It's Christmas in August for Team Canada coach Mike Babcock
The Red Wings' Type A personality coach relishes driving his Olympic all-star team
Canada's camp reflects the all-out nonstop game Babcock wants his team to play
Rather than view Jacques Lemaire as a threat, Babcock requested his assistance
CALGARY -- Mike Babcock eats breakfast like he wants his teams to play: rapidly and with an unmistakable sense of purpose. Although he does not have to be on the ice for another eight hours, Canada's 2010 Olympic team coach is wolfing an omelet at the 1886 Buffalo Café across from the team hotel at 6:30 a.m., bristling to get started.
Why not? What kid sleeps in on Christmas morning, anyway?
Canada's Olympic orientation camp is all that and more for Babcock, whose regular September-through-June job entails prodding the Detroit Red Wings deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs. He thinks of his Olympic job as "winning the lotto," but has exhibited more of a boyish sense of almost holiday wonder since Monday night when he began putting Canada's best hockey players through drills.
Wow, look at these great players! Hey, I'm surrounded by these great coaches!
Instead of post-practice sub sandwiches at the Saddledome, Babcock should have arranged a pitcher of milk and some Christmas cookies.
The pace at the orientation camp has been occasionally astonishing, the drive conspicuous. Compared to the more measured camp in Kelowna, B.C. four years ago that was overseen by Pat Quinn -- players were just coming off the season-long NHL lockout -- Babcock has run hockey's version of the Indy 500.
Philadelphia winger Simon Gagné had been skating for just two weeks after some minor off-season surgery, but had to leave camp Tuesday because he felt tightness in his hip and groin. Before he left Calgary, Gagné said he hadn't been anticipating the tempo of the drills and the willingness of players to go full bore in order to impress Team Canada's coaches and management.
This is pure Babcock, a 46-year-old who is not an especially warm and fuzzy coach -- indeed, how many of the top ones are? -- but who has put together a creditable portfolio in the NHL with Anaheim and now Detroit.
"He's a Type A personality," said assistant coach Ken Hitchcock, who could have made the case that this was his time to coach Team Canada based on his role as an assistant to Quinn at the 2002 and 2006 Olympics and 2004 World Cup. "He's a very focused, intense individual. He doesn't move on anywhere until it's done. If it's not done right, he doesn't care what the name is on the back, where you're from or who you play for. You got to do the job. When he says you've got to play 200 feet, you got to play 200 feet. The game we want to play (in Vancouver) has a lot of pressure in it, a lot of skating in it. There's no resting on the ice."
The difference between Babcock and Quinn is that the Edmonton Oilers' new coach was an astute manager of personnel and team mood -- coach as CEO -- who would give his hockey wonks such as Hitchcock leeway in fine-tuning tactics. Basically Quinn would make sure the players minded their Ps and Qs while taking a minimalist approach to Xs and Os. Like a nursery schooler around the finger paint, Babcock is hands-on. Although he happily delegates -- Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has been put in charge of the power play while ex-Minnesota Wild/new New Jersey Devils coach Jacques Lemaire oversees penalty killing -- Babcock is consumed by details.
Quinn painted the big picture in winning two of those three major tournaments -- and finishing seventh in Turin in 2006 -- but Babcock is the pointillist.
"I've been going to coaching seminars for a long time," Hitchcock said, "and this is the first time I've worked with a guy like Babs (who's) so good at the how and the why. A lot of coaches are good at the how, but he's really good at the why. That's why he's so successful. The 'why' part of his coaching is going to be very helpful to the guys in the locker room.
"Pat provided the big canvas kind of coaching. Mike is one stroke at a time. That's going to be a change for some of the veteran players. Mike's feeling is that the big picture will take care of itself if every stroke is taken care of."
Occasionally there also is a stroke of sheer genius, which Hockey Canada employed by including Lemaire on the staff. The Devils' coach is a rank outsider to this clubby group, which generally demands an apprenticeship in its state-of-the-game program. (Ruff, for example, coached Canada at the 2009 world championships.). Nor had Lemaire ever evinced public interest in international hockey. While it was a necessity to hire at least one coach who spoke French for an officially bilingual nation -- with Boston's Claude Julien, Hockey Canada could easily had had two -- Lemaire's inclusion represented some welcome out-of-the-box thinking and a gauge of Babcock's sense of security.
Lemaire is a presence, generally revered if often misunderstood within the game. Rather than viewing this font of sometimes counter-intuitive hockey wisdom as a threat, Babcock saw him as an extraordinary resource. When Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman called Lemaire to offer the position, he didn't say no. Then again, he didn't say yes immediately, either. When Babcock phoned shortly after Yzerman hung up, Lemaire embraced the opportunity.
"Mike's maybe the only guy who would have called me," said Lemaire, who turns 64 next month. "He said he watched a lot of (old tapes of the Wild) and looked at our penalty killing and the success we had, our 1-2-2, our forecheck. For me, it's great being around younger coaches. Lindy's a little older, but he's like me -- he played (in the NHL). But Mike came out of university. (Babcock played at McGill; he later coached the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.) It's a different adaptation.
"I'm learning an enormous amount. I think he's got a great perception of the game, how to play it. He's extremely good at finding offense, which he does with the type of players he has (in Detroit). He's very well prepared. It comes out -- bang, bang, bang. You gotta get it. For sure it's a little quick, but the guys'll get used to it. Like I am. At the start I couldn't understand anything of what he was saying. Different terms. But you can really tell he's ahead of things."
Lemaire plans to incorporate some of the drills he has seen here while Babcock will be borrowing liberally from some of the insights his assistants have offered.
These elite coaches have checked their egos at the door and are learning from each other. For Canada and the NHL, this is one great gift under the hockey tree.
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