MONTREAL — Mike Babcock loved the Olympics, but now he has another tough task — trying to get the Detroit Red Wings into the NHL playoffs.
“It’s about the Red Wings now — that’s all over with,” said the coach who led Canada to a second straight hockey gold medal at the Sochi Olympics. “We’re in a real battle to get into the playoffs. We take real pride in the Red Wings being in the playoffs every year. We’ve had a struggle this year with so many injuries. There’s no excuses. We have to find way to get in.”
Babcock was on his first visit to Canada since Sunday’s gold medal game.
The Red Wings, clinging to the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot, faced the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night before taking on the Senators in Ottawa on Thursday.
As he usually does on trips to Montreal, Babcock spent Tuesday evening at McGill University, where he captained the Redmen in the 1980s. He dropped off his annual donation, gave pep talks to the men’s and women’s teams at their practices and had dinner with old friends.
“I sat in the middle of the table so no-one could get to me,” he said. “I haven’t talked to anybody, really.
“But Canadians are proud, as they should be. Quebec is very passionate about hockey. My province, Saskatchewan, is too and I’ll get back there this summer. But don’t get me wrong. I’m absolutely so thrilled and proud. We did a great job. But that’s over.”
He planned to wear a McGill tie behind the bench at the Bell Centre, but not the same one he wore for the gold medal game.
“I spilled a little beer on it and rammed it in a bag,” he said.
Babcock was widely praised for getting a collection of star NHL players to execute a thorough, defensive game plan in Sochi, where his team ousted the United States 1-0 in the semifinals and beat Sweden 3-0 in the final.
But he was not so popular in Montreal earlier in the tournament for making a healthy scratch of the Canadiens’ free-wheeling defenceman P.K. Subban, the 2013 Norris Trophy winner who played only one of Canada’s six games.
There was a suspicion that Babcock didn’t trust Subban’s sometimes risky style, but the coach had only good things to say about him, calling him a “great kid.”
“Tons of energy. Real positive. Going to continue to grow into a great, great pro,” said Babcock. “To me, he’s committed to being good and being better. It’s always hard as a high-end athlete any time someone tells you that you can’t play. He was a great teammate and I think he learned a lot. I enjoyed him and his family a lot. He was a big part of our team.”
At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, there was a huge amount of pressure on Babcock and the Canadian team to win gold. They did it on Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal in the final against the Americans.
This time, there were doubts about Canada’s chances, although they are always expected to win gold.
Babcock is used to pressure. And he made sure to get more from the Games than his daily trips to the arena.
“I enjoy being in the NHL — I enjoy the grind and the work and the preparation,” he said. “But the Olympics was a fantastic experience.
“Being part of a bigger team. Hanging around with the other athletes. Going to other events. Getting to know them good. Getting your picture taken with them. Having a few pops with them. Those are all great experiences and things you’ll remember forever.”
He did not have any Red Wings on his Olympic squad, but Canada played against some, including a handful of Swedes. Now, he’ll have to go up against his Olympic players at several stops on the schedule.
“You have a bond with those guys for the rest of your life,” he said. “Any time you win together you always do. But I know who pays me.”