Q&A with Mike Babcock
If things had worked out a little differently, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock might have been Wayne Gretzky ... with a British accent.
The 42-year-old Babcock went from star player in England to coaching prodigy in North America. The only piece of hardware that has eluded him is the most prized piece, the Stanley Cup.
In this week's Facing Off, Hockeytown's coach discusses Jiri Fischer's NHL future, why he flew the coup in Anaheim and why he isn't getting much sleep right now.
Question from David Amber: What are the new challenges a coach faces in this different, wide-open NHL?
Answer from Mike Babcock: There are lots of challenges. Your team needs energy and because of the Olympic break, we play every second day, so it's hard. I think the biggest adjustment is that before, when a player got hurt, you would trade for someone else. You can't do that anymore. Now you have to call some kid up and help him develop into a player. For a coach, that's a challenge: knowing the salary cap means you have to help develop stars, you can't just trade for talent.
Q: How has your coaching philosophy changed with the new NHL?
A: For me, it's all about doing what works best. I try to create an environment of accountability. A demanding environment that is very supportive, that allows individuals to be the best they can be. We want to be an attacking team. I have been given the tab as being a defensive coach. The only time I'm defensive is after we lose, when I have to answer questions from the media.
• He has coached in the WHL, CIAU, AHL and NHL.
• Became the first Canadian coach to win gold medals for the world junior championship team (1997) and the IIHF world championship team (2004).
• In 2003 under Babcock, the Mighty Ducks became the first NHL team since 1952 to sweep a defending champion in the playoffs (swept the Red Wings in first round).
• As a coach, he won the Canadian University championship at University of Lethbridge in 1993-94.
• He scored 132 points in 36 games in 1987-88 for the Whitney Warriors of the British Hockey League.
Q: What do you expect to happen with Jiri Fischer's NHL future?
A: Right now, we're just pulling for Fisch to be alright. Can he be a hockey player again? I don't know if he'll ever play again. That's not for me to decide. That's up to the doctors and Fisch. He's a big part of our team. He's a dominant player. He has won a world championship with the Czech Republic.
Q: Manny Legace has emerged as your No. 1 goalie. What will it take for Legace to carry this team down the stretch?
A: It's all between his ears. The question is, is he mentally tough enough to carry us or not? He's hurt again, it's the second time this year he's hurt. Maybe he wears down, I don't know. I know Manny doesn't want the title as the league's best backup. He'd like to be a good starter.
Q: You're 42 years old. What is it like coaching players in your peer group like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan and Chris Chelios, who is actually older than you?
A: It's good to have someone to go for a beer with, for crying out loud. They're great people. To me, these guys are on-ice coaches. They don't agree with everything I say, so we talk it over and come up with the best way. What I have been most impressed with is the professionalism. Everybody in life needs leadership and quite simply the guys who play the best, play the most. The veterans have helped me out by understanding what I'm trying to do.
Q: Steve Yzerman has said he doesn't like the new rules in the NHL. Yzerman has said the NHL isn't even hockey anymore. What do you think?
A: I like the new rules, but they need to be tweaked. My big thing is just call the damn penalties. I don't want the calls to be different in L.A. one night and Detroit the next night and Calgary the next night. A hook is a hook, a grab's a grab. Just call the damn penalties.
Q: NFL coaches notoriously work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week during the season. What's it like for NHL coaches?
A: During off-days, we watch video of our previous game. We prescout the next game. We have meetings with our assistant coaches and try to continually evaluate the talent on our roster and in the minors. Brian Sutter said it best: "When you win a game, you can't sleep because you're so excited. When you lose a game, you can't sleep because you're so wound up. So you sleep in the offseason." That's how it is. You have to work, you have to be prepared. You have the fans and 23 guys in your room counting on you to help them be the best they can be. You better do everything you can to help them.
Q: How superstitious are you before games?
A: I'm a smart enough guy to know superstition doesn't matter, but I still do some superstitious things. I polish my shoes all the time the exact same way because I've done it for years. When I fill out the lineup card, I always wait till I get the other team's. Little dumb things that you and I know don't affect the outcome, but when you're trying to control the uncontrollable, you'll do anything.
Q: After playing major junior and college hockey in Canada. You played professionally in England for one season. You had 132 points in 36 games -- those are Gretzky-like numbers. How good of a hockey player were you?
A: [Laughs] You know what, it's easy to be good outside the NHL. I was an offensive defenseman, I'll leave it at that.
Q: You seem almost reluctant to talk about it.
A: I think when you coach in the NHL, unless you played in the NHL, you weren't a player. That's how I look at it. When people ask me if I played, I just say no.
Q: You did have a tryout with the Canucks. What was that like?
A: It was great. Tom Watt was the coach, he called me in and cut me. He said what are you going to do now? I told him I was going to go to grad school at McGill University. He was worried for me. He kept me at camp for a few more days so I could hang out with the guys; it was fun. Since then, I have coached the last 17 years.
Q: In July, you rejected a one-year contract to stay with the Ducks. Why?
A: They didn't want me. I'm no different than a player, or a kid or a spouse ... you know when you're wanted or not. I just thought if I stayed there with a one-year deal, with new management, and we got off to a bad start, I'd be fired by November. I didn't know what was going to happen. I want to win and I don't want to change cities every year, so I hope I do a good job so I can stay with the Wings for a long time.
Q: In 2003, you had the Ducks one game from winning the Stanley Cup. How often do you think about how close you came with that Anaheim team?
A: The only time you have a chance to win the Stanley Cup is when you have won three games in the final and we had done that and we were tied after one period in Game 7. I thought we were going to win the damn thing. In my heart and mind, I didn't think we were going to lose. But looking back at it now, some of my fondest memories come from that season. I still see Adam Oates and Steve Thomas and how shaken they were, knowing that they would not get another opportunity. I like to believe I'm going to get another opportunity, and next time I'm going to do it right.
David Amber is an anchor for ESPN and a contributor to ESPN.com.