Red Wings’ Mike Babcock’s worth as a coach isn’t in question, but where will he lace up his skates?
Photographs by Martin Vecchio
Mike Babcock is widely regarded as the best coach in the National Hockey League, and at some point before the start of the 2015-16 season, he’s also going to be the highest paid.
That much is almost certain. Still to be determined at this writing is whether Babcock, in his 10th season behind the Red Wings bench and the final year of his current contract with the team, will remain in Detroit. He earns $2 million annually and has already declined an extension offer.
So it’s not a huge leap to conclude Babcock, 51, will set a new salary standard, perhaps as high as $4 million a year. And if he ultimately decides not to stay, much of the conjecture about his next possible destination points to the Toronto Maple Leafs, where money isn’t an issue for a franchise that’s been wildly inconsistent for decades.
Both Babcock and his boss and good friend Ken Holland, the Red Wings general manager, are keeping their discussions to themselves, while publicly saying all the right things.
“I’m in a real good situation because I love being here,” Babcock says. “And we have a team that’s getting better. My wife and I are at the stage of our life — our youngest is going to college — so it doesn’t matter where you live. And saying all that, I don’t know why we’d move.”
“The guy’s got an opportunity of a lifetime,” Holland told ESPN.com last fall. “He’s an unrestricted free agent. He’s coming off his second Olympic gold. He was finalist for coach of the year. His stock isn’t going to get any higher.”
There’s also that 2008 Stanley Cup championship on Babcock’s resume. And he’s passed up legends Jack Adams and Scotty Bowman to become the winningest coach in team history (also passing the No. 500 career win milestone in December).
Just as impressive is the Wings’ 23 consecutive years of postseason appearances, by far the longest in professional sports and a feat that’s been accomplished in recent years by a roster depleted by retirement and injuries to top-line players.
But Babcock just keeps on winning, even if he’s had to largely rely on kids and call-ups from the Wings minor league affiliate in Grand Rapids.
There’s no magic formula here, Babcock assures, but there definitely is a cultural consistency that prevails at all levels of the Detroit Red Wings organization — with the primary goal of creating players Babcock calls “every-dayers.”
“I’m a schoolteacher by trade,” Babcock explains. “I believe repetition is the key to learning. And it involves a three-step process: Work ethic comes first, structure comes second, and your [athletic] skill comes out third.”
He’s sitting behind the cluttered desk in his small office, just down the hall from the Red Wings dressing room at Joe Louis Arena. He grabs a piece of paper and takes a quick glance.
“We played Tampa the other night,” he says, “and this is what I wrote afterwards: ‘Positive, help them see it.’ You’re trying to catch them doing it right. And they have to do it every day. There are no days off. When you come here you put your work boots on and you get after it. We’re lucky that our best players are like that.”
Of course the reason those players — like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Niklas Kronwall — became elite is because not only are they blessed with innate talent and skill, but also all were brought along through the Red Wings system, patiently and deliberately, until they were ready. Not one day before.
Babcock likens his job to that of a CEO of a corporation — constantly trying to figure out different ways to “maximize your group.” And while companies measure success with quarterly statements, Babcock’s threshold is more immediate.
“We know where we stand every day,” he says, reaching for another batch of papers and holding them aloft. “I tell players: This is the what have you done for me lately file. Every five games. You look next to your name and you see every five games what you’ve done, where we need to get better.”
It’s a simple game, Babcock likes to say. The accolades are great. And so is the pending opportunity to write his own ticket. But ask him if there’s any danger it all might go to his head, and he chuckles and segues into a favorite story.
He and his dad were kicking back with a few drinks in front of the fire one evening several years back at Babcock’s summer cottage on Emma Lake in his native Saskatchewan.
“We’d won the [Stanley] Cup in ’08 and then the first Olympic gold in 2010,” Babcock says, “and I’d been voted coach of the decade. And I’m saying, ‘Hey, Dad, it’s pretty cool this happened.’ And my dad says, ‘Son, what decade was that for?’”
Babcock pauses here with a wry grin, savoring his setup for the punch line.
“It was for the one that just ended, of course,” he says, chuckling. “In other words, who cares?”
He stands up, reaches for his backpack and yells to a lurking assistant coach that he’s ready to go. That big career decision looms. It can wait. There’s a game against Chicago tomorrow night and Mike Babcock still has work to do before he rests.