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Wednesday, October 13, 2010
The coaching evolution of Mike Babcock

By Pierre LeBrun

DETROIT -- Flash back to the spring of 2002. Mike Babcock is the head coach of the AHL's Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, a shared farm club of both Anaheim and Detroit.

"I remember he had come up to watch us play in the first round against Vancouver," Red Wings GM Ken Holland recalled Tuesday. "He was cocky. He told me he wanted to be the next coach of the Red Wings after Scotty Bowman. And I told him the Red Wings would never be his first [NHL] coaching stop. 'We don't hire interns.'"

The truth is, Holland was already impressed with the young coach, having fostered a relationship with him through Detroit's shared agreement in Cincinnati. At that time, however, Bowman's replacement after another Cup in 2002 would be longtime assistant Dave Lewis. He was in-house and had bided his time, and an outsider wouldn't feel right after a Cup year.

Mike Babcock
Coach Mike Babcock led the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup in 2008.
Babcock instead got his feet wet behind an NHL bench in Anaheim, impressing with a surprise trip to the 2003 Cup finals, notably beating Holland's Red Wings along the way.



"He knocked us out, and that left a pretty big impression," Holland said with a laugh. "As fate would have it, I would hire Mike in 2005. It's been an awesome relationship, and obviously we've done a lot of winning under his leadership."

If Babcock fulfills the four-year contract extension he signed with the club this week, the relationship in Detroit could last at least 10 years when all is said and done.

Babcock is entering his sixth season behind the Wings' bench, an eternity by modern-day NHL standards given the way coaches are spit out the meat grinder in this league. Babcock is fully aware of that. That's why he reached out in the offseason to Buffalo's Lindy Ruff and Nashville's Barry Trotz, the league's longest-tenured coaches, to feel them out before he signed the extension. Can you coach in the same place for that long and still be as good and motivated at your job? He also phoned Phoenix coach Dave Tippett, who had been fired the year before after a long run in Dallas.

"He had been in the same place for a long time and probably didn't want to leave," Babcock said. "He went to Phoenix and won coach of the year, and I asked him, 'Are you a better coach because it was the first year?'"

The key, Babcock said, is to keep things new and fresh.

"I think new is exciting, and so we have to make it new on a regular basis," he told ESPN.com while sitting in his office at Joe Louis Arena. "The way you coached last year isn't good enough for this year. It's a constant evolution. You have to tweak it, you have to adjust to the changes in the game. You've got all these guys [other coaches] coming with new ideas, and you're always excited for new ideas."

The Mike Babcock of 2010-11 is not the Mike Babcock of 2005-06. He's learned to loosen the reins somewhat on his players. He's learned that the veteran core here takes care of business and doesn't need the coach to micromanage everything.

"You're way more comfortable now. You've gotten to know them, they've gotten to know you," Babcock said, leaning back in his office chair. "I still micromanage. I micromanage people who don't do their jobs. ... But I'm not at the back of the bus or at the back of the plane [with the players]; I'm not in the room. They run it. They have an off day, they're doing their training. They're doing what they're supposed to be doing. So you've learned to let them run it. They run it better than you. Why would you get in the way of that? That communication has grown because you understand that. That took me a while."

Nicklas Lidstrom is key in all of this. The captain and the coach have an excellent rapport.

"We actually talk quite often about different things, whether it's the schedule or practice and days off, or how the team is doing and certain players," Lidstrom told ESPN.com. "He asks for my input quite often; just getting a feel for how the team is doing."

Babcock remains eager to learn, open to change and some would say obsessed about winning. And he's done plenty of that: Stanley Cup, Olympic gold, men's world championship gold and world junior gold. It's a rare quad of conquests.

It was during those 2010 Olympics in Vancouver while coaching Team Canada when he made one heck of gutsy decision: benching the all-time winningest goalie in Martin Brodeur and going with Roberto Luongo after a preliminary-round loss to the United States that had 35 million Canadians in full panic mode.

"I wasn't surprised one bit, to tell you the truth," Wings veteran netminder Chris Osgood told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "Because I lived it."

Two years earlier, Babcock had benched Hall of Fame goalie Dominik Hasek in favor of Ozzie for the playoffs. Not too many coaches would have the nerve to bench both Brodeur and Hasek with so much on the line.

"Well, it worked out, didn't it?" Osgood said.

Babcock praised Brodeur for how he handled the situation in Vancouver.

"The greatest athletes in all professions think they can do it no matter what," Babcock said. "So, when the coach walks up and says, 'Lou is going against Germany,' there's a whole bunch of ways you can react. Leadership is understanding the team is first and doing the right things for the team, and he was beyond professional. That made it easier for Lou. There's no question in Brodeur's mind he could have done the same thing. I understand that totally. We felt the change was needed at the time. We made the change."

Even today, the switch to Luongo is debated in Canada.

"You know how you've made the right decision? When you win," Babcock said. "If you don't win, then you didn't make the right decision. Those are the facts."

Cocky? Maybe in 2002. Now, it's just the best coach in the NHL telling it like it is.