TORONTO – A group of Canada’s finest hockey coaches go for a bike ride.
Mike Babcock has urged them into the streets of Ottawa, lining up rentals from a local shop in an effort to give his staff a little breather from their World Cup of Hockey preparations. They end up riding three straight days during training camp, taking a route that winds along the city’s picturesque canal while “competing” for a yellow jacket.
“We saw the whole town,” said Babcock. “Beautiful.”
The group of seven – Babcock, assistants Joel Quenneville, Claude Julien, Barry Trotz and Bill Peters, plus goaltending coach Stephane Waite and video coach Andrew Brewer – later decide to cycle again after travelling to Pittsburgh for Team Canada’s final pre-tournament game.
Julien manages to pick up a yellow bike jersey emblazoned with a large photo of the city’s skyline to playfully denote himself the leader of the Tour de Pittsburgh, but no one in the travelling party has any illusions about who is actually setting the pace out front.
This is Babcock’s show and Babcock’s team.
Quenneville may have more Stanley Cups, and he and Trotz may both own more victories as an NHL head coach, but they are basically domestiques in this environment.
It says a fair bit about their commitment to the program – they are parking an ego in much the same way Claude Giroux, Braden Holtby and Jake Muzzin are while sitting in the press box – and it says a lot about Babcock.
He is completely unafraid to surround himself with strong, powerful, accomplished people. In fact, that part of this experience holds just as much allure as trying to add another international accolade to his resume.
“Well, I get to work with Q and Julie-boy and Pete and Trotzy and Stephane Waite, and five (NHL) general managers, so those are all building relationships with more people,” said Babcock. “You never know when you might need another job one day.”
This is the kind of job the straight-talkin’ philosopher king from Saskatoon is built for. Give him a roster full of the sport’s finest athletes and watch him coax everything he can out of them in a competitive atmosphere rife with pressure.
He has proven particularly adept at navigating these short-term tournaments. World juniors, IIHF World Hockey Championship, Olympics … Babcock’s won them all.
It’s a task that calls for a communicator as much as a tactician. A leader who can strike a balance between preparedness and over-preparedness. Someone who knows exactly how to get to the heart of the matter.
“He’s good because he’s intense, he’s to the point and he kind of lays it out there,” said veteran defenceman Jay Bouwmeester. “You know what’s expected. I think that when you get guys that are high-level players that’s all you want: You kind of want to find out what your role is and that’s all you worry about.”
While it’s the players that obviously win these best-on-best tournaments, the coaches play an undeniable role in creating the best environment for it to happen.
This Team Canada has been together for 16 days, and the rubber is now meeting the road. The preliminary round wraps up with back-to-back games against Team USA and Team Europe on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the semifinals loom this weekend.
Babcock has been in the middle of everything during the vocal, high-energy practices designed to have everyone ready for this point. He’ll stop things dead and bark out orders at a $170-million collection of players if he sees something he doesn’t like.
However, he’s also taken some time away from business hours to show a more human side. That duality has stood out to San Jose Sharks defenceman Brent Burns, who arrived here wondering how he might fit in.
“In San Jose, we’re pretty loose and bubbly,” said Burns. “You know, I think when you come to something like this you’re just a little nervous and quiet.”
“When we’re on the ice or in meetings, he’s very straight and narrow,” added John Tavares, a veteran of Babcock’s Sochi Olympic team. “Right to the point. He doesn’t like to drag things on. Certainly once that’s over, he’s definitely very personable and I’ve been able to get to know him.
“Try and communicate on a different level.”
To spend time around Babcock in this environment is to see a man truly driven by competition.
While the last great summit for him to climb awaits when he resumes his day job trying to turn around the Toronto Maple Leafs, he is clearly enjoying the here and now. The NHL’s salary cap ensures he’ll never again coach a team as good as this one again at Air Canada Centre and, potentially, anywhere else.
This was not a challenge he had to accept. He already has credentials that arguably surpass any Team Canada coach in history, and he found himself squeezing in a game from the Leafs rookie tournament last weekend because, well, the World Cup is essentially a volunteer gig.
“We know who pays us and where our bread is buttered,” said the NHL’s highest-paid coach.
Babcock also knows himself.
He loves to push the limits, compete and create lasting memories.
Taking the World Cup assignment forced him to work through a summer he might otherwise have spent doing other things. It’s given him a chance to pick the brains of elite athletes and other world-class coaches.
Now it’s brought him to a day like this one – a day anyone who loves hockey can appreciate. He’s got the best seat for a Canada-U.S. game that is bound to bubble over with emotion since a loss would send the Americans home from the World Cup early.
“It sounds to me like it’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Babcock.