Mike Babcock looks like a hockey coach. He couldn’t be anything else.
He played the game, as all coaches have, and his face tells the story—etched with scars, looking like corduroy. There are crevices from cheek to chin deeper than Ayn Rand.
The jaw is set, the eyes steely behind the bench. Why do all hockey coaches look like they’re on a stakeout?
Babcock talks with a nervous tick, like he’s in a hurry, his voice drenched in Canada. Just hearing him speak, you know his life has been filled with 5:00 a.m. practices, mucking it up in the corners and he might have been born toting an equipment bag.
Babcock is in his ninth year coaching the Red Wings and perhaps no season has been more grinding than this one.
He’s coaching kids, and he probably thought he was done with that when he left juniors for the professional ranks over a decade ago.
He has a captain with a trick back who isn’t playing. He has been saddled with underachieving veterans. He has a world class puck magician who missed almost every game after the Olympic break.
His goaltender took more than half the season to find his mojo. Players have been dropping like flies due to injury all year. He’s been relying more on AHL players than NHLers.
But Babcock got the Red Wings into the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive year as a franchise, continuing the streak started by Bryan Murray in 1991 and continued by Scotty Bowman and Dave Lewis. In the process, Babcock last month passed Jack Adams for most coaching wins in franchise history.
Yet he probably won’t win coach of the year honors, which is an award ironically named after Adams.
There is more irony here, of the bitter variety, because those who vote on coach of the year are typically enamored with those who make chicken salad after chicken you-know-what.
Babcock may not have started with you-know-what, but he made chicken salad out of some oddball ingredients, and it’s a storyline the voters ought to eat up.
But because Babcock has won everywhere he’s coached—juniors, the NHL, the Olympics—and with some terrific talent, even a stressful, turbulent year such as the 2013-14 season probably won’t be enough to give a deserving guy his due.
It’s twisted logic, and it happens in all team sports.
The talented teams must win despite the coach, because the coaches of those talented teams rarely are recognized as being the best at their craft in any given year.
So coach of the year became reserved for the turnaround story or the winning against all odds situations.
The Red Wings coach succeeded in both of the aforementioned examples—a turnaround and winning against all odds.
In late-November, a certain bottom feeding blogger suggested that the Red Wings were old, decrepit and that their best years had passed. He pounded away on his keyboard, railing against what the Red Wings had become—rudder-less, a step behind and an also-ran.
That bottom feeding blogger was I.
The words scream out from the computer monitor as I read them from my Red Wings blog, the Winged Wheeler. As I have opined before, it is a fact that bloggers don’t write with invisible ink, as much as they would like to.
The Red Wings continued to wobble through the holidays, but began finding themselves in January. It wasn’t a coincidence that the resurgence started when the kids from Grand Rapids started getting ice time and contributing.
The Olympics break seemed to be unwelcome, because the Red Wings were playing some good hockey, finally. Goalie Jimmy Howard replaced the doppelganger that was pretending to be him earlier in the season.
Yet when the Olympics ended, and the NHL resumed its schedule, Babcock’s bunch hadn’t cooled off. They made a charge toward the playoffs, as one of those seeds that barely get in—the kind of team the Red Wings were used to playing against in the playoffs as opposed to actually being.
So that was your turnaround.
You want some winning against all odds stuff?
How about making the push to the playoffs with a motley crew of young, mid-season call-ups; a player who, because of injuries was asked to be a leader while playing his first year in Detroit after 17 seasons elsewhere; and with no captain and no world-class sidekick, among others, all lost to various bumps, bruises and pulls?
All this, and I would bet you that the voters won’t make Mike Babcock the Jack Adams Award winner.
Babcock, with apologies to the song, has looked at love from both sides now. And still, somehow…
When Babcock arrived in Detroit in 2005, he was just two years removed from leading the marginally talented Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Red Wings were anything but marginally talented.
Babcock’s appearance in the 2003 Cup Finals with Anaheim was stunning. In Detroit, it was expected to happen every spring.
So that was one side.
The other side is happening right now, guiding a banged up team whose roster is liberally sprinkled with kids—a team that has to scratch and claw every night. A team with speed—and Babcock has never really coached a lot of speed in Detroit. You don’t have to be fast when the other team never has the puck.
And still, somehow, the Red Wings are back in the playoffs—and leading the Boston Bruins, 1-0, in their first round series.
I marveled at Scotty Bowman, because Scotty won in different decades, his teams playing different styles, and in multiple cities. He started coaching in the 1960s and stopped in the 2000s, winning nine Stanley Cups along the way.
Babcock isn’t Bowman, but this year proved that the Red Wings are being coached by someone who doesn’t have to have every chip fall his way in order to win.
Jack Adams Award or not, this is Mike Babcock’s finest hour in coaching.
Earlier in the week, Babcock spoke of his team’s chances in the playoffs against the big, bad Bruins.
“I like us,” Babcock said in conclusion.
He ought to. His team is being coached by Mike Babcock, after all.