Coaches are involved in every facet of the game, from drawing up a last-second play to making sure the healthy scratch works harder instead of losing hope. They don’t often have time to talk at length, but when they do, you’d better listen. And learn.
In partnership with ProSmart, Sportsnet will publish a number of coach-related pieces over the next couple of months. We begin with Mike Babcock talking to senior writer Dan Robson a couple years back about how he got into coaching, the value of outworking the competition and his philosophy behind the bench.
Mike Babcock answered his phone surrounded by the sound of skates cutting ice and pucks thudding into boards. It sounded like he was at centre ice running a practice. The then-Red Wings coach, with three Stanley Cup Finals and one ring to his name, was standing in an Ontario Hockey League team’s rink, absorbing whatever hockey knowledge he could glean. “Can’t learn anything sitting at home, man!” he said.
Throughout our conversation about his coaching career, Babcock stopped to write down drills, or just lost track of what we were talking about because he was more interested in what was happening on the ice. Here’s a man who was at the helm of the 2010 and ’14 Canadian Olympic teams, watching a bunch of teenagers practise from the stands in his off-time.
“To tell you the truth, for me it wasn’t like I made a decision. I was a school teacher, but had always loved being involved in hockey. I was fortunate to have got a little bit of experience coaching in grad school and there was a job that opened up at Red Deer College, which would be like a Div. II school or CEGEP.
I taught at the school in the phys-ed department—outdoor education and skill acquisition—and I ran the intramural and started coaching the hockey team. Then basically we won enough that I got an opportunity in hockey and that was it. I was fortunate that in my first year we lost the national championship and I figured out that if the guys worked hard and had fun, you had a chance to be successful if you had enough skill, and so… that’s kind of… what we did is… hang on, I’m writing down a drill.
(SN: No problem.)
OK. Then I got on opportunity to coach in a lesser league in Moose Jaw—and from there I got fired. I went to the University of Lethbridge and won a national championship. It just kind of got going like that, but every job I had along the way was a dream job. It’s not like I said to myself, ‘Oh, I’m going to coach the Detroit Red Wings or be the coach of the Olympic team.’ That’s not at all the approach. The approach was I loved doing what I was doing, I was getting better at it and, in our business, if you get better at it and you have some success, opportunities come.
I learned to work hard from my dad. I learned to talk to people from my mom. I was very fortunate along the way when I coached at Red Deer College that there was a guy named Perry Pearn who was an outstanding coach. There was Billy Moores at the University of Alberta. I learned a ton from those two guys. When I went to major junior in my second stop, in Spokane, I worked for an unbelievable owner in Bobby Brett and a general manager in Tim Speltz who gave me tons of time to improve my craft and get better.
In the league at that time there was a guy named Don Hay in Kamloops who was very, very good. I learned a ton by coaching against him. When I went to the American League there was a guy there named John Cunniff. When I went to the NHL I learned a ton from Jacques Lemaire. You learn from everybody as you go. You look at their ideas and they make you think of other ideas, and you make them your own.
Everyone asks what skills or attributes you need to be a head coach. Well, I can tell you the No. 1 skill you need in the NHL is confidence. If you don’t have it, they’ll eat you alive. It’s the same at any level—you gotta have a belief in what you’re doing, in yourself. Otherwise it can get ugly in a hurry.
You have conflicts with players all the time. Sometimes you resolve it and sometimes you don’t. You work as hard as you possibly can to get it sorted out. What’s interesting is that the conflicts that last a while normally happen with players who think you don’t care about them. What I mean by that is, in your family for example, you’re allowed to make each other accountable because they know you love them, and they know they love you. So, when you say something to them they don’t get their back up.
“Over the years I’ve said lots of dumb things and handled situations fairly poorly at times.”
When someone thinks you don’t care about them, they think you’re up against them. Coaching is about trying to make people better, but sometimes you don’t handle it right. Over the years I’ve said lots of dumb things and handled situations fairly poorly at times. Other situations you handle very well. But the bottom line is you’ve got to find a way to make it work.
I have things go off the tracks with players on a fairly regular basis—most of the time you can work it out. It’s your job as a coach to try to find ways to work it out. But there’s no question there have been times things haven’t worked out and you’re always disappointed in those situations.”
Babcock’s coaching philosophy
“Each team you coach is different and every person is different, so when you coach the team you have 23 different plans for 23 different players. Now, they still have to fit into the structure of the team—the team comes first—but the reality is, we want everyone to be the best they can possibly be.
The first thing about coaching a national team is, as a coaching staff, you get ultra-, ultra-prepared so that you can let the players know how you want them to play. You build a foundation for them, then ask them to find their game within the team game. The only way their skill is going to come out is if you have good structure. They all have to know that simple structure—and then you want them to be who they are, because that’s why they’re on the team.
The other thing is that each team you coach is different and every person is different, so when you coach the team you have 23 different plans for 23 different players. That’s just a fact; that’s just the way it is. Now, they still have to fit into the structure of the team, but the reality is, we want everyone to be the best they can possibly be.
Everybody thinks about [the pressure of coaching]. Anybody who tells you they don’t think about it is full of it. The reality is, pressure simply means you have a chance. If you had no chance there’d be no pressure.
How do you avoid letting the pressure control you? No. 1, the bigger the resumé you develop the more opportunity you have to not worry about it. The more experience you have and the more winning you’ve done, the more you’ve learned and become accustomed to [pressure]. When you coach a bunch of players who have also been through it before, they know how to react so that helps you keep a calm disposition.
What else can I tell you? Surrounding yourself with great coaches—when you coach the Olympic team and you’ve got Ken Hitchcock and Lindy Ruff and Jacques Lemaire, and your management team is Steve Yzerman and Ken Holland, Kevin Lowe and Doug Armstrong—you’re surrounded by people who’ve been through it before. That gives you confidence, that helps you not worry about pressure.
One thing about coaching in the NHL is you don’t have as much impact on people as you did when you coached at younger levels. When you coach major junior or college I think you make a significant impact on those people. I’ve been fortunate in all the spots I’ve stopped. I’ve learned a lot from a lot of people and have had a lot of great players [who’ve gone on to do great things outside of sports].”