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Wings coach Babcock renews old McGill acquaintances during rare visit

MONTREAL - Mike Babcock took advantage of a rare visit to Montreal to reunite with some friends from his days as a star defenceman with the McGill University Redmen.

The Detroit Red Wings coach played at McGill from 1983 to '87 while earning a degree in physical education and a graduate degree in sports psychology.

But with the NHL's Eastern and Western Conferences kept apart by an unbalanced schedule - at least until next season - the 44-year-old coach rarely gets a chance to visit his alma mater.

In fact, in six years as an NHL coach, Babcock's Western Conference teams have only been to Montreal twice.

So after the Red Wings landed and practised Monday afternoon, he headed straight for the downtown campus.

"I went to the McGill bookstore and got three McGill sweatshirts for my kids because I'm tired of them wearing the University of Saskatchewan stuff my wife gets them," Babcock said Tuesday.

"Then I went to McConnell (Arena) and dropped off my (donation) cheque. You have to make sure you do that."

He walked in as McGill coach Martin Raymond was running an optional practice. It was surely a treat for the young players to have the coach of the NHL's first-place team stop in to say hello.

Babcock's ties to McGill gained attention during the playoffs last spring when he started to wear McGill ties behind the bench.

He usually wears a different tie each game, picked out by his daughter, but he wore the red McGill tie for Detroit's 3-2 win over San Jose in Game 5 of the conference semifinal.

He wore it again in Game 1 of the conference final, a 2-1 victory over Anaheim, although the Ducks came back to win the series and go on to take the Stanley Cup.

Babcock was to wear the lucky tie again for the Red Wings' game against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night.

"I got the e-mail that I had to wear it, so I brought it with me," he said.

The former Redmen captain said he can't quantify how much playing at McGill or the education he received there contributed to his success as a coach.

He went on to coach at Red Deer College, then jumped to the junior Moose Jaw Warriors and then joined the Spokane Chiefs, where he was twice named WHL coach of the year. He also coached Canada to a gold medal at the 1997 world junior championship.

Then came his fateful jump to Cincinnati of the AHL, a farm team shared by Anaheim and Detroit - the two clubs he would coach in the NHL.

First stop was Anaheim, where in his rookie season of 2002-03, he took then Ducks to their first Stanley Cup final.

After the 2004-05 NHL lockout, he moved to Detroit, a team with three Stanley Cups between 1997 and 2002, and where coaching legend Scotty Bowman holds great sway as a consultant.

The Red Wings posted 50 or more wins in his first two seasons in Detroit, although they lost both years in the playoffs. They are well on their way to another post-season.

Babcock took over a club with a core of long-serving veterans, including five-time Norris Trophy-winning defenceman Nik Lidstrom, 45-year-old blue-liner Chris Chelios and forwards Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Tomas Holmstrom.

There was also a younger group of talent drafted by the team, like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall.

"When I signed with them, no one knew the impact the lockout and the new collective bargaining agreement would have," said Babcock. "As the summer went on and you saw how teams were shaping up, it was a bit nerve-wracking.

"But we've got good players, we worked hard and found a way to continue to be successful. I think it's a sign of good ownership and good leadership from (general manager) Ken Holland."

There were also new rules allowing two-line passes and taking most obstruction from the sport. The Red Wings adapted to that as well as any club.

"We've changed," said Chelios, who played under previous coaches Bowman and Dave Lewis in Detroit. "We're a little more aggressive, not as much puck possession, but we've had to change with the rules.

"The skilled players are allowed to use their skills and the others guys keep it simple. It's probably no different than any other team."

Holmstrom said Babcock likes faster-paced practises with more skating than his predecessors, but like Chelios, he feels what separates the Red Wings from other teams is the culture of winning instilled by Bowman in the 1990s.

That and excellent drafting by Holland and his staff.

"We've got lots of young guys coming up all the time," said Holmstrom. "There's a core group here and we have a red thread (running) through the team.

"Guys who come in get in line and know what to do. It comes from the ownership down."

Babcock gets that support from Bowman, whom he talks to four or five times per week.

"Scotty has become a real good friend of mine, a good ally," he said. "We're fortunate to have really good people around us in Detroit.

"And I came into a situation where we had good players."


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