He is the most interesting man in the Centre of the Universe.
His name is Mike Babcock. He is 53 years old, born in Manitouwadge, Ont., and grew up in Saskatoon. Played defence for the McGill Redmen and was pretty good, though not quite good enough to make the NHL despite a tryout with the Vancouver Canucks.
Today, he is the most commanding ice-level voice in the NHL, the presumed best coach in the game having won a Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008, a world championship in 2004 and twice the Olympic gold medal, 2010 in Vancouver and 2014 in Sochi. He is, by this measure, the only coach eligible for the Triple Gold Club, having a Stanley Cup and gold medals from the Worlds and Olympics to his name.
The test of how good he really is is coming ... but not at the World Cup of Hockey. That will be whether this hyper Type-A personality can return the Toronto Maple Leafs to respectability. Having led the Leafs to the worst record in the league last year – 29-42-11 – and being wildly applauded for doing so, he has already proved that nothing is impossible.
There are questions already as to what sort of coach Babcock will be when Toronto – recharged by a youth movement led by No. 1 draft pick Auston Matthews – begins to be a factor again.
And there are already questions, after but three practices for the Team Canada that expects to win this World Cup, as to what kind of coach he will be once the puck drops Friday night in Columbus, where goaltender Carey Price will play Canada’s opening exhibition match against Team USA.
All this week at the Canadian Tire Centre Babcock has stood like the ringmaster at centre ice, barking out orders, whistling fumbled drills to a stop, barking more orders and generally being the centre of everything possible.
He has seven other coaches to assist him if you include the video coach and, for the first time for a Team Canada entry, a goaltending “consultant.”
Some of the assistants have pedigrees that would challenge Babcock’s. Chicago Blackhawk coach Joel Quenneville has three Stanley Cup rings. Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien is the longest-tenured head coach in the NHL. Then there are Barry Trotz, head coach of the Washington Capitals, Bill Peters of the Carolina Hurricanes and three others with a variety of experience.
During the first ice session, these blue-chip coaches do little but gather pucks. They are more engaged in the second, when power plays and penalty kills are practised, but the emphasis, beyond doubt, has been on systems and control.
Babcock says that the coaches meet regularly and share everything. “They all got a lot to offer,” he says. But, clearly, it’s his show.
For those who believe that the NHL has become so over-coached it is not much fun to watch any more, this will be an interesting experiment.
Each morning, Babcock has two on-ice sessions. The first is his and his only and, at times, it would seem as though he wants the best NHLers Canada has to play like the old New Jersey Devils and simply suffocate any opposition. He practises breakouts, back-checking, dumping the puck and – to the surprise even of some of the players – line changes.
The mantra never changes: “Don’t get caught.”
This is a team that turned its back on risk-takers who do sometimes get “caught” – no P.K. Subban, no Kris Letang – and has modelled itself on the highly successful run Babcock’s team had in Sochi. However, if one were to take the wrapping off that 2014 gold-medal game against Sweden – the wrapping being that red Maple Leaf jerseys that incite such joyous patriotism – fans would have witnessed a game unlikely to take anyone out of his or her seat.
But boring hockey won there, and perhaps it will be boring hockey that wins here. Given the smaller ice surface for the World Cup as opposed to the Olympics, these marvellously talented, breathtakingly fast players may find few openings to display the creativity of which all are immensely capable. The play on the ice is as tightly regulated as hair on the face used to be in the New Jersey era of Lou Lamoriello, now general manager of Babcock’s Leafs.
The clean-shaven Devils may have won three Stanley Cups, but few would ever describe them as a joy to watch.
There is enough facial hair on Team Canada to suggest Lou Lamoriello hockey will not necessarily rule here. And certainly the players seem fine with Babcock’s micro-managing.
“He’s very clear in what he expects and what he wants from the group,” captain Sidney Crosby says. “How he wants us to play ... our identity ... and individually how we kind of fit in that group. He’s very vocal and you can see by his practices that he’s very intense and quick to get to points.
“But I think it keeps guys sharp and alert – and that’s what you need when you’re trying to get points across pretty quick.”
Some of the older players say that they have seen great changes in coaching since they first came to the NHL.
“There’s so much more video, so much more analytics,” 31-year-old Ryan Getzlaf says.
But, he says, he not only accepts this, he embraces it: “You need bodies around to help you prepare, especially when you’re coming to these tournaments. You want the best of the best to prepare you.”
“We want to grow our game every day,” Babcock says. “We’ve got to find out what’s working.
“We need to play a game.”
And the rest of us need to see what sort of game that will be.Report Typo/Error