MONTREAL – Coach Mike Babcock never forgot McGill University and his alma mater certainly never forgot him.
On Monday, McGill bestowed an honorary doctorate of laws of one of its best known graduates, who often wears a university tie behind the bench for big games with the Detroit Red Wings or Canada’s Olympic team.
Babcock was a star defenceman for the McGill Redmen from 1983 to 1987, earning a bachelor’s degree in physical education and doing some postgraduate work in sports psychology before going on to be one of the world’s top hockey coaches.
“I grew up in a family with three sisters,” the 50-year-old said before accepting the degree at the university’s fall convocation ceremonies. “I never had any brothers, but when I left McGill I had brothers for the rest of my life.
“The opportunity for me to grow as a human being and get a foundation—that to me is what McGill is. It provides a foundation and sets you up for the rest of our life. I’m thankful for that. I’m fortunate to be tied to the school ever since. I feel it’s important to give back as much as you can.”
Babcock, who will coach Canada’s team again at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, embraces his old university like few Canadian athletes or coaches.
The Manitouwadge, Ont., native, who grew up in Saskatoon, doesn’t have a lot of free time between his NHL and Olympic duties, but he will still help out the Redmen by giving a call to a potential recruit or tossing some cash in the pot to fund a trip to the national finals.
But the biggest boost may come from the publicity the institution gets when he wears a McGill tie, as he did when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and when he led Canada to a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
He considers the ties good luck, and was wearing a new black and white one that was made especially for the degree ceremony.
“Every time I’m around McGill I’ve been very lucky,” he said. “I was lucky when I told my dad years ago I was going back to the University of Saskatchewan and he said ‘no you’re not.’
“That was the only time he ever got involved. I can’t tell you how proud I am to be here today.”
It’s not that McGill needs the attention. It is ranked either first or second on nearly every rating of Canadian universities and has produced hundreds of prominent graduates, including 11 Nobel prize winners, two Canadian prime ministers and 10 supreme court justices.
It has also produced four NHL head coaches—Babcock, Lester Patrick, George Burnett and Guy Boucher.
“When I arrived here I had no interest in academics, really,” he said. “I was a good enough student, but that wasn’t my thing.
“When I came here, the demands were so high from people around me and the institution that you had to either join in or be left behind. I was a student and was becoming a teacher and I went to grad school and then I went overseas to play hockey and I lost my ways. I started to coach and that’s what happened.”
At McGill, Babcock was a two-time all-star who was named the team’s player of the year in 1986-87.
He got his start in coaching as a part-timer with minor hockey teams while at university.
He later became player-coach of a team in England before coaching the Moose Jaw Warriors in the Western Hockey League, and the University of Lethbridge, where he won a national championship. He also coached Canada to a world junior gold medal in 1997.
As a rookie NHL coach in 2003, he took the Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup final, losing to New Jersey. He signed with Detroit in 2005.
Babcock was the first coach to join the IIHF Triple Gold Club, having won a Stanley Cup, an Olympics and a world hockey championship (in 2004).
He is considered by many as the best coach in the NHL, perhaps in the world.
“I think sometimes as parents we’re in a rush to get our kids to decide what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives,” said the father of three. “The jobs they’re going to have haven’t even been invented yet.
“It’s about building a foundation and opening up doors for yourself, and you’ll find your passion and end up being really good at something. That’s what happened to me.”