catch fish in the morning, I’d clean ‘em up, and we’d fry them up for lunch.”

Coach Babcock’s memories of those days revolve totally around the outdoors. “We had summer 24 hours a day. We had a beautiful hot springs up there; we swam in the hot springs. My dad was a fishing guy, an outdoorsy guy. We camped and did that stuff and that’s what I did.”

His father took his son on hunting trips as well, fondly remembering the trip that resulted in a picture of Mike as a five or six year old, with a great big moose, sitting in a boat. “He hunted moose with me from the time he was three,” Babcock recalled. They also hunted wolves.

 “This is hard to picture, but this is the truth. We used to go out, my next-door neighbor who was the mine manager and myself, to inspect a mountain pass where we were responsible for the roads. We’d take our rifles – you never went anyplace in that country without your rifles, because of the bears! Mike was small (five, maybe four).

“Remember when pick-up trucks used to have a bump in the middle with the gear shift on the floor? He’d stand on there and put his hands in the heat vents to hang on, with his blue snowsuit, one piece, with the hood up, tied under his chin and we’d catch the wolves on the road in the pass. He’d say, ‘Dad, get ‘em! Get ‘em!’ We’d hit the snowbank, jump out and shoot some wolves.”

The long winter also brought the opportunity for the ultimate sport for any child brought up in the mountains. “My dad was a ski instructor. I grew up skiing. All we had to do was go across the hill, push the button and the (ski tow) started, and we could ski whenever we wanted,” recalled Babcock.

“We built the ski hill,” his dad explained. “They’d put their skis on at home and then ski 100 or 200 feet and they’d be on the hill.” Remembering the tow that he and the other adults made, he said, “It was all home-made stuff. When you run a mine, you’ve got every trade in the world sitting there, and all the equipment, so you have total control and you can do it.”
In high school, Babcock was an accomplished track athlete, but he found his true passion in team sports, especially hockey.

Babcock’s father had also played hockey, as a defenseman, and had played at the junior hockey level. Although hockey wasn’t a part of his young son’s life on Tungsten, Babcock did teach young Mike to skate.

“It was so cold that the kids couldn’t really use an outside skating rink,” said the senior Babcock, who commented that the coldest he remembered it being in Tungsten was minus 72 degrees Fahrenheit. “But we had an outside two-sheet curling rink up there. Come March, we’d flood it smooth and turn it over to the little kids in the community so they could go skating for two months. That’s when he started to skate.

“I taught Mike to skate backwards because you can learn to skate forwards, but most youngsters, little kids, can’t skate backwards. So Mike could skate backwards faster than he could skate forwards,” he said, laughing.

His family was a central part of Babcock’s early life in such a tiny town. “My folks had four kids in two and a half years. I have twin sisters a year younger than me and a sister a year and a half older than me. So we all grew up together and had a lot of fun. We had a real close family.”

Babcock, who lost his mother to cancer 17 years ago, still remains very close to his sisters and his father today, and they enjoy following his career in hockey. “The whole family went down to his first game in the NHL,” commented his dad.

When Mike Babcock was nine, his family moved briefly to Lynn Lake, Manitoba, and hockey quickly became a central part of his daily life there, and in the next Manitoba town in which the family settled.

“I went to a place called Leaf Rapids. There were no street lights; they didn’t have them up yet. We used to put the candles in the piles of snow along the street so we could play road hockey till God knows…,” he commented, shaking his head at the memory. “We’d use a sponge puck. It was so cold outside we’d wear a Skidoo suit and that’d be like the padding. It was unbelievable.”

Babcock’s hockey skills took off, and not surprisingly given his skill at skating backwards, he usually played defense. “It didn’t take me very long. I moved to a town where the school, the curling rink, the arena, the mall was all in one building in the middle of the town, owned by the mine. So it was easy; you could be on the ice all the time. So we got to play a lot of hockey and [I] got started. I just was fortunate enough to be a good enough athlete that I got to be a pretty good player pretty quickly, and enjoyed it a lot.”
Babcock was raised in a small Northwest Territory community with his three sisters (counterclock-wise from top left) Karen, Katherine and Patricia; mom, Gail; and dad, Mike Sr.

His love of hockey, and his interest in it, was pretty much instantaneous. “He’s been a student of the game since God knows when, since day one,” commented Babcock’s father. “He always had to know why: why do this drill, and why do you have to do it this way and not that way.

“His coaches, when he came up in Bantam and Midget – after Mike got into coaching, they said we’re not surprised because he was always asking why,” his father explained.

As a kid, Babcock played other sports, but none had the appeal for him that hockey did. He preferred team sports over individual athletic endeavors. “Much more so. I was a track athlete,” explained Babcock, “and probably better at that than I was at hockey, but I liked hockey way better, just liked being around people. It was just something I always did.”

His father remembers his son’s track career as being a way to do something for his high school, since his hockey was played elsewhere in the junior league. “So he ran. He still holds two or three records here in the city at his high school for track,” he reported proudly. “I think his best running he did in cross country, because he was very, very powerful.”

His favorite aspect of hockey as a kid? “Just the guys. Being around the guys. And just the way the game was: a good, fast game. And it was physical, and then you had to be skilled. I enjoyed it a lot.”

While Babcock eventually became a good student (going on to college and graduate school), his early school years were not his best. “I wasn’t [a good student] at the start…didn’t pay any attention. One of those kids that was going all the time. I was always borderline in trouble…just too competitive, fighting over stuff, in hockey and in everything, didn’t matter.”

When asked what personality traits were there as a child that contributed to his getting to the NHL, he laughed. “Just that I’m absolutely driven and relentless, no question. Very, very competitive, always. Borderline crazy competitive.”

His father agreed. “He got beat once in a school race in grade school, the first school race in Saskatoon. He thought he was a jock…His mom had been bugging him and saying, ‘Hey, you better do some running and get somewhat in condition.’ But he thought he was a jock. So he kind of sucked wind and came in close to the last. You want to know something? He ran the rest of grade school, and all of high school, and he never lost another race. That’s being competitive.”

Many other aspects of Babcock’s childhood personality are still vivid in his dad’s mind. “He was very, very, very energetic…not out of control, but he had to be going all the time. He didn’t feel the cold; he’d stay outside forever. Everybody else is playing outside in their parka and his parka’s in the snow bank and he’s playing in a short-sleeve tee shirt in minus twenty below. He’d just keep going and going and going.”

But looking back, coach Babcock also felt that many of the qualities that eventually led him to become a successful hockey player and coach, were instilled in him by his family, and helped him curb the “extra energy” that could have gotten in the way. He credits his parents with teaching him both his people skills and his work ethic.

“You learn to talk to people; I did, by sitting at home talking to my mother. I learned to work hard from my dad…just the way he was. He was a mining engineer; he expected a lot from people. He ran mines and he always said to me, ‘You can’t ask anyone to work harder than you’re willing to work yourself.’ In my family, growing up, work ethic was a huge deal.”
Mike Babcock Sr. remembers taking his son, then 5- or 6-years old, on hunting trips, especially the one that resulted in this snapshot of a great big moose.

When his father was asked what he and his wife did to help their son channel his energy so successfully, he was very thoughtful. “I think he had parents who put all their time into their kids. And Mike’s mom, who died in ’91, was quite a lady. She and Mike were mother and son, of course, but forget that: they were very, very good friends. It was something you don’t see too often, not the way that was. I think she controlled him – and she was all of 5’2.”

Another part of Mike’s drive as a kid was to be an organizer, a trait that has served him well in his coaching career. “I’m very organized. I was always the one, you know, on the ball team that organized that, or on your hockey team or whatever. That’s just part of your personality.”

At age 12, the Babcock family moved to Saskatoon, where Babcock’s father still lives today. Mike Babcock continued to play hockey, and it became a major focus of his life.

“I remember always being at the rink. I remember we could go on the ice anytime we wanted. I remember having a skating coach that taught us how to skate that really helped. I remember just being around the guys and liking it.”

While he was still in high school, Babcock played junior hockey for the local Saskatoon Blades, and later for Kelowna. He also attended the University of Saskatoon for one year.

In 1983, Babcock went to McGill University in Montreal/,There he played hockey for all four years, and was named twice as an All Star defenseman, and eventually became captain. He earned his undergraduate degree in education. An interesting aspect of his scholarship package resulted in the beginning of his coaching career.

“When I went to McGill University, part my scholarship, part of the way they gave me money was to coach the professors’ hockey team. So I did that and that’s how I kind of got started,” explained Babcock. “I ran the professors’ hockey every Tuesday or Thursday. It was fantastic. I was 20 years old. You got to know the professors too so it helped you with your classes so it worked out good. I taught two classes on Tuesday, like hockey classes, and then I did that on Thursdays. I got started like that.”

The fact that this eventually led to his job as the head coach of the Red Wings is still amazing to Babcock, who describes his current position with wonderment and appreciation.

“I’ve never done anything else besides be in hockey. I mean I taught and all that, but I taught and coached the team when I taught in college. The people-part of it is the greatest part of this game, and to be privileged enough to be the head coach of the Red Wings and to rub shoulders every day with the players I get to, and the people that surround us, it’s a fantastic thing,” he said. “And when you’re around young people who are the best in their profession and they’re trying to get better, it keeps you young. I talk to Scotty (Bowman) about that all the time.

“We’re so fortunate to have great alumni, whether it’s Scotty or Stevie (Yzerman), or Gordie (Howe) was up here … I mean, just those people around you every day, it gives you a chance to continue to grow as a coach and as a person. It’s what you do, and what you like to do.”

As Babcock’s coaching career has taken off, his family values have stayed strong. Even after 13 years in the US, he still gets back to his Canadian home regularly.

“I live above Montana – we have a home on the lake there – and we go home every summer. And my kids are 14, 12, and 10. I’m a big believer that you’ve got to remember where you’ve come from. I go home every summer, my wife and I. Our families are close. We live on the lake and we do those things as a family and that’s a big part of how I grew up and that’s a big part of how my kids grow up.”

Although hockey has been Babcock’s first love, he’s pleased his children are active in sports and is comfortable with them playing whatever they choose. “My son plays hockey at a good level. My youngest girl plays hockey but is more of a soccer player, and a basketball player and a track person. And my oldest girl now plays field hockey, but has always been a ballerina,” he explains with a smile. “Everyone always does their own thing.”

Given Babcock’s investment in family, it comes as no surprise that one of the aspects he appreciates most about the Red Wings is their strong emphasis on family values, and their support of the people in their organization.

“We’re real fortunate in Detroit. We have a good family here with the Red Wings people. That’s what we’re about here. We have great people. We try to acquire great people and to me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s about integrity and trust. And if you have good people around you, you can get things done.”

Babcock is still close to his dad in Canada, and calls him two or three times every week. He gives credit for his success to what his parents gave him during his childhood.

“I’m a great believer in this. You don’t have the opportunity very often to be successful in your life unless your parents build a great foundation for you. And the only way you have to repay your parents for what they did for you is to do the same for your children. I’m a big believer in that.”

As much as Babcock loves his hockey career and brings a passionate commitment to it, he maintains a steady view of what’s most important in his life.

“The measure of me as a person isn’t going to be how many games I win in the NHL. It’s going to be what kind of family I raise, my wife and I. So to me, it’s all about family.”

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