BACK TO WORK

Photography by Carey Shaw
BACK TO WORK
He was once the best-paid coach in hockey, with a Stanley Cup and a pair of Olympic golds. So what is Mike Babcock doing behind the bench at the University of Saskatchewan? And has he learned anything from his fall from grace?
Photography by Carey Shaw

I t might not be a real word according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, but the phrase carries weight around this team. “Exactism” means just what you think: Sticking to a plan with extreme precision. That can translate into a hockey practice beginning exactly on time, or it can manifest in three forwards positioning themselves perfectly at pre-determined points on the ice during a forecheck. Exactisms are designed to create efficiency, establish routine and ensure there’s no grey area, so everyone knows what’s expected of them.

On this afternoon in late September, exactisms are all over the place at the rink inside Saskatoon’s Merlis Belsher Place. Mike Babcock, head coach of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, is running practice and abiding by the term he brought to the men’s hockey squad. Chewing a large wad of gum and wearing a grey Huskies baseball cap and matching zip-up, Babcock is engaged, dashing all over the ice as he provides instruction. After guiding several players lined up on the blue line during shooting drills, he heads back to the bench to grab his whistle. He then calls everyone to the faceoff circle to tee up their scrimmage. As it unfolds, the 58-year-old skates up and down the ice following the puck. His energy is brisk, his eyes remain fixed on the action and his head is constantly swiveling. Babcock describes himself as “a bee in a jar,” and the comparison is apt.

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This 2,700-seat arena is located on the edge of campus, which is just east of Saskatoon’s Central Business District. An empty field sits across from Merlis Belsher Place, lush green despite the lack of rain this summer. On the other side of College Drive is a herd of grazing cattle. When the wind is strong, the smell of manure wafts to the front doors of the arena and to the neighbouring football field. This is home for Babcock, who grew up about a mile away and played defence for the Huskies during the 1981–82 campaign.

That stint on the university’s blue line was near the outset of his storied hockey journey. Along the way, Babcock became, for a time, the most desirable bench boss on the planet, collecting two Olympic gold medals and one Stanley Cup ring, while amassing more wins than all but eight other head coaches in NHL history. Now, 40 years since he was last a Huskie, a long, winding road has led Babcock home. The nearest NHL arena, Rogers Place in Edmonton, is 522 kilometres from here. He’s far removed from the spotlight, plying his trade not with established NHL superstars, but university students, some of whom don’t even have a desire to pursue a future in the sport. He’s also arrived on the heels of what can be considered the lowest point of his career — Babcock was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in late 2019 and saw his public image tarnished by accusations of bullying. He knows that some view his current situation as an epic fall from grace, but the long-time coach prefers to look at it from a different perspective, one rooted in family and his own unique values. After a layoff that was rife with controversy, Babcock is working again, doing what he does best. But as he writes this newest chapter, he’s also defiant about the past and more than willing to push back on public perception.

Babcock in the communal coaches office at U. of S. (Carey Shaw/Sportsnet)

T he rhythm is hammered out in perfect unison. Tap. Rest. Tap-tap. Rest. Tap-tap-tap. Rest, repeat. Huskies players are spread out around the boards smacking their sticks on the ice. As the taps gather speed, Babcock’s son, Michael Babcock III, skates around half the rink, with a puck in each hand. He waves his arms slowly as if he’s conducting a symphony. When he arrives at centre ice, the players close in on him. Michael — who has blonde hair and his father’s strong, square jawline — takes a bow, drops the two pucks and then skates off as the Huskies go about shooting around prior to the official start of practice.

Put simply, Michael is the sole reason his father is here coaching the Huskies.

Late last December, Dave Hardy, then-Huskies chief athletics officer, reached out to Babcock about the opening created when Dave Adolph decided to step down after 28 years at the helm of the university’s men’s hockey team. It was a complete shot in the dark, but Hardy — who was the basketball coach at Babcock’s high school — figured their longstanding relationship could at least help his cause. After they spoke, Babcock told his wife and three kids about the possibility in the days leading up to Christmas. The family was together at their home in Michigan and, while drinking some wine before dinner, they shared a laugh at the idea of Mike Babcock coaching a university hockey team. It was his wife, Maureen, who first started to take the idea seriously. Her parents, who are 90 and 88, reside in Saskatchewan and if Babcock took the job, they could be surrounded by family. True, Babcock acknowledged, but if they wanted to be closer to everyone, they could simply a rent a house in the area. He wasn’t convinced a job needed to come into the picture.

“We have a lake home in Michigan — that’s where our home is. But this is like, Old Home.”

After the holidays, Michael went back to Boston, where he worked for a company that sells data on electrical and mechanical components. He began mulling what life could look like if his father returned to Saskatoon. “My sisters joked around like, ‘Oh, you should go with him. It’ll be fun,’” Michael says. “And so, I thought about it more and more. I thought it would be the coolest thing that him and I could share.”

His father visited three weeks later, and by that time Michael had solidified his plan. The two went skiing in New Hampshire and as they sat on the chairlift, the 26-year-old told his dad that he wanted to quit his job and go back to school. If Babcock took the head coaching gig at U. of S., then Michael could do a 12-month general MBA there while working with his father as an assistant on the coaching staff. “I said, ‘You serious about this?’” recalls Babcock. “He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go there and take my MBA, you coach the team.’ So that’s why I’m here.”

Michael played NCAA hockey for four years before spending the 2019–20 campaign in a professional league in France. He didn’t have any prior coaching experience beyond working in hockey camps or as a power-skating instructor. But he’s always been around the game and was up for a new experience. “I never thought one time that I’d have an opportunity to coach with my dad,” he says. “So, for me, the opportunity to do that just seemed too good to pass up. I also thought there’s a chance to further my education, which was really important to me.”

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He notes that being around his maternal grandparents was also a draw. He visited Saskatchewan every summer until he was 20, but now he can spend extended time with the large number of family members who still reside in the province. His father has been enjoying that element to life here, too. Babcock and Maureen live two blocks away from his sisters, and family gatherings are now a regular part of life.

“The other night my wife and daughter were in town,” says Babcock. “Next thing you know, I got two sisters, their husbands, their daughter, her husband, two grandchildren [coming over]. We’re having a barbecue. I went to my nephew’s football game the other day.

“It’s just a totally different experience than we’ve had,” he adds. “Because we’ve never lived at home. We’ve only stayed at home in the summer. … We have a lake home in Michigan — that’s where our home is. But this is like, old home. My best buddy dropped by last night for beer. It’s just different.”

Huskies players participate in an intra-squad exhibition game (Carey Shaw/Sportsnet)

B abcock leans back in his chair and offers a smile. “I don’t have an office yet,” he quips. His workstation at Merlis Belcher Place is situated in a communal coaches’ room used by the whole staff. There’s not much in the way of creature comforts, other than the box of Tetley tea and the microwave it sits on. Babcock is seated at one end of the room with a MacBook in front of him. Is he good with technology? “You have to be,” he says. “You don’t have 15 people working for you like you do with the big team.”

Gordie Ballhorn, a fourth-year defenceman on the Huskies, says that players were nervous during the first couple skates under Babcock. “You could see maybe some of the guys were gripping their sticks a little too tight and didn’t want to make mistakes,” Ballhorn says. “But once we were able to kind of get by that and everyone took a breath, they realized he’s a coach and he’s here to help us. Then, it was good for everybody.”

Watching Babcock with his players, you see a different side than the hard-driving, almost militaristic, leader he’s viewed as in some corners of the hockey world. Here, when they’re not on the ice, he jokes around with his players, laughing about the differences between Toronto and Saskatoon and getting their opinions on restaurants in the downtown core. The vibe seems like a happy medium between loose and workmanlike.

A unique aspect of Babcock’s coaching, according to Ballhorn, is that he can draw on his experience with NHL superstars and relate that to what he sees from Huskies players. The coach will frequently tell Ballhorn, a defenceman, ‘This is how Morgan Rielly executed on the Maple Leafs,’ or ‘This is what Duncan Keith did on the Canadian Olympic team.’ Babcock also leans on his contacts across the NHL to send him videos of pro players executing skills such as faceoffs or forechecks. Just the other day he showed the Huskies footage of Chris Kreider, Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli to demonstrate such teachings. “It’s cool to have him be able to relate things from some of the best players in the world to your practice, where you think, Hey, I never would have thought of that,” says Ballhorn. “It’s coming from someone who has a different vision of the game and who’s been at the highest level.”

Adds Derek Hulak, a first-year assistant coach, about Babcock’s willingness to impart instruction: “He almost can’t shut it off. It’s all the time. He’s helping and teaching us coaches, he’s helping and teaching the players.”

Brandin Cote is the associate coach under Babcock, selected earlier this year from a group of 127 candidates. The plan is to have Cote, who played for Babcock with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs from 1997 to 2000, learn from the NHL vet and then assume head coaching responsibilities when he leaves. Along with the certain knowledge he’ll never beat the veteran coach to the arena in the morning — Babcock rides his bike every day and claims he can arrive before Michael, who makes the trip by truck, if they leave at the same time — Cote has some familiarity with Babcock’s exactisms. “If you listen to him talk, he doesn’t want to be long-winded,” Cote says. “He wants to get to the point, tell you what you need. ‘Okay, good.’ Move on. And that’s really how he’s been ever since I’ve known him.”

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Practices under Babcock are fast, intense and purposeful. “At the start, our guys weren’t used to that and it was almost chaotic out there because they weren’t used to having that sort of efficiency with the practice,” says Cote. “Now you can see guys starting to get the idea of the rhythm and the routine that we want to have and how he runs it. And you can see our practice is getting more efficient and crisper as well.”

Babcock, for his part, is not in new territory as leader of a post-secondary school team — he coached at Red Deer College and the University of Lethbridge in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He says he understands the mentality of these players and the challenges that come with being a student-athlete. He admits he hasn’t had to think about minutiae like booking team meals or fundraising in decades, but says he’s adjusting. His goal for the season is simple: “Have as much fun as I can [and] enjoy my son and my family,” says Babcock, sitting up in his office chair. “My job is to get Brandin Cote, Derek Hulak and Mike Babcock [III] up and running. That’s my job. So, to have as much fun as we can with these guys and do the best we can. But the impact on Saskatchewan hockey is going to be more so from these coaches in a 10-year run than it is from me.”

Babcock keeps an eye on things during a late-September exhibition (Carey Shaw/Sportsnet)

N ews of head coach Sheldon Keefe’s fresh two-year extension with the Maple Leafs is only about five minutes old when Babcock skates onto the ice for another day’s practice. He heads straight to one of the nets to retrieve some of the pucks that his players have launched during their warm-up. Watching from the stands, it’s hard not to compare his current situation to that of Keefe, the man who replaced him after he was fired by the Maple Leafs in November of 2019.

It wasn’t long after Babcock’s departure that reports emerged asserting the coach had asked Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner, then a rookie, to rank the work ethic of his teammates. According to the Toronto Sun, which first published the story, after his request was fulfilled, Babcock shared the list with the players who’d ended up at the bottom.

That story was soon followed by allegations from Johan Franzen, a forward Babcock coached for 10 years with the Detroit Red Wings. Former Red Wings defenceman Chris Chelios had revealed on an episode of the podcast Spittin’ Chiclets that Babcock “verbally assaulted” Franzen during a playoff series against Nashville. Franzen confirmed that to Swedish newspaper Expressen, adding that he felt Babcock was “a terrible person, the worst I have ever met. He’s a bully who was attacking people. It could be a cleaner at the arena in Detroit or anybody. He would lay into people without any reason.” Franzen, who retired in 2015 because of post-concussion syndrome, lauded Babcock’s attention to detail and preparedness as a coach, but said he “makes his players very anxious, they are scared to death of making mistakes.”

“If I’ve done something wrong, I have to own that.”

After his firing, Babcock spent some time away from the sport before joining the University of Vermont on a volunteer basis to advise its coaching staff. He also worked as a studio analyst for NBC Sports and was reportedly in the running for the head coaching job with the Washington Capitals that ended up going to Peter Laviolette.

Babcock’s time with the Huskies marks his return to the ice and before he took the position, he called Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, to get permission. (The Maple Leafs owe Babcock $5.875 million per season until June 30, 2023.) He is committed to the University of Saskatchewan until the end of March. What comes after that, from a hockey perspective, is unclear to him.

“I don’t know. Do I take phone calls from people? Sure,” says Babcock, who wouldn’t disclose who those calls are from. “But this is what I’m doing. So, when I took phone calls this spring, I had made a commitment. This is what I’m doing.… I’m here till March.”

When asked if he wants another job in the NHL, Babcock says it would have to be the right fit with the general manager he’d be working under. “I think it’s important for every general manager to have his coach,” he says. “All the general managers I worked with over the years are lifelong friends. I’ve only got one situation that didn’t work that way. In saying all that, it worked spectacular for me. Got [to Toronto], we ended up getting Auston Matthews. We improved the franchise drastically. [But] there wasn’t a fit for myself and the new general manager,” he adds, referring to current Maple Leafs executive Kyle Dubas. “Move on. That’s it. But you want to work for people that want you to work for [them].”

The subject of his former workplace prompts Babcock to think more broadly about the past. He has publicly stated his side of the Marner and Franzen incidents multiple times, but brings up both, and doesn’t hesitate to share his thoughts again nearly two years later. Of the criticisms levelled against him in their wake, he says that “some of this stuff doesn’t add up” and contends that if he were unfit to be a head coach, he wouldn’t have managed to hold down a position in Detroit for 10 seasons or been hired to coach Olympic and World Cup squads.

He’s asked to clarify what it is that doesn’t add up. “The reality is, after the fact, especially in today’s social media world, you can say whatever you want,” he begins. “It’s not my job to go out and say, ‘No, that didn’t happen.’”

He then says the Marner incident didn’t happen in the way it’s been portrayed. “That’s a complete farce the way it’s talked about and the way it happened. It didn’t happen like that,” he says. “I asked the kid to do something. He did it. The next player came in … So did I ever try to put Mitch Marner in a tough place? Mitch Marner played great for Mike Babcock.”

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Babcock says he feels bad about the way Franzen remembers him, but the long-time Detroit forward’s words don’t seem to weigh too heavily on him given their gravity. “If I’ve done something wrong, I have to own that,” he says. “But I’m good with my life. I’m good with my moral fiber. I’m good with my family.”

When asked what he’s learned over the past two years, whether he has any takeaways from that period, Babcock says “sure,” before reemphasizing his previous point: “It’s real simple for me. Anything in my life that I’ve done that I should be feeling bad about and I should apologize for, I’m good with that. I have to own it and I should do that. But some of the math doesn’t add up. It just doesn’t.”

Does he ever think about legacy and wonder how all this contributes to his?

“Yes, I guess I would have to say this: I’m real proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish and what I’ve done, the impact I’ve had,” he says. “The impact I’ve had on the coach’s association. All the guys that coached with me went on and became head coaches in the NHL. All the guys I’ve helped along the way. All the players I’ve helped. I’m proud of that. Won at every level and really tried to help other coaches along the way. In the end, people are going to say what they want to say, but the facts are the facts. Yeah, I’m comfortable with that. So, I turn this around to you and ask you this. If someone says you did this and you didn’t do it, did you do it?”

Assistant coach Michael Babcock III, his father’s sole reason for coaching the Huskies (Carey Shaw/Sportsnet)

M ichael doesn’t quite know yet if he wants to pursue a career in coaching. His life right now is a balancing act between immersing himself in a hockey team and working toward his degree — he often spends mornings digging into his coaching work, then afternoons at the rink, before rushing off to evening classes and completing assignments after that. The grind will certainly get tougher for him as the season wears on but what’s certain is both undertakings should open doors for him in the future.

Through their first four games of the season, Babcock’s Huskies are undefeated. During that run and the pre-season work that led up to it, Michael has been able to truly see his father in his element for the first time. He says he’s been surprised by Babcock’s ability to soak up as much information as possible amidst the speed of the game. “His way to see something happen, figure out what’s going on, figure out how we can fix it and how we can use that to our advantage, especially on the bench, has been something that I think a lot of people who, until you would do it, would take for granted,” says Michael.

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Babcock doesn’t try to be what he calls an “advice monger” to his children. In Michael’s case, he says the ball is in his son’s court. He will be there to offer what wisdom he can, but any decision his son makes in hockey, school or life will be entirely his own.

If this ends up being the last stop in Babcock’s career in hockey, he says he’s okay with that. The chance to work with his son in his hometown is something he views as precious. “I’ve always planned on retiring at 60,” he says. “I’d have to work fast. You know, if you go back to the NHL, you’re going back for five years.”

Asked about his level of pride in his son, Babcock considers a picture that’s bigger than just hockey. “This is what the measure for my wife and I is: The impact our kids have on society. So, when someone sits down one day and says, ‘What matters to you?’ I’m not going to say the Stanley Cup or Olympic gold medals. I’m going to say my kids. And maybe one day their successful marriages and their grandkids and all those. That’s what matters to me. That’s the measure of me as a man, not this other stuff.”

Photo Credits
Carey Shaw/Sportsnet (5)