A great communicator. A great tactician. A winner.
And he doesn’t suffer fools.
That’s the image of Mike Babcock that emerges when talking to players and executives who have been involved with the newest head coach of the Maple Leafs.
“He’s not easy on you,” Wings forward Tomas Tatar told the Toronto Star earlier this month when the Wings were cleaning out their lockers. “He wants to make you be the best he can. He wants you to be on top. He’s trying to push you there.
“It might bother you, but he’s trying to help you out.”
Babcock brings a hard-nosed style to the Maple Leafs, a motivator who has won the Stanley Cup (with Detroit in 2008), two Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014) and a world championship gold medal (2004).
“He’s focused,” said Bob Nicholson, now the president of the Edmonton Oilers but formerly the head of Hockey Canada. “He’s a great communicator to the group. He communicates directly and clearly to the players. In his overall game plan he is very black and white, so everyone knows how he wants his team to play.
“He doesn’t allow players to get away from that game plan. He keeps them accountable.”
It remains to be seen how the Maple Leafs — a team lost any sense of accountability around February — will respond to Babcock.
But one senses that if the players won’t respond, they won’t be around long. Babcock is driven to be the best coach of his generation, a modern-day Scotty Bowman.
“He holds every one accountable each and every day,” said Detroit defenceman Staffan Kronwall. “It’s not just coming in and doing it on game days. It’s even practice days. You do the small things. That’s what’s going to set you up for success in the games.
“Just do things right. Work hard and do things right every day.”
He’s a family man who guarded his family time in Detroit. But now he and his wife, Maureen, find themselves with an empty nest. Their youngest, Taylor, graduates high school this spring and will be off to college.
Babcock has his habits, as Sportsnet Magazine discovered in a piece entitled The Perfectionist.
His alarm rings at 5:50 a.m. He goes for long runs. He reports to the rink exactly four hours and 15 minutes before puck drop.
He prays to his mother every day. She died in 1988. He likes hunting and fishing shows on TV.
He was born in a mining town of Manitouwadge, Ont., on April 29, 1963, and moved around a fair bit — the Northwest Territories, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
He played junior hockey in Saskatoon and Kelowna, but ended up at McGill getting his degree in physical education and taking some courses in sports psychology.
From there, it was a journeyman’s journey: A player/coach in the United Kingdom for the Whitely Warriors; head coach at Red Deer College in Alberta, then to the WHA’s Moose Jaw Warriors, then the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns, then the Spokane Chiefs.
His big break came in 2000 when he took over the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks — a team that handled the prospects for both the Anaheim Ducks and Detroit Red Wings. He forged relationships with both front offices.
The Ducks gave him their NHL job in 2002 and he went straight to the Cup final, losing to New Jersey in seven games. He left following the 2003-04 season after failing to the make the playoffs — the only time in his 11 seasons in the NHL that happened — he went straight to the Wings. He stayed there until Tuesday.
The Wings loss is the Leafs gain.
“It’s the preparation,” said Wings grinder Drew Miller. “He lays out for you how he wants you to play. He holds you accountable. He reinforces it day after day. He teaches you on the ice in practice until it’s like second nature.
“You learn to play the way he wants you to and you do it game after game.”