Before their hockey marriage went splitsville three years ago, Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland would meet daily with head coach Mike Babcock.
Sometimes it would be in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon and sometimes they would talk on the phone.
In their decade together in Detroit the two hockey minds would discuss a wide range of subjects in their daily heart-to-hearts. Maybe their conversation would centre around the opposition or a hot player in the league or an issue.
Always, they would touch on which players were trending up for the home side, which players were struggling and possible reasons for the direction of the individuals they discussed.
“Mike likes to listen to the opinions of the people around him,” Holland said before Babcock’s Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Red Wings 6-3 at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday evening.
“Mike likes routine. Part of his routine was to talk with me daily, but he has an entire network — within the organization and out — that he talks a lot with. He knows a lot of people. He likes information and he takes what he feels is relevant and he discards what he feels is irrelevant.”
Early in his third season behind the bench of his new team, the 54-year-old Babcock has made the Maple Leafs relevant again. Two weeks into the new season, Toronto is tops in the NHL with a 6-1-0 record for a league-leading 12 points.
Babcock helped persuade veteran Patrick Marleau to move to Toronto. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)
The next step
The turnaround in Toronto has come quicker than expected. Landing Auston Matthews, the first overall 2016 selection, certainly hastened the process of turning the rebuilding Leafs into a contender. But Babcock has played a massive role in Toronto’s rise. He has always said that a good coach needs a talented roster to succeed.
Babcock, however, has taken a young, talented roster to the top of the standings in rapid fashion. His presence behind the Leafs’ bench also enticed a star free agent, Patrick Marleau, to sign in Toronto. When Marleau agreed to a three-year deal last summer after 19 seasons with the San Jose Sharks, he admitted Babcock was the main reason why he left the West Coast.
Marleau enjoyed his time and success under Babcock with the gold-medal winning Canadian Olympic teams in 2010 and 2014. He also said Babcock’s passion and ability to push players and challenge them factored into his decision to move his family to Toronto.
Babcock still needs playoff success to validate what he’s done in Toronto. Dating back to his final two seasons in Detroit, Babcock has been unable to push his team to the second round of the playoffs. Nevertheless, the Leafs are looking good early on.
Auston Matthews, left, has given Babcock a young star to build around. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)
Success at every level
Holland was asked to assess why Babcock, who last weekend became the 16th head coach in league history to win 600 regular-season games, has been such a success. The respected Red Wings GM remarked Babcock’s resumé is a good starting point as he has won a University Cup, a world junior title, a world championship, a Stanley Cup, a World Cup and two Olympic gold medals as a coach.
“He has 20 years of experience and has won at every level — junior, AHL, NHL, world junior, world championship and Olympics,” Holland said. “So he has the experience to rely on.
“He is the boss. He has a plan and he has an ability to communicate that plan to his players. He also is a very passionate man and that passion rubs off on those around him.”
Holland also marvels at his former coach’s work ethic. Babcock not only has his daily verbal information sessions with his network of people, he also talks with his players, breaks down video sessions with his staff and studies the analytics provided for him.
You may think there is a danger of information overload. But Holland reiterates one of Babcock’s strengths is an ability to sift through his conversations, video sessions and analytics information and only take what he feels is pertinent.
“He likes perspective,” Holland said. “He likes a lot of different perspectives. But he’s good at taking what perspective or ideas are best for the team.”
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