Lethbridge players recall winning year under...
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May 22, 2015  |  Vote 0    0

Lethbridge players recall winning year under Babcock

University team was on the verge of folding when new Leafs coach led them to a national title in 1994

OurWindsor.Ca

The coach burst into the dressing room at Varsity Arena with his not-yet-famous grimace and $30 in his hand.

It was March 1994, and the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns, a hockey team that had never made the CIS playoffs or even posted a winning record, had just defeated No. 1 ranked Acadia in the semifinals. Greg Gatto, a right winger for Lethbridge, said it was a “last shot wins” affair in which the Pronghorns all-Canadian goalie, Trevor Kruger, played terribly. Apparently Krugs broke the barroom ritual he’d set back in Alberta by staying in on the eve of the game.

So when the team’s lanky, thick-haired coach came to see them after the match, he handed his netminder the wad of cash. “He says, ‘You go get the edge off tonight. We’ll see you tomorrow,’” Gatto recalled. “I don’t know many coaches that would give their starting goalie 30 bucks to go have a few beers before a national championship game.”

The Pronghorns won the University Cup in a 5-2 rout over Guelph the next day.

And the unconventional coach? That was Mike Babcock.

“When he came into our program, we were dead last. We were so bad, all of a sudden we just went on a roll,” said Gatto, 21 years later. “It’s hard to understand. You just didn’t want to let him down.”

The newly-minted head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs is being hailed by the team as the seasoned helmsman who can finally steer their floundering ship away from the shoals of perpetual disappointment. With a winning pedigree at all tiers of the hockey world, from junior to the NHL and Olympic tournaments, Babcock is widely considered one of the best coaches in the game, and now has the most valuable contract in the NHL, by far, for someone in his station.

The future Hall of Fame coach was just 30 and still relatively green when he came into Lethbridge in 1993. Babcock’s golden destiny — now featuring a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold, and a world hockey championship — was impossible to foretell. The Pronghorns were bad, and the school administration actually announced its plan to scrap the hockey program the year Babcock stepped in as head coach. Turning that team around is perhaps the closest proxy in Babcock’s career to the task at hand in Toronto—minus, of course, the pressing existential threat to the hockey club.

“We used to do fundraisers basically every other week, trying to raise money and awareness,” said Trevor Ellerman, the assistant captain that season who now works as a golf pro in Medicine Hat. “We were lacking confidence and a belief (in ourselves).”

Cregg Nicol, now a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Coalhurst, Alta., was in his final year at Lethbridge back then. As the Pronghorns captain, he was sitting in on the interviews for the vacant head coach gig when he met Babcock, who was only older than him by six years.

“He wasn’t hired on to be the big saviour or anything like that,” Nicol said. “His resume at the time was Red Deer College” —where he had won the Alberta colleges championship in 1989 — “and a little bit in the Western Hockey League … We thought, ‘Well he’s going to be a good coach.’ ”

Babcock was quick to put his characteristic stamp on the Pronghorns. Players like Gatto, who had been the Western Canadian CIS rookie of the year in the previous season, weren’t given preferential treatment in practice, and the new coach made clear that he expected each player to fill a specific role and become a hard-working cog in the machine of the team’s success.

“First impressions weren’t real great,” said Shane Roest, now a chartered accountant who still lives in Lethbridge. “He had to come in and lay down the law.”

Roest and the others remember their coach’s trademark scowl, a mean mug from the bench that has been broadcast across Canada and the world for years. Gatto, who went on to coach Lethbridge himself before moving to Texas to work with the Odessa Jackalopes, said the school’s basketball coach once told him he was scared of Babcock when he saw him walking the school grounds with that terse expression.

“He had those piercing eyes,” Gatto said. “He’s a hard ass, right? He’s very intense, he’s very driven.”

And yet he obviously managed to get through to his players, at Lethbridge and elsewhere in his coaching career. Nicol recalled visiting the University of Alberta Golden Bears, a team that would routinely dominate the provincial circuit, and seeing a teammate dive headfirst onto the ice to block a shot while killing a penalty. Such a show of heart wouldn’t have happened without the fire of Babcock’s leadership, Nicol said.

It was more than just the X’s and O’s, drawing up plays and concentrating on skill development. As Ellerman put it, the young Babcock came in and made the relative ragtag teammates believe that with hard work and discipline, they could win.

“It’s like we didn’t realize how good we were. He just kept telling us after every practice and game that we were good,” said Ellerman.

And he was right. The Pronghorns finished the 1993-94 season with a 19-7-2 record, entered the CIS championship weekend ranked second in the country, and then upset the defending champion Acadia Axemen before defeating Guelph to win the University Cup. In the wake of victory, the Pronghorns hockey program was saved from ruin and remains today. Babcock, meanwhile, left after that season to the WHL and his well-documented greatness.

The players remember it as their Cinderella year, a moment in life when a host of young men, including their smooth-faced coach, fought from the brink to become champions together.

“You hate to use the word magical,” said Nicol over the phone from his family farm, “but you look back and you know it was something special.”

Toronto Star

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