DETROIT – Mike Babcock pushes. He always pushes. He was pushing at practice March 14 in Edmonton, when the Detroit Red Wings were coming off a 5-2 loss in Calgary. Rookie defenseman Brendan Smith had struggled against the Flames, so the coach pulled him aside and told him he would be a healthy scratch the next night against the Oilers.
“OK,” Smith said.
“No, that’s not OK,” Babcock snapped.
Smith collected himself. He told Babcock he agreed that it was not OK, that he just didn’t know what to say because he was “shocked and in awe.” They talked about what he needed to work on, and Smith went to sleep that night frustrated and upset.
At the skate the next morning, Babcock told Smith he would be in the lineup after all.
“I don’t know if it was playing with my mind or whatever it was, but I guess that’s a funny story that I have about Babs,” Smith said. “Maybe he wanted some fire out of me and maybe a higher competition level. I’m not sure what the whole thing was, but he wanted me to play better, and I ultimately did.”
Smith improved markedly that night, and the Wings bounced back with a 3-2 victory, and that’s more than just a funny story about Babs. That’s a window into one of the best coaches in the NHL, if not the best, and one of the best coaching jobs of his career, if not the best.
Babcock took the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to the Stanley Cup final. He won the Cup with the Wings and came within a game of winning another. He won the Olympic gold medal with Team Canada. But he has faced a different challenge with the Wings this season, thanks to injuries and the erosion of their talent level, most notably the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom. He used six rookies – not including Swiss import Damien Brunner, who had never played a pro game in North America before – and kept hockey’s Big Red Machine running.
The Wings made the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive season, winning their last four games to get in. They upset the second-seeded Ducks in the first round, coming back from 2-1 and 3-2 series deficits to win in seven games. They entered Monday night tangled in a 1-1 tie with the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks, responding to a 4-1 loss with a 4-1 win.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the NHL for a reason,” said defenseman Jakub Kindl.
It’s not because he’s warm and fuzzy. It has been an open secret around the Wings that Babcock has clashed with players for years now, from the top to the bottom of the roster. He has clashed with management this season, too, about how certain players are used and the composition of the roster, often issuing public reminders of how much less he has at his disposal. But is that a negative? Or is that a positive? Or does your perception depend on the results?
Scotty Bowman clashed with players. Scotty Bowman clashed with management. Scotty Bowman won more games and more championships than anyone in NHL history. He won three of his nine Cups as a coach with the Wings, and he won one of his 11 Cups total as a senior advisor to the Blackhawks. Though he is on Joel Quenneville’s side in this series, he has been a mentor to Babcock and remains an example for him.
“Scotty Bowman loved the players – absolutely loved them – but he had a job to do,” Babcock said. “Mike Babcock loves the players. When you’re pushing people who don’t want to be pushed, sometimes they don’t like it. I’m here to tell you: When you look at the group of coaches who are still playing right now, they’re pushing their people. That’s just the reality. Whether that’s perceived as positive or negative …”
“See, in my world, that’s positive,” he said.
Bowman coached from the 1960s into the 2000s because he evolved with the game and often stayed ahead of it. Babcock has evolved with the game, too, and he has had to evolve with his own team systemically and psychologically.
The Wings outnumber the puck carrier in the defensive zone, like most teams do nowadays. They aren’t quite as skilled as they used to be throughout the lineup, but they use speed and grit to make up for it as best they can. Scouts say they work as hard as ever before.
“In the D zone, I’d never heard of ‘the swarm’ before I got here,” said defenseman Kyle Quincey, who spent 2005-08 in the Wings organization, left for almost four seasons, then returned at the trade deadline last year. “He never talked about that eight years ago. But if you look around on video, all the teams do it now. He’s definitely a very good systems coach. He’s definitely challenged me to a better player, for sure. A lot of skating in this system.”
Babcock is blunt. He will tell you how he sees it, not what you want to hear. That can grate on players to the point where they can’t stand him. Some are gone because of it, like forward Jan Mursak, a 2006 sixth-round pick who never stuck with the Wings and finally bolted for Europe. Others grow because of it, like Kindl, a 2005 first-round pick who finally stuck with the Wings this season.
Kindl started poorly this season. He was out of shape. He was hurt. He was a healthy scratch. Then something clicked, and he simplified his game. He finished the regular season plus-15, second on the team to Pavel Datsyuk. Asked if he ever hated Babcock, Kindl didn’t hesitate.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who hated him. He’s hard. When things don’t go well, he doesn’t like you. He’s telling you, ‘How soft are you?’ Stuff like that. But in the long run, it’s always helped me out. It always kind of give me the motivation to get better and work on stuff.”
Does Babcock handle the players differently these days? Depends on whom you ask.
Babcock will tell you he gives the veterans their space, and that’s true. He holds fewer meetings with them. Players will tell you that he harder on the veterans, and that’s true, too. He has higher expectations of them because of their experience level.
“There’s definitely a lot of the vets where he’ll still come down on them,” Smith said. “He won’t coddle them or hold their hand.”
Babcock will tell you he is positive with everyone. Players will tell you he is more positive with the youngsters than he used to be. Others will tell you he has been more positive with the youngsters out of necessity, because at some point he had to embrace the situation and get the most out of what he had if the Wings had any chance to win.
“I think just knowing the group that he has, he has been maybe a little bit lenient at some times, but it’s a totally different team,” Smith said. “I think he loves to teach. What I’ve caught with him is, he wants to go over things and talk about things. I think he’s been very good at that. From what I’ve known, he’s been pretty much the same, where he’ll bring you into his room and go over a play. Maybe he’s not as negative with some of the things. Maybe that’s the difference.”
Smith, a first-round pick in 2007, spent more than two years in the minors. At first, Babcock just called him “the Smith kid.” Then he started calling him “Smith” or even “Smitty” at times – a good sign. Smith finally latched on with the Wings this season, going through the typical ups and downs of a young defenseman, like in Calgary and Edmonton. He took a lot of heat for mistakes he made in Game 1 in Chicago, but not from Babcock, who went over video clips with him the next morning.
“He said that he watched the game, and he didn’t see it how other people did,” Smith said. “He watched it without the announcers and everything. … I actually did a lot of great things that night even without playing my best game and our team playing a really good game. So we went over some stuff, and it was teaching and learning. Ultimately I knew I had to play a better.”
And Smith did. He scored what turned out to be the winner in Game 2.
“It’s been a tough thing to earn Coach’s trust,” Smith said. “I think I’m still trying to win him over. It’s something that you have to do day in and day out. He’s watching and judging at all times. He demands a lot out of us.”
Babcock pushes his assistant coaches, whom he has shuffled twice in two seasons. He pushes his training staff. He pushes management. He pushes the players. To him, whether feedback is positive or negative depends on how it is received, not on how it is given. He called it “the whole key in life,” actually.
“I don’t know what you’re like, but if someone’s got an issue with me, I like them to tell me so I can fix it and get better at it,” Babcock said. “Some people, when you give them feedback, they take that in a negative way. Whereas when people are trying to help you, that’s a positive thing.”
Has this been Babcock’s best coaching job? He said he thought his staff was phenomenal for about 60 games last season – “maybe the best job ever” – before the Wings hit an injury epidemic and ended up losing in the first round. But the bottom line is, the best are never satisfied. Babcock pushes himself, too.
“We understand totally to be the best you can possibly be you’ve got to maximize each day and continue to get better and grow,” Babcock said. “There’s no better example than Scotty Bowman always changing. That’s what you have to do if you’re going to be successful. I’m fortunate to coach the Red Wings. I’ve got a good group of people that have worked hard. They’ve been coachable. We’ve tried to help. We’re all in it together. We’re having fun.”
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