He has come a long way in 20 years, when he was skating for a British hockey team while teaching at a local college.
“Did you ever come to class with a black eye?” I ask Mike Babcock.
“Probably,” he says.
You can’t get much more anonymous than the Whitley Warriors, near Newcastle upon Tyne, where Babcock, between classes, played hockey in “a barn that sat 5,000 people” and had a mesh screen instead of glass, so the puck bounced off it.
But fast forward two decades, to Babcock’s current existence, where we are speaking. He lives in plain sight, here on a suburban street in Northville, his house looking like the other large brick houses to the left and right. He picked up his kids at school a few minutes ago. He may drive them later to soccer or ballet. He goes to their games. He eats around town.
He moves unencumbered, no mobs, no hounding. And while it’s not as invisible as shooting pucks on the central England coast, Mike Babcock lives his life in Michigan pretty much like everyone else, which is to be expected if you are everyone else – but not when you are the coach of the Red Wings.
Where is the fuss? Where is the doorbell ringing? The autograph seekers? The rabid fans, hungry for inside information? Coach of the Red Wings? Isn’t that a superstar position?
It was for Scotty Bowman. Yet while Babcock has won more games in his first three seasons here than Scotty did in his, the hockey temperature in this town remains low, tepid, a great big shrug. If Detroit hockey were a range top, it would be stuck on simmer.
Babcock notes in his first season, Detroit won the Presidents’ Trophy for the best record in the NHL.
“Last year we tied for it,” he says. “This year we won it again. In the last three years we’ve won 162 games. That’s beyond belief. And who cares? You gotta win starting now.”
He points to a tall cabinet in which he keeps trophies. There is a miniature of his first Presidents’ Trophy. He takes it out. He takes out another miniature, this one for winning the Western Conference title with Anaheim a few years back.
“They give you small ones of the Stanley Cup as well,” he says. “I don’t have one in here yet. But there’s room.” The culture of U.S. hockey
Answer this question quickly: What do you know about Mike Babcock? Did you say “hair?” Probably. At 45, he still has a mop that is thicker than many of his players’. Did you say “jaw”? That’s true, too. Babcock can look as if he’s perpetually clenching his teeth, a strong, fearsome look that contributes to his image as a no-nonsense coach.
But other than his looks – and his job title – what else do you know about him?
Detroit fans know Tigers manager Jim Leyland’s smoking habits and gruff voice and honesty and emotional departure from the dugout in Colorado. They know Rod Marinelli’s odd speech pattern and his penchant for long hours and film study with the Lions.
Babcock has been here as long as both of them, yet he remains under the radar, even though if you took the Red Wings and their record anywhere in Canada, they’d be gods.
“The culture in the U.S., it’s baseball and football and basketball,” admits Babcock, a native of Saskatchewan, “and we’re not gonna change that. And our TV thing, from a national perspective, it gets smaller and smaller. I mean, the only reason I knew OLN”- the Versus network’s former name -“is because I’m a hunting guy. …
“But I believe in the six years I’ve been in the league, this is the best product we’ve ever had, by far. And when the salary cap came in, the Red Wings were supposed to fall off the face of the Earth. But that just hasn’t happened.”
Not victory-wise. Absolutely not. But enthusiasm-wise, the fires have dimmed. The economy has hurt. So have the playoffs. In his first season, Babcock’s Wings suffered another agonizing first-round upset. Last season, they bowed out in the conference finals. Let’s face it. When it comes to hockey, Detroit fans like parades in June, not backslaps in May.
So even though Babcock navigated the shaky waters of losing established superstars such as Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan, even though he is developing young foreign talent like Valtteri Filppula and Johan Franzen, even though he has done it all with a set of handcuffs – the salary cap – Bowman never had to endure, he is still, to the fans, Mr. Let’s Wait And See.
“Scotty is the highest-profile person in the league in coaching – even now,” Babcock freely admits. “Scotty always says this”- he points to his face -“is my ID card.”
Babcock has to earn his celebrity the more old-fashioned way – he has to win in the playoffs. They begin for Detroit tonight at Joe Louis Arena, against Nashville.
The trophy case has room. Adapting to his team
“How are you different now than when you came here?” Babcock is asked.
“Oh, I’ve learned a lot here, boy,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot from players. I’ve learned about trust. I’ve learned more about breathing space. I’ve learned about the professionalism players have and how to allow them to do it.”
Translation: He has stopped breathing fire. Babcock admits in his early days in Detroit, he tried to control even the uncontrollable. There wasn’t a face he wouldn’t get into. He felt he had to be on top of everything.
“I remember talking to Yzerman once about touching base with the players, and he kind of looked at me and said, What are you talking about? Just leave ’em alone.’ “
That struck a chord. Musicians say it takes years to learn what not to play, and Babcock seems to now be mastering the art of fewer high notes, relying on his players’ professionalism and less on his own, constant voice. Before, he says, if he wanted to talk to a player, he’d call him in the office. Player sits there. Coach sits here. It was a “meeting.” Now, he figures, “Why do that, when you can say the same thing stopping by their locker while sipping coffee?”
He heard a phrase that he has adopted for himself: “the fun sponge.” He says that’s how you can be viewed as the head coach. “The players are having a riot and then you come in, you’re the fun sponge, and then when you leave, the fun starts again.”
He laughs. He’s OK with that. Get done what you need to. Let them handle the rest. It’s a fine formula.
If you’re still playing in June. Almost tasting ultimate victory
Babcock has seen June before. Once. His first season as a coach in the NHL, in 2002-03, he reached the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. His Ducks, tied, 0-0, after one period, ultimately lost that night, 3-0, at New Jersey. Babcock, hard as it was, forced himself back to the bench to watch the Cup being presented because he wanted to know what it was like, and he wanted to know what he had so narrowly missed.
“When you think you’re gonna lift that Cup and taste it and you don’t get to touch it, you don’t get to get near it, you just get to look at it
“You know, they say when you start the playoffs, everyone has a chance to win the Stanley Cup. That’s not true. In my mind, the only time you ever have a chance to win it is when you’re one game away. I was there ”
His eyes still go far away when he talks about that night. He says he remembers every moment. It is clearly a flame that burns like a pilot light, never out, always ready to ignite into a bonfire should the moment come again.
Tonight he begins the march toward that ignition. With each victory, he’ll gain a little stature, with each advanced round, a few more raised eyebrows, a few more people stopping him in the street. And should he reach the end this time, should he get to hold that Cup instead of watching someone else do it, the relative anonymity he has lived under the past three years in Detroit will be shattered,.
It will be replaced by a rush of interest in the man who finally did what they have all been waiting for since Scotty Bowman, the man who only six years ago wasn’t even coaching in this league and who only 20 years ago was smashing Brits into the boards on weekends and teaching in a college classroom during the week.
“I thought I was going to be a professor,” Babcock says. “I thought I was going spend my whole life on campus and have one of those tweed jackets with the leather on the sleeves.”
He can still wear the jacket – although his players will look at him funny. Then again, if he wins 16 playoff games, starting tonight, nobody will care.
THE BOOK ON BABCOCK
Mike Babcock of the Red Wings has won 231 games – and two Presidents’ Trophies – in five seasons as an NHL head coach:
Standings: 115 points, first in the NHL.
Standings: 113 points, tied for first in the NHL.
Playoffs: Lost to Anaheim in Western Conference finals.
Standings: 124 points, first in the NHL.
Playoffs: Lost to Edmonton in the first round.
Standings: 76 points, fourth in the Pacific Division.
Standings: 95 points, second in the Pacific Division.
Playoffs: Lost to New Jersey in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.