Can Mike Babcock bring Olympic magic to World Cup?

Head Coach of Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup, Mike Babcock talked about what it means to coach for his country, the pressure that comes with it and how the NHL not participating in the Olympics would be a huge mistake.

The plan seemed sound enough. Win two major global hockey tournaments, come back with the same head coach for a third time.

Except it all blew up in Hockey Canada’s face.

The triumphs at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey made bringing back the late Pat Quinn as head coach for the Turin Olympics in 2006 automatic. The players seemed to love playing for Quinn, he’d made tough decisions (replacing Curtis Joseph with Martin Brodeur in ‘02) that had turned out well, he had a good rapport with executive director Wayne Gretzky and all seemed in place for another set of gold medals.

Canada, however, played poorly in Turin, shut out by the Finns, the Swiss and the Russians, about as tepid a title defence as could be imagined.

It wasn’t that Quinn had forgotten how to coach. But the magic of the group had evaporated. The results that had been there for two North American competitions didn’t translate to Europe when the show went on the road.

With that as a backdrop, history might have been the only reason not to bring Mike Babcock – coincidentally, like Quinn, the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs – back for a third try as head coach of Team Canada for next year’s World Cup.

Babcock led the way to Olympic gold in 2010 and 2014, and as such his assignment for the return of the NHL/NHL Players’ Association tournament was to most people – and Hockey Canada – a no-brainer.

Now we’ll have to see if the magic of Vancouver and Sochi is still there for next year’s Toronto-based competition.

“Mike’s resume speaks for itself,” said Team Canada GM Doug Armstrong today at an introductory media conference for Babcock and his staff.

“He’s proven he can take a group of players and mould them together effectively for a two-week tournament and come out on top.”

That’s definitely true. But the World Cup is logistically different from the Olympics, and like Quinn going overseas in ’06, Babcock will need to demonstrate that his Olympic coaching model will easily fit the World Cup. The major difference is while players are in mid-season form for the Olympics, they won’t even have started the season prior to the ’16 World Cup. That means a lot more time will have to be spent on things like strength and conditioning programs and training staffs.

“By comparison, the Olympics are just add water,” quipped Armstrong.

Team Canada ‘16 will have a 10-12 day training camp and up to three exhibition games.

“It’s best on best, just like the last time,” said Babcock. “It’s more controlled by the National Hockey League. But in the end, it just comes down to competition.”

Babcock, of course, is in a different place as well, having left Detroit last summer for the massive rebuilding job in Toronto with the 2-8-2 Maple Leafs. The optics of having the head coach of such a weak NHL team selected to coach Team Canada are a little peculiar, and Armstrong acknowledged that he wasn’t sure whether Babcock would have the time or energy to tackle the Team Canada job again.

“I met Mike in September in Sarnia before training camp and we talked about the possibility of coaching Team Canada,” said Armstrong. “And I said, why don’t you take the first part of the regular season and training camp and think about it? I think you understand what you’re getting into in Toronto, but until you experience it, you really don’t.

“Well, he believes this is going to make him a better coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

Babcock said he never considered turning the job down.

“What people don’t understand is, they think you are who you are and you’re established and that’s it. You’re not. You’re a work in progress and you’re trying to get better, and how do you get better ideas other than being around the best people in the world?,” he said. “You’re around those players and they teach you something every time. They’ve got ideas. They share them with you.

“Coaches are the same way. There will be tons of debate and laughter, you can imagine. You have a chance to get better, and by getting better, you have a chance to help the Leafs.”

In an interesting twist, one of Babcock’s assistants will be Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville. Quenneville has won three Stanley Cups in six years and you could make the argument he deserves to coach Canada at the ’16 World Cup just as much as Babcock.

That said, the Hawks coach hasn’t been part of a Canadian team since he was the head coach at the 2004 IIHF world championships, with Babcock and Tom Renney, now head of Hockey Canada, as his assistants. Quenneville fell ill during the competition.

“Joel got a ton of consideration to be the head coach,” said Armstrong. “But we felt it was a perfect way for him to come back into the fold and get his feet wet as an assistant coach. With Mike, the two gold medals. . . I’m not sure we could have worked it the other way of Joel being the head coach and Mike being a support. So I think this is a real good method to get both guys on the same staff.

“Obviously Mike’s the head coach and these are his assistants, but when you’re dealing with this quality of individuals and coaches, I think it’s a collaboration of great minds working together.”

Babcock said he offered Quenneville a job in Detroit in 2008 after he’d been fired in Colorado, but Quenneville chose Chicago instead.

“To me, if they’d asked Joel and he said, ‘Babs, do you want to be on my staff?’ I’d have said, ‘For sure,’” said Babcock.

“Look, whoever has the best idea, we’re going with it. It’s not Mike Babcock’s way. It’s Team Canada’s way.”

The other Canadian assistants will be Boston’s Claude Julien, Barry Trotz of Washington and Carolina head coach Bill Peters, who will do the advance scouting in the same way Ralph Kruger did for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Ken Hitchcock and Lindy Ruff, assistants under Babcock for the last two Olympics, are missing this time.

Team Canada will name the first 16 players to its roster on March 1st, with the rest to come later in the year. Armstrong said the first group will be the easiest, and while performance this year matters, it won’t completely decide the issue.

For example, the St. Louis executive left no doubt Sidney Crosby will be on the first list despite his early season scoring woes.

“I’ll take the last eight or nine years over the last six weeks,” said Armstrong. “Sid will be okay. I’m sure not dropping him from my pool.”

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