Babey, Canada to face archrival Americans in Paralympic final

United States' Declan Farmer, center, Brody Roybal, top center, Nikko Landeros, top right, in action with Canada's Anthony Gale, left, Dominic Larocque, second from right, and Steve Arsenault, right, during the ice sledge hockey semifinal match between United States and Canada at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, Thursday, March 13, 2014. United States won 3-0. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

GANGNEUNG, Korea, Republic Of — Ken Babey left the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology after 27 years in search of something new and different.

The 63-year-old has found that with Canada’s Paralympic ice hockey team, which will play for Paralympic gold on Sunday for the first time since 2006.

After putting his players through a spirited practice at Gangneung Hockey Centre, Babey talked about what he’s learned from the 17 young men on Canada’s team.

"I was reminded about the importance of humility as a person," said Babey, whose team will play the Americans for gold. "When my coffee’s cold, I’m not complaining about it anymore. Because what these guys do every day, just to go through their day, let alone to go on that ice and play at such a high pace, and such a physical sport … and you’ve seen it all week, there’s nowhere to hide out there."

Babey was both SAIT’s athletic director and hockey coach, leading the Trojans to 534 regular-season wins — the best by any Canadian post-secondary coach — and nine conference hockey championships before leaving in 2014.

He was barely off work before Hockey Canada’s Scott Salmond came calling, hoping Babey would consider joining Canada’s Para ice hockey (formerly sledge hockey) program.

"I didn’t know anything about it, that’s what I told Scott," Babey said. "He said ‘Yeah but you know hockey.’ Went out to the selection camp. Was blown away by how skilled these athletes were, and I thought I could help change a program, in style of play and culture, and so I got involved."

Babey was named the team’s head coach in 2015, and immediately set a goal of winning gold in Pyeongchang.

"I was thinking about that last night, it doesn’t seem that long ago we started this journey. It’s been a great experience and a great journey. Very honoured to represent Canada, be part of this group of young guys. They’re amazing athletes, and just sitting back and seeing their growth, it’s been a rewarding experience."

Babey stresses teamwork in everything the team does, and Canadian players in Pyeongchang have talked about sensing something special in this group. Babey is known for his random whistles during practice. When they hear it, they race full-speed toward the coach. The last one in has to skate a lap, while the rest of the team bangs their sticks and cheer loudly. It’s a drill he brought from his SAIT days.

Babey also reworked the team’s style of play. Para hockey’s on-ice skills — passing with both hands, and skating and playing the puck with the arms — lend themselves to more of a puck-possession game of short passes.

His influence has helped the Canadians climb to the world No. 1 ranking, and a gold at last year’s world championships on the same Gangneung Hockey Centre ice.

The Canadians have never faced their American rivals in a Paralympic hockey final. The Canadians’ lone gold in 2006 came at the expense of Norway. The Americans won in 2010, when Canada didn’t reach the podium, and in Sochi four years ago, where Canada had to settle for bronze.

Less than a month after Canada’s men’s and women’s teams came away without a gold in Pyeongchang, Para captain Greg Westlake, who was on the team that won gold in Turin in 2006, said his team is keen to do better.

"It’s funny how it’s worked out. The stars just haven’t aligned for everybody," Westlake said, on the fact Canada has never swept the hockey golds at an Olympics and Paralympics. "This year, no-one’s got it done yet. Yeah, it would be great to be the team that came out here and got it done.

"We’re a very proud country, being from Canada and playing hockey we know the expectation’s gold in everything we do. We feel that weight and it’s not a pressure, it’s more encouragement than anything."

Encouragement came Friday morning from a Canadian hockey legend.

"I woke up and had an email this morning from Wayne Gretzy. So that was pretty special, just passing on his best," Westlake said. "Before we won gold in 2006, he gave our whole team a call, wished us luck."

Canada has yet to give up a goal, outscoring opponents 42-0 through the first round and semis. The Americans went 38-1, coughing up a goal in their 10-1 semifinal win over Italy.

Canada and the U.S. are the two youngest teams in the tournament, averaging about 27 years old. The American team features six military veterans.

Canada has one in goalie Dominic Larocque. The Canadian lineup also includes Dom Cozzolino, who played junior hockey for the Mississauga Jets until he was slammed into the boards in 2009, suffering a spinal cord injury. Tyler McGregor played triple-A hockey as a junior before losing his leg to cancer.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.