For Mike Babcock, learning is part of the game
Canada's hockey coach values work ethic above all else
As a coach who has won championships at all levels of hockey, it’s no surprise that Mike Babcock is regarded as one of the hardest working in the business.
He gets that work ethic from his father, he says. But there’s also a willingness to learn and an affinity for the mental side of the game that seems to have lifted Babcock to the upper stratosphere of NHL coaches.
Babcock, head coach of the Detroit Red Wings and Canada's Olympic team for Vancouver and Sochi, believes the key to winning is rooted in mental toughness and repetition.
“A passion that allows you to be an everydayer,” he said during an interview this summer at Team Canada’s training camp in Calgary. “It can’t be work. It has to be fun. It’s gotta be something you love to do.
“It’s the mental toughness to commit to doing it every day.”
Repetition was one of the main lessons he took from watching Canadian curler Kevin Martin win gold in Vancouver, the day before the gold medal hockey game.
“He was on autopilot. He just delivered the goods.”
As a young player, Babcock, 50, was once described as a hard-working defenceman, who “did a lot out there for a guy with no talent.”
But it’s behind the bench where he has made his mark. Armed with a bachelor of education and post-graduate diploma in sport psychology from McGill University, Babcock began his coaching career as a 24-year-old player/coach for the Whitley Warriors in England.
Babcock’s Warriors came within two points of the regular-season league title in 1987.
When he returned to Canada a year later, he continued to learn from other great thinkers in the game. He picked up systems and techniques from opposing coaches. There was Perry Pearn in the college ranks, Bill Moores at the university level and Don Hay in the WHL.
Babcock also played for Dave King, former Team Canada and Calgary Flames head coach, when he was at the University of Saskatchewan, which he attended before transferring to McGill.
“There always has been someone to push me, someone I have stopped and learned the ropes from,” said Babcock, who leaves Detroit every summer to spend time with family in Emma Lake, Sask.
While his father instilled the values of hard work and commitment, Babcock absorbed winning techniques at every step of his career.
“Work ethic comes first, structure comes second, your skill comes out third,” Babcock said.
He has won a Canadian University title with the University of Lethbridge, a world junior title — when at age 33 he was the youngest coach for Canada at the tournament — a world championship, a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold.
Babcock always wanted to be an Olympian. As a kid, he often dreamed of wearing the Canadian maple leaf as an athlete.
Still, going to Vancouver in 2010 as the head coach of the Canadian men's hockey team and winning gold, was something special.
“I really enjoyed the Olympics,” he said. “I always wanted to be there as an athlete, but wasn't good enough. In many ways, I'm glad I experienced it as a coach because I'm older and I could appreciate it more.”
Babcock has done well at walking the fine line between being cozy with management and also being a coach that players like to play for. He has a knack for getting the best out of his team and his sport psychology background certainly helps.
“I believe you don’t remember everything in life. You have to create moments for yourself. Being an Olympian’s a moment. It’s something that you’ll remember forever. Now you gotta decide what you’re gonna do with it," he said.
Babcock is philosophical when he talks about the privilege and the pressures of being an Olympian.
“Pressure means you have a chance ... Our country expects to win.”
Mike Babcock quick facts
- Age: 50
- Birthplace: Manitouwadge, Ont.
- Hometown: Saskatoon, Sask.
- Education: McGill University (Bachelor of education, post-graduate diploma in sport psychology)
- Playing career: WHL (Saskatoon Blades, 1980-81; Kelowna Wings, 1982-83); University (University of Saskatchewan, 1981-82; McGill University, 1983-86); England (Whitley Warriors, 1987)
- Coaching career: Moose Jaw Warriors (2 seasons), University of Lethbridge (1 season), Spokane Chiefs (6 seasons), Cincinnati Mighty Ducks (2 seasons), Anaheim Mighty Ducks (2 seasons), Detroit Red Wings (9 seasons)
- Accomplishments: Olympic gold (2010), Stanley Cup (2007-08), Canadian University championship (1993-94), world junior championship (1997), world championship (2004)