Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock has had a very successful career. He was a decent hockey player; suiting up for the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL, the University of McGill and he spent one season playing pro hockey in England where he racked up 45 goals and 127 assists in 49 games.
But he wanted to be in the NHL, and he knew it wouldn’t be as a player so he became a coach. If you want to learn about what makes a successful coach, keep reading.
He got his first coaching gig with Red Deer College in the ACAC in 1988. In his second season they won the championship and he was named coach of the year. In 1991 he moved to Moose Jaw of the Western hockey league. In 1993 he was named head coach of the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns, and in his only season they won the National Championship. Lethbridge has
He spent the next six seasons as head coach of the Spokane Chiefs in the WHL, then moved to Cincinnati of the American League. He spent two years in the AHL, made the playoffs both years and on May 22nd, 2002 he was named head coach of the Anaheim Ducks. He went to the Stanley Cup final his first season in Anaheim, before he went to Detroit to coach the Red Wings in 2005/2006.
He’s went to two Cup finals with the Red Wings, winning in 2008 and losing to Pittsburgh in 2009. He coached Canada to gold at the 2010 Olympics and he will get a chance to repeat at the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
He’s regarded as one of the best coaches in the NHL, and I had the chance to chat with him and get his thoughts in a feature I call Hockey Coaching 101.
Jason Gregor: When you were playing in Saskatoon (WHL) and McGill (CIS), was coaching something you ever thought about for later on? Or did you only consider it once you finished playing?
Mike Babcock: That’s a good question. I had people who tell me I always told them I was going to coach. I don’t remember any of that. To me, I wanted to be a player, but in the end I wasn’t good enough to make a living in the league I wanted to play in. So the bottom line is I could have hung out in Europe for a long time, but the reality is I wanted to get on with my education and get on with things. I actually thought I was going to stay at McGill University forever being a Professor, going on and getting a Masters and a PhD. Along the way somewhere, I lost my way.
JG: Give me your thoughts on the comparisons between being a teacher and a coach and maybe how similarly they are related.
MB: I tell people all the time I’m a teacher. The reality is the exams are the games. What’s interesting to me is I feel coaching is a lot about teaching. For example, you give the kids an exam on Friday and everybody gets fifty. Well, to me as a teacher, you haven’t done your job. If everyone gets eighty, you probably taught them.
The same with coaching is, I’m probably a guy who shouldn’t be a guest on your show, but rather listening to your show- Hockey Coaching 101. The bottom line for a coach is maximizing the propensity of your athletes and getting them to play at the highest level. I’m a big believer that winning follows good coaches around. I guess what I would tell you is we’re in the teaching business.
We call it the solution business as we try to come up with ideas each and every day to make our group better. We want to maximize the potential of our individuals and our group. Each and every day you choose your attitude, you dig in and you try to make the people you work with better and make yourself better. I have a lot of respect for teachers, it’s a tough job. Coaching is a tough job too, but it’s an exhilarating job, lots of fun, no different than teaching.
JG: Who has had the biggest influence on your coaching career?
MB: Great question. I don’t know the answer to that. For me, it’s really simple. My Dad taught me how to work real hard, and my Mom taught me how to talk to people. I’ve had lots of great people along the way. Professer Shomay at McGill University was a guy who had a lot of time for me. He helped me get better. Billy Moores, right here with the U of A, when I coached at Red Deer College and then even after was a man who made people better, and he demanded a lot out of people, but he respected them at the same time.
Perry Pearn was a guy who coached at NAIT when I coached in the ACAC at Red Deer College. His teams were at a very high level and I learned a ton from him. Don Hay was another guy that when I was in Spokane he was in Kamloops and I learned a ton from him. I believe in “R and D”- rob and do. I haven’t come up with a lot of original thoughts, but I sure stole a lot of them.
JG: How important is it for a coach, at any level, to have a balance of being strict, but also being compassionate to the player as a person?
MB: Well, I guess for me that’s huge. The other thing I’d say to you is Tom Renney is a good man, Bill Peters is a good man. We do a ton of laughing. People probably wouldn’t believe that right now, that we’re not crying. We do a ton of laughing. That doesn’t mean we’re not spending a lot of time laughing at ourselves, I can tell you that. We’re trying to get better each and every day.
We think our team now knows how to play. We just don’t play well all the time. So it’s not about showing them how to play, it’s about managing them and getting them to play. That’s dealing with people. Everybody has a different skill set. I think that’s the whole key. When you asked me who has had the greatest influence on me, I told you my Dad taught me how to work; my Mom told me how to talk to people. When you have an ability to talk to people, and lots of people talk and they get nothing, other people talk and they give out pearls.
I think Jacques Lemaire is the best guy I’ve ever been around, who had the shortest meeting with the best information. To me, that’s what teaching is about, that’s what coaching is about, to provide something that they can see, taste, and smell and turn it into something that helps them on the ice. That’s what you’re trying to do. It’s a battle each and everyday, that’s what makes it fun. I love what I do; I love the people I’m around. I try to surround myself with great people. Tom Renney’s a good person first, a coach second. Bill Peters is a good person first, a coach second. Ken Holland, it’s the same thing. Those are the people, to me, that make you better and are fun to be around.
MAKING THE JUMP
JG: Everybody always says the biggest jump for players is from that American League to the NHL, where it’s the best of the best. How about the coaching ranks? Is it the same for a coach, or was there a bigger jump for you along your path to the NHL?
MB: Well the biggest one for me was from Red Deer College to Moose Jaw in the Western Hockey League. I knew nothing about bench management. I was over my head big time and didn’t really understand it. It didn’t take me very long, but for a long time I got fed my lunch pretty good there. I thought that was the biggest jump for me.
When you look at the Western Hockey League, the elite coach in the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Hockey League, they’re outstanding coaches. In college I would say the same, sometimes in college the best recruiter is the best coach, but in major junior there is nowhere to hide. So to me, that sets you up for success.
Kelly McCrimmon and Brandon East used to call it NHL light. That’s exactly, to me, what it is. I thought the Western Hockey League, even more so than the American Hockey League. I thought the American Hockey League, for a coach, is more like college hockey. You prepared your team all week and you played on the weekends.
To me, I still think the biggest jump is from major junior to the American Hockey League for players, it might be different for some people not the American Hockey League to the NHL, but the major junior to the American League I think for players. And then for a coach, depending on your background, for me my biggest jump for sure was actually from the ACAC to major junior. From there and on, I spent a long time getting ready. I was probably kind of like we do in Detroit, “over-ripe”.
JG: Interesting that bench management was your biggest lesson. Give me your definition of bench management and how hard it is to manage a bench. What is the biggest challenge?
MB: I think the first thing is accountability. Number one is different people play well different nights. Find out who is playing well; make sure they’re out on the ice more than the rest of the guys. Secondly, understand who they are getting out on the ice and figure out who plays best against them and control that match up. That was my biggest thing when I went to major junior, is I had the wrong people out on the ice against the wrong people in the first half of my first year.
I had no idea how it really worked and I didn’t do a good job of that. People think at a young level, it’s how you run your practice and all that. My players want you to run a good practice, but that is not what they care about the most. They want you to know what’s going on at the game. They want you to have the right people on the ice in the right situations, and they know before you do. Players get the information first, the coach gets it second.
In order to be on top of it you gotta be, I think, really good. The better team you have, the more you’re called a genius. I always kind of laugh, Scotty Bowman is an unbelievable bench manager, he also had more players than anybody else. When you have more players than anybody else – the first few years in Detroit- it’s easy to have the right people on the ice all the time. When you have less than the other team, that’s when you have your hands full.
JG: That leads me into Nick Lidstrom. Ken Holland has told me on numerous occasions that Lidstrom makes everybody around him in the organization better. How have you had to alter your strategy, without having a hall of famer on the back end every night?
MB: Well everybody talks about Nick, but the year before Nick retired we had Rafalski leave. Rafalski was the MVP in the 2010 Olympics on the back end. Brad Stuart went to San Jose because his family stayed there. That’s three of our top four. So it isn’t just Nick Lidstrom, it’s a total re-haul on the back.
So we’ve had to change a lot in how we play, because we simply can’t play the same way. We can’t make the same plays; that is just a fact. We make over anxious mistakes all the time. We make the sort of mistakes we never made before. We don’t move the puck like we did. It’s a way different game and I have to tell you, it’s been exciting. It’s been exciting trying to figure out a way to get this team to win. We, as coaches, haven’t done a good enough job.
We thought we had ‘er going earlier this year. We should have never thought that, because the wheels are off again and we’ve gotta get them back on. The bottom line; it is your job as a coach to maximize what you’ve been given. Whether it is a ton, or whether it is very little. You have to find a way to maximize your players. I said to our guys as early as today, one of the things I always like to do when I watch hockey I think, “Are they well coached?” If you watch the Red Wings right now, you’d say to yourself, “I wonder who is running that crew?”
JG: I’m not sure many say that (laughs). What do you coaches do to always learn? How do you keep yourself fresh?
MB: Scotty Bowman is the best I’ve ever seen in my life at life-long learning. He’s always interested in finding something new. I don’t care if it’s a business man you’re talking to or at a soccer practice or tonight at supper, when you meet somebody new there’s something to be learned everywhere. From reading books, to going to seminars, to speaking engagements, I like being around people and gathering information. I ask a ton of questions.
By asking questions, you’re always learning. I’ve learned from good players. Being involved in the Olympics for me was great, not just because of the coaches I was with, but I learned a ton from the players. I learned a lot from Shanahan, Yzerman, Chelios, Lidstrom, and all the great players that I’ve ever coached. They’ve got a lot to offer.
It’s interesting, we’ve adjusted our game, we do things because Zetterberg did something and we call it something now. The reality is Zetterberg did it; we thought it looked good and now all our centres do it. That’s just, to me, what the game is about, finding a way to continue to get better.
In our business, I’ll be honest with you, if you’re not getting better you’re not going to have your job. Someone else is going to have it for sure. I’ve been lucky to coach many good players. What I did, when I coached in the ACAC and we lost in the national final, wouldn’t win a couple years later in major junior. What I did in major junior wouldn’t win when we won the CIS final with Lethbridge. Then what you did there wouldn’t win when you coach at the world junior. And that wouldn’t do it when you coach at the World Championships or the Stanley Cup finals.
What you did last year is over with. Can you use some of that stuff? Sure, but you have to keep getting better. I worked for Disney for a long time, for five years and they had the Disney Imagine years. Not engineers, but “imagineers.” Those people keep you ahead of time. What are they going to do in the next ten years? As a coach, to me, that’s what you’ve have to do. You’ve need to be cutting edge.
JG: I want to ask you about Pavel Datsyuk. How do you work with a player who is that talented and that driven? Do you have to relate differently to him compared to other guys on your team?
MB: Well, I just think Pavel’s not a challenge to deal with at all because he just works so hard and so proud. What I find is, when you’ve got twenty-three guys on your team, you’ve got twenty-three different ways to coach. If you don’t, you’re making a huge mistake. They’re all very different. On our team, we’re fortunate that they want to get better. Pavel Datsyuk, what makes him great, is he always wants to get better. He’s an elite performer. He plays the best when it counts.
We’ve been very injured this year, to say the least. So I haven’t had enough guys to help Pavel. Sometimes when you don’t have enough, you end up checking the guy yourself. The best thing I could do to help Pavel right now, is get him more help. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’ve got Franzen and Filppula back now, so hopefully we can help him.
Dealing with Pavel is easy because he is real straight forward and I’m a straight forward guy anyway. I just tell him what I need and he usually finds a way to get that done. He has an opinion on a lot of things and I’m willing to listen to it. We try to come up with things in a compromise or if he has a better idea, I try to go with that. Pavel is one of those guys; he can do whatever you want. He’s ultra competitive. That’s what I want in life, that’s what I want from my kids, that’s what I want from the people I work with; ultra competitive people who bring it every day. I’m looking for “everydayers.” If you don’t bring it everyday, I’m hoping you’re finding some place else to play.
JG: What advice would you give to young, amateur coaches? What do you think is the key when you are in charge of developing young players, anywhere from novice, atom up to the bantam ranks?
MB: The number one thing you have to understand is when they give you that esteem title, you have to be prepared, and you have to be prepared every day. Your job is to make sure they love the game more when they leave than when they arrived. That’s your number one job and if you look after that, everything else will be fine. I think it goes with everything else in life, you’ve need to try to make yourself better. If you do that, you’ve got a chance to be really good.
Talking with Babcock it is clear he is very driven, and like he said he’s very excited for the new challenge of coaching a new system in Detroit. Mostly I really enjoyed his philosophy on being an "Everydayer." We should all strive to do that in life. If you know an amateur coach, please pass encourage them to read Babcock’s insight.