Offered the chance to guide Canada’s National Junior Team into the 1997
IIHF World Junior Championship, Mike Babcock fairly jumped.
But, fully aware of expectations, he had his eyes open, too.
"Every guy before me had the same situation – you have to win," Babcock
told reporters in December 1996. "The way I see it, this is our opportunity
to shine. We'll do whatever it takes to get the job done."
And they did. In his first crack at coaching at an international
tournament, he succeeded in Switzerland, leading his kids to gold –
remarkably, the fifth straight for Canadian junior entries.
"Obviously when you get selected … and they've won four in a row, you're
under the gun to win," Babcock said recently. "That's a big deal.
"And you're starting your career."
Because after following in the golden footsteps of Perry Pearn (1993), Jos
Canale (1994), Don Hay (1995) and Marcel Comeau (1996), Babcock began to
break ground on the international scene.
In 2004, he ushered the national outfit to gold at the IIHF World
Championship, making him the first Canadian skipper to capture the top
prize at the World Juniors and worlds.
After steering the Detroit Red Wings to the 2008 Stanley Cup and the
Canadians to 2010 Olympic supremacy, Babcock became the lone coach in the
IIHF Triple Gold Club, a standard that also includes the world
To this unprecedented collection of glittering hardware, he added gold at
the 2014 Olympic Winter Games and bragging rights from the 2016 World Cup
It stands as one amazing run for the country – and for Babcock, who, like
Ryan Smyth and Danielle Goyette, is a freshly-minted honouree of the Order
of Hockey in Canada.
All of which begs the question: what's the key to his success?
"I don't know," replies the 55-year-old. "I mean, I just do what I do."
What Babcock does, plain and simple, is win – a pattern he established at
the very beginning.
Taking charge of the Red Deer Kings in 1988, Babcock, then 25, shepherded
them to the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference title.
Bill Peters was a player on that squad. Going on to work with Babcock in
Detroit and as part of his World Cup staff, he knows what makes the man
tick. He knows his personality is a fit for high-stakes hockey.
Centre stage, for Babcock, is a draw – not a drawback.
"He's comfortable with it," says Peters, head coach of the Calgary Flames,
and of Team Canada at a pair of IIHF World Championships. "He understands
the expectations and he relishes that opportunity. He doesn't want to be a
shrinking violet in the corner and pretend it's not a pressure-packed
situation or it's not intense. It is intense."
Babcock, in his single season at the University of Lethbridge, 1993-94,
marshalled the Pronghorns to national glory, earning Canada West Coach of
the Year honours along the way. Then, joining the Spokane Chiefs of the
Western Hockey League, he continued to sparkle. After his second season,
which included 50 wins, he was named top coach in the Western Conference.
Suddenly, there he was – on the Hockey Canada radar.
Getting to that point, according to Babcock, is more than half the battle.
Because Team Canada's big brains aren't pulling names out of a helmet.
They're not picking coaches on a hunch.
Invitations must be earned.
"If you don't have success in junior or success in college, you never get
selected," says the Toronto Maple Leafs bench boss. "When people in charge
of Hockey Canada select you, that's a huge honour. But then there's a
responsibility – you've got to get it done.
"Some of these other countries, if you don't win, it's not a big deal. In
Canada, it's a big deal."
Imagine being entrusted with the country's finest players, being given the
authority to guide them on international ice, being singled out for the
Prestige alone must be the selling feature. Like, why else do it? It's not
the complimentary track suits.
"It is a chance to get better," explains Babcock. "I coached in two
Olympics and you're around the best players and the best coaches in the
world, and you have a real opportunity to get better.
"You're telling your players to get better all the time, why wouldn't you
try to get better? That's probably the main thing."
But what sets Babcock apart? What gives him the Midas touch at
"Gold-medal performance needs gold-medal preparation – and he's able to do
that," says Peters. "It's preparation, knowing where you're going to have
your challenges and making sure you're well aware of that before it ever
In these ventures, Babcock points out that he's never alone. He's always
got heavy-lifting managers – Steve Yzerman (twice) at the Olympics, Doug
Armstrong at the World Cup, Jim Nill at the world championship.
"It's your ability to work with those people," he says, "then select the
right people, players and staff. Once you get that done, you have a chance
to maximize a group of players."
In Canada, of course, there is no shortage of top-end performers –
all-stars at every level, all-stars at every position.
Teams are set up for success, right?
"What's interesting to me, I hear all the time, 'Well, they're just going
to win,'" says Babcock. "Well, how come they don't always win? Because
other countries are good. Other players are good. You have to find a way to
do it (better)."
So he makes shrewd use of his line-up, meaning stars may get downgraded to
light duty. But Babcock never worries about bruising egos – he's too busy.
Coaches, in a blink, need to implement a system, determine and assign
roles, suss out chemistry, forge reliable lines and pairings.
"In managing the group, setting out the expectations for the group," says
Peters, "he's one of the best."
From his golden grab-bag, Babcock is asked to do the impossible – select a
"Winning in our country was a spectacular thing," he says of the 2010
Winter Games in Vancouver. "And the best team I ever coached, bar none, was
the one in Sochi (at the 2014 Olympics). We were dominant. We had a great
team, great leadership, good people."
He pauses. "Then we won the World Cup and that was great, too."
"They're all good. I like winning."