MONTREAL – Mike Babcock figures he’s in for the experience of a lifetime.
After officially getting handed the reins to Team Canada, the new Olympic men’s coach indicated that it was a task unlike any other he’s faced.
“It’s like the Stanley Cup playoffs jammed into 13 or 14 days,” Babcock said Thursday. “But you can’t afford a mishap.”
There was a lot of enthusiasm in the air as Babcock officially took over the Olympic job, heading a staff that includes Ken Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff and Jacques Lemaire. Ruff was so excited that he suggested moving up the schedule: “Let’s skip the season and start it now.”
This is a position Babcock has coveted for some time.
In the aftermath of Detroit’s Stanley Cup celebration in 2008, he sought out Steve Yzerman in the hallway at Mellon Arena and asked him how to apply for the Olympic job. Yzerman had yet to assume the position of executive director but he told Babcock that Hockey Canada already knew he was interested.
Yzerman and the management staff considered plenty of candidates during their coaching search, but kept coming back to Babcock, and it had nothing to do with the fact those two men work for the same organization.
“I actually don’t go in the coach’s room much in Detroit,” said Yzerman. “I can sit back and do this without prejudice. I just think he’s the right man for the job.”
Babcock has been one of the NHL’s most successful coaches in recent years. He’s guided the Red Wings to back-to-back Stanley Cup finals and posted at least 50 wins in four consecutive seasons.
The coach also shares a philosophy with Yzerman for how a team should play.
“The only way you get to play offence is by playing defence first,” said Babcock.
Now that he has the job, the challenge in Vancouver will be significant.
There will be immense pressure on a Canadian team that is coming off its worst-ever showing at the Olympics, having finished seventh at the 2006 Games in Turin. He’s not concerned about it.
“It’s not about the pressure, it’s about wanting to be the best you can be,” said Babcock. “You wouldn’t work this hard if there weren’t going to be some nerves.”
Hitchcock is the lone holdover from the last Olympics. He was also an assistant on the 2002 team that won gold in Salt Lake City.
Interestingly, Hitchcock had intended to take a pass on these Olympics until losing the gold medal game at the 2008 IIHF World Hockey Championship. He was the head coach of that team and fielded questions from foreign journalists afterwards about whether the Canadian standard was slipping.
That changed his mind.
“I didn’t feel good after the world championships because some people from other countries made comments that really pissed me off,” Hitchcock said in February.
A good season also helped. He’s refreshed.
“I know how much work it is,” he said. “It is the complete giving up of a summer. I didn’t know if I would be ready for that mentally but, after the season we had in Columbus, I’m rejuvenated.”
Ruff will have some fuel of his own. He was the head coach of the Canadian team that recently suffered a second straight loss to Russia in the final of the world championship.
Lemaire has coached more than 1,100 NHL games with the Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils and Minnesota Wild, and won a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 1995. He stepped down as Wild head coach at the end of the season after missing the playoffs.
A victory in Vancouver would give Babcock a rare treble. His trophy case already includes gold medals from the world junior championship (1997) and IIHF World Hockey Championship (2004).
He loves international competition.
“The great thing about these events – you get to hear your national anthem when you win,” said Babcock. “It’s unbelievable. You have to earn the right to hear your anthem in your country.
“Isn’t that cool?”