Babcock's Saskatoon sensibility the right fit for Red Wings
PITTSBURGH -- The question was basically this: What makes Detroit bench boss Mike Babcock so honest when many coaches fear the truth, especially when it comes to their own players?
"I'm from Saskatoon, and that's what you do," Babcock said with a smile during Thursday's off-day news conference at Mellon Arena, a day after he'd admitted to making some mistakes during Wednesday night's 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"Bottom line is, players make mistakes. Coaches make mistakes. I'm not [saying] we didn't have a good plan, weren't trying to do the right thing. Sometimes when you're trying to do the right thing, the wrong thing happens. That's life."
This may be the Stanley Cup finals and Babcock's Wings may have missed an opportunity to put a 3-0 lock on this series, but it's just part of something bigger called life. At least that's how Babcock seems to view all of this.
"I think it's a process, just like you as a writer or anybody else in here," Babcock said. "You're trying to get better all the time. If not, somebody else has your job. And, to me, this is a great learning opportunity no matter how many times you've been here [or] how many times you've won."
Sometimes in the media, we confuse a good guy with a good coach. Coaches who are eloquent and speak with passion about the game sometimes are confused with those who are able to coach at a high level. Sometimes those who coach at a high level are unable to communicate their passion or their love of the game and come off as aloof, or worse.
Babcock seems to have balanced both those qualities.
Since taking over behind the Detroit bench after the end of the NHL lockout in 2005, Babcock has eased off the reins and learned to trust his players more while still demanding and pressing them to be better. He can do that because he asks the same of his coaching staff and himself.
"I think he's real good at knowing when to be a little looser on the group, knowing when to push us a little bit more at other times," Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said Thursday. "I think he's got a good feel of the group that he has, when to come out with those things, and when you have to not let the guard down and come after us a little bit."
This is a talented team, no question. But the road to the Stanley Cup is littered with talented teams. It's a team that can marry its talent with commitment and dedication to a game plan that stands alone at the end of the day.
Watching the way Babcock's Wings have evolved from the squad that spit the bit in the first round against Edmonton two springs ago to the one that was edged out in the Western Conference finals by Anaheim last season to the one that now stands two wins away from a championship, it is clear this is a team that has grown with its coach, not outgrown him.
"He's done an incredible job of changing the culture of the Detroit Red Wings from a skilled, run-and-gun team that was capable of playing defense to a hard-core, in-your-face, skilled team," former NHL coach and national broadcast analyst Pierre McGuire said.
And Babcock's big-picture view of the game and beyond seems perfectly suited to the rigors of the postseason march.
"You know, it's a grind. It goes forever. Just never seems to end," Babcock said. "It's so interesting about the playoffs, that people talk about the playoffs [being] long. It's not for lots of teams. It's like one week and done. But when you're real fortunate and you've got a good team like Pittsburgh does or like we do, it gets to go for a long period of time."
Using off days to your advantage is crucial, he explained. So is not getting too wound up about losses. "No sense beating yourself up over it. We didn't win the game. It's a new day tomorrow. It's a new day today. It's sunny. Let's go."
Babcock is the first NHL coach to hit the 50-win plateau in each of his first three seasons with a team. His Red Wings were first in wins, points, goal differential, goals-against average, shots, shots against and faceoff percentage during the regular season. They had the league's best home record and the second-best road record. In the playoffs, they have continued to roll, compiling a 14-5 record and leading all teams in goals per game and goals-against.
"He's tremendously precise," McGuire said. "He's rigorous in his demands, but he's exactly what you want in a modern-day coach."
Someone suggested coaching the Wings is like driving a Ferrari. Babcock joked that, at the beginning of the season, most people didn't think Detroit would be here at this point. So, maybe no one thought the team was a Ferrari in the fall.
"I guess you gotta have a good mechanic and you just gotta keep her going," Babcock said. "I don't know anything about cars. I just know that we got a good group. Sometimes you get in the way, too, as the coach. I think you have to be real careful of that, and I believe, under pressure, you go back to who you are anyway."
Earlier in the playoffs, GM Ken Holland told ESPN.com he believed Babcock's biggest achievement was that he'd learned his players cared as much as he did. That speaks not just to Babcock's determination but also to his ability to learn and evolve. Some coaches are reluctant to give up power, or the notion of power, because in doing so they will lose the respect of their team. Many coaches believe in keeping their players off-balance, fearful.
Babcock isn't one of them. And if he was one once, he's learned how to be different.
"He's been with the team for a while now, and we had the core guys who have been here for a long time, too," Henrik Zetterberg said. "So, he knows us pretty good; when he needs to push us and when he needs to take it easy and have a little fun."
It takes a distinct personality to coach the Detroit Red Wings, given the large shadow cast by the legendary Scotty Bowman. Bowman's longtime assistant Dave Lewis was bounced after two desultory seasons following Bowman's retirement on the night of Detroit's last Cup win in 2002, in part because he was too nice.
Babcock has managed to evolve, and his strong personality also has allowed him to incorporate Bowman into the mix. Rather than being intimidated by the finest coach of all time, Babcock has embraced him.
"I talk to Scotty lots. We talk about his kids, and we talk about what the weather's like in Florida, and we talk about hockey, and we talk about lots of stuff," Babcock said. "We talk about the best Pittsburgh team he ever coached that never won the Cup. We talk about many, many things.
"And we talk about if their coach does this, what I am going to do. Or, did you like this player last night? Or, what did you think of this? But I do that with lots of people, too. I always try to gather information. My wife cleared things up here for me [Thursday] morning and made sure I was on track. Just gathering information. But Scotty is a great person, foremost. He's good to have as a friend."
Babcock spent eight seasons coaching major junior hockey in the Western Hockey League and one season coaching Canadian university hockey in Lethbridge, Alberta, before moving to the AHL. He led Anaheim to the Stanley Cup finals in his first season as an NHL coach in 2002-03. Then, in July 2005, he was in Detroit with his passion for the game intact and his honesty about his role in it ever present.
Earlier this week, he was asked about his philosophy on coaching a puck-possession team like Detroit. "I don't have a philosophy, actually," he deadpanned.
"To tell you the truth, since I've been here, for me, it's been a growing process," Babcock said. "You're always learning as a coach, just like anywhere you'd be, and you learn from having real good players. And you try to improve your game by being creative, but also by stealing the best that everyone else does so you improve."
What's that they say about not being able to take the Saskatoon out of the boy?
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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