Babcock dishes on team, pressure in Detroit
NHL.com will be doing a periodic series called "Five Questions With …," a Q&A with some of the key movers and shakers in the game today.
The first installment features Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock:
Detroit coach Mike Babcock once was a star defenseman for McGill University, but his playing career fizzled out after a quick stint as a player/coach for the Whitley Warriors in England. In the following Q&A, Babcock claims to have fallen accidentally into a life in coaching, one that has led him to success at every level.
"To tell you the truth, I thought I was going to be a professor," Babcock told NHL.com. "I loved going to school."
He loves winning even more. It's become a habit for him.
Babcock won the provincial collegiate championship at Red Deer College in 1989 and the Canadian university national championship at the University of Lethbridge five years later.
In 1997, Babcock guided Canada to a gold medal at the World Junior Championship. A year later, in his fourth season with the Spokane Chiefs, he got a chance to coach in the Memorial Cup. He led the Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the 2003 Stanley Cup Final, only to lose in Game 7 to the New Jersey Devils. In 2004, he led Canada to a gold medal at the World Championship.
By 2008, Babcock was a Stanley Cup champion with the Detroit Red Wings. Two years later, he won an Olympic gold medal as the head coach for Canada at the Vancouver Games.
Here are Five Questions With … Mike Babcock:
What is the best experience you've had in your coaching career?
"My best experiences are seeing the growth in players, but I can tell you the best job I ever did was with the University of Lethbridge. I went to a program that had never made the playoffs and we won a national championship. That is by far the best thing I ever saw a group of people do -- line up the moon and the stars and play beyond belief with everybody totally in. We didn't have any extra players or nothing, we just found a way to stay healthy at the right time and win. I can tell you right now there is no team I have ever had that maximized what they had more than that team. It's amazing how good that team was.
"But I have been real lucky. You grow up wanting to win the Stanley Cup, so winning the Stanley Cup was spectacular. Winning an Olympic gold in Western Canada when you're a Western Canadian is something I'll cherish forever. But to be honest with you, the reason I think the game is so special is the people in the game are spectacular. The players are working so hard to become the best they can be, and that to me is what is exciting about the game. I just love to be around it."
Who are your influences, the people that helped shape you as a coach and a professional?
"I'll tell you this story: I got hired by the Spokane Chiefs and we got out of the gate pretty good, better than we expected considering we weren't supposed to have a great team. We were rebuilding. Then we lost I don't know how many games in a row and the owner, who is Bobby Brett -- that's George Brett's brother -- calls me and says, 'Mike, we're going out for Mexican.' Well, I thought he was calling me to fire me. That night instead we sat down, had a few beers, talked hockey and talked life more than anything. We never even got into it. All he was doing was supporting me.
"So I worked for an owner in Spokane in Bobby Brett and a general manager in Tim Speltz who gave me the opportunity to grow for six straight years as a coach, to try things and do things, to coach young players and old players, development teams, go to the Memorial Cup. I got to coach the World Junior team because of that opportunity. That gave me a chance. Now you've got to do a good job to earn your chance and we won a bunch of games, but no different than players -- you need an opportunity, and they gave me a great opportunity."
Why didn't you make it as a player, and how did that shape you as a coach?
"I didn't make is a player probably because I wasn't good enough, I didn't have a dimension. I was an All-Star in college, the captain of my major-junior team, but I was nothing. I was just kind of a 'tweener, and maybe if I had had no opportunity scholastically and gone to the minors to hang around, hang around, hang around -- that wasn't what I was interested in doing. I was going to finish my Masters and go on to get a Ph. D. and be at McGill University forever. I ended up at Red Deer College and lost my way. I started coaching, started winning, and I ended up coaching."
How difficult is it to thrive under the intense expectations and scrutiny in Detroit?
"Pressure usually means you have a chance. If you go to the Olympics and you're not expected to do anything, there is no pressure. Do you want to be that one or do you want to be the team with the pressure on them because you're supposed to win, because you have a chance to win? That's an easy one.
"Now, the pressure in Detroit to keep doing what we're doing is there, and I relish that. There's no question, though, that it has become harder and harder and harder as the team has changed. I'm telling you, we have had to play harder and harder to get our 100 points and be more efficient than we did when I first arrived there. Parity in the League, for sure, no question about it. But the other thing is just go through our group since I have been in Detroit:
"My first year, Steve Yzerman retired and Brendan Shanahan decided it was time for him to go, as well. So there are two players not back. (Dominik) Hasek, (Chris) Chelios, (Chris) Osgood, (Kris) Draper, (Kirk) Maltby -- Cup winners, all retired. (Brian) Rafalski, (Brad) Stuart, (Jiri) Fischer goes down. And now Nicklas Lidstrom is gone.
"Then, from a management perspective, Scotty Bowman went to Chicago, Steve Yzerman went to Tampa and Pat Verbeek went with him. Paul MacLean went to Ottawa and Todd McLellan went to San Jose. And yet it's all about winning. I think it's fantastic, but now we've got to find a way to reload and do it in the new world, and it's tighter and tighter."
You moved around a lot as a kid, but did you have any favorites in hockey when you were growing up?
"Absolutely, I wore No. 4 -- Bobby Orr was my guy. He still is to this day. This year he texts me and says, 'Mike, I want to give Nick Lidstrom a phone call, can you text me his number?' I'm thinking to myself, 'Why would I miss a chance to talk to Bobby Orr?' So I phone him and talk to him for 20 minutes. One of my favorite pictures is Bobby Orr flying through the air -- he autographed it for me, this beautiful picture. He's been the guy for me."