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Up-to-the minute updates and insights from the Red Wings locker room at home and on the road. By Chuck Pleiness of The Macomb Daily.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Babcock's start in coaching

DETROIT -- Where to begin. Where to begin.

It's difficult enough just in speaking to figure out a way to get started. Try pinpointing a starting spot for the road that leads to Stanley Cup championship coach.

Mike Babcock grew up in the hockey-rich environment of Saskatchewan. He played the game at the collegiate level in hockey-mad Montreal.

As a coach, Babcock guided the Detroit Red Wings to a Stanley Cup last spring, led the Red Wings to three consecutive 50-win seasons, guided the Anaheim Ducks to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in his first season behind an NHL bench, won a gold medal at the World Championships, another gold at the World Junior Championships and won a Canadian university national championship.

But Babcock's starting point as a coach was the unlikely coastal resort town of Whitley Bay in the northeast of England where neighboring towns had names like North Charlton and Newton-On-The-Moor, Adderstone and Berwick-Upon-Tweed.

"That's how I got started," said Babcock. "The imports (non-British players) were good, but the hockey wasn't as good as in other (European) countries. What was great was you could speak the language. You had a real good life there. I loved it."

After graduating from McGill University, Babcock found a teaching position at Northumberland Community College in England in 1987. He also found a hockey position in nearby Whitley Bay, being one of the Whitley Warriors' three import players and coaching the team.

As a defenseman, Babcock was a success with the Warriors, being named to the six-member Premier Division all-star team after the season.

He produced 34 goals and 132 points in 36 games in a high-scoring circuit. (The Warriors averaged 10.3 goals scored per game and were still second in the league in that cateogory.) He was third on the Warriors in scoring behind fellow Canadian imports Scott Morrison and Luc Chabot. Morrison, a forward, joined Babcock on the Premiership all-star team.

As a coach, Babcock cut his teeth as a hybrid, running practices and making strategy decisions, but leaving the in-game bench-boss work to Terry Matthews, a 47-year-old and former Whitley Warriors star who was named to the British Hockey Hall of Fame the year that Babcock came over to coach.

"I think the big thing there is when you're a leader and wearing your uniform, it's a totally different thing than when you're a leader and wearing your suit," said Babcock. "Leadership as a player, part of it's talking, but more of it is when the heat's on do you deliver. I had a guy named Terry Matthews. He ran the bench during the games. I just helped with practices. I never said anything. I never changed the lines or did any of that during the game. In between periods I did, but not during the games."

Off the ice, Babcock quickly became familiar with the English northeast. To earn extra money, he and four friends would drive to Edinburgh every Tuesday and Thursday in one car. When they got to Scotland, they'd buy four cars at auctions, drive them back into England and sell them by the weekend.

There were college classes during weekdays and hockey practices two nights a week. The Warriors played mostly on weekends, two games in two nights.

"I can tell you one of the best things I did as a coach over there was I got the guys to drink on Monday and Tuesday instead of on Friday and Saturday," joked Babcock. "That might have been the biggest thing I got done."

What the player-coach role gave Babcock was coaching experience that balanced out a resume loaded with education and playing references.

Babcock's year in England was a success with the Warriors with Whitley finished second in the 10-team Premier Division and advanced to the championship game at Wembley Arena.

Babcock signed on to return to Whitley for a second season. But Red Deer College in Alberta intervened, offering Babcock the position of head coach.

"What happened was because you've got the word coach on your resume, that means you've had some experience," said Babcock. "When the Red Deer College job became available, now I had experience. Even though I had never done it. I never stood behind the bench in my life and changed lines. Any player that goes from being a player to being a coach, having confidence with your suit on and speaking to the players when you're doing it that way and doing it as a player with your equipment on … it's a big transition. There's no question about it."

Babcock spent three seasons at Red Deer College, winning the Alberta College Championship in 1989. From there, he became a head coach in the Western Hockey League, first with Moose Jaw, then with Spokane. That led to a two-year stint with the Cincinnati Ducks of the American Hockey League -- a prelude to Babcock's NHL debut With the Anaheim Ducks.


Anonymous Joe, Belleville said...

Mouse Jaw?

December 1, 2008 at 11:23 AM 
Blogger Bruce MacLeod said...

Oops. Good catch. I changed it. Although Mouse Jaw is a cool sounding name ... nah.

December 1, 2008 at 11:27 AM 

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