DETROIT — Mike Babcock spent Sunday enjoying Super Bowl XLIX as a fan, having a few beers, eating hot wings and Greek ribs, rooting for the New England Patriots. Then he watched coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady’s press conference Monday, and he went back to work, jotting down tidbits on two pieces of pink notebook paper.
“When I listened to those guys talk, all I thought to myself was, ‘I hope the demand and the preparation for excellence here is as good as it is there,' ” said Babcock, coach of the Detroit Red Wings. “I liked to hear what they had to say about the process, about building a team, about putting your work in daily, about the effort, the grind every day. These are things that just resonate with me.”
Babcock sat in his office after practice Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena and read from his notes. He said Belichick talked about “the group getting better,” “keeping the great leaders on the team,” “changing their identity every year based on their personnel.”
“That’s what we try to do here,” he said.
He went on to say Belichick talked about how Brady prepared and competed, how he had so much poise, how he fought to the end.
Maybe these weren’t novel concepts, but they were reminders, examples. That Babcock, a coach who has already won a Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals, felt they were important says something about him. He wants to keep learning. He wants to keep winning.
Babcock studied physical education and psychology in school – and he hasn’t stopped studying since. He picks the brains of other hockey coaches and follows coaches in other sports like Belichick and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. He works for a couple of venture capitalist companies.
“My job is to coach the CEOs,” he said. “What I get to do is, I get to learn from those people and their businesses. You’re always getting ideas.”
Babcock wrote a book with friend Rick Larsen titled “Leave No Doubt: A Credo for Chasing Your Dreams.” It’s set against the backdrop of Team Canada’s gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The foreword is by Scotty Bowman. But in the introduction, Babcock writes that it’s not about hockey, but about life. He writes that it’s about “learning moments – big and small.” He describes himself as “a lifelong learner – with a lot still left to learn.” Each chapter ends with a question.
“I’ve always liked questions,” he writes. “I think too many of us are too busy trying to prove we have answers, and not enough of us are asking questions. The right question can unlock life-changing possibilities.”
On his desk Tuesday was a book by James Kerr about the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby union team. The title: “Legacy: 15 Lessons in Leadership.” According to the description on Amazon.com, it asks: “What are the secrets of success – sustained success? How do you achieve world-class standards, day after day, week after week, year after year? How do you handle pressure? How do you train to win at the highest level? What do you leave behind after you’re gone? What will be your legacy?”
Good questions. Especially now, with the Wings back among the top teams in the NHL and Babcock in the last year of his contract.
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When the Red Wings won four Stanley Cups in six years in the 1950s, writers liked to compare them to the New York Yankees. Jack Adams, then the general manager, would say: “We are not the Yankees of hockey, the Yankees are the Red Wings of baseball.”
When the Wings won their third Cup in six years in 2002, writers compared them to the Yankees again. They outspent everyone else in the NHL. They had Bowman behind the bench and a star-studded roster. Seven players from that team are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and three more are headed there.
But then came 2005-06, the salary cap’s first season in the NHL – and Babcock’s first season in Detroit. The Wings had to navigate a new world of parity. More than once, GM Ken Holland pointed to the NFL and said: “That’s what the NHL is like now.” They had to draft and develop – without high picks. They stayed patient with their prospects.
The Wings won the Cup again in 2008. They went to Game 7 of the final in 2009, coming agonizingly close to another championship. They slipped out of the elite after that, and the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings became the first teams to win two Cups in the cap era. Still, the Wings kept making the playoffs, extending their streak to 23 seasons, and all that drafting and developing and patience started to pay off as young players came up from the minors and seized opportunities.
Now look: The Wings aren’t the Yankees of hockey anymore. But they have a chance to be the Patriots of hockey.
“That’s what we hope to be,” Babcock said.
Babcock looks up to Bowman. It makes sense he would look up to Belichick. Bowman won nine Cups as a coach, more than anyone else, and Belichick has won four Super Bowls, tied for the record with Chuck Noll.
Like Bowman, Belichick is mysterious and cunning. Bowman didn’t give much to the media; neither does Belichick. Bowman was accused of dirty tricks like having the visitors’ dressing room painted in the playoffs; Belichick had Spygate and now has Deflategate.
More to the point, Belichick is creative and cutting-edge. Bowman used the Russian Five and moved Sergei Fedorov from center to defense; Belichick uses receivers as cornerbacks, linemen as tight ends. Bowman evolved with the game; so has Belichick.
“Belichick for me, when I look from the outside in, obviously he’s a master of the game and all that, but he’s a master of personnel,” Babcock said. “He doesn’t confuse the player and the person. He makes hard decisions.”
“Well, is it ruthless, or is it right?” Babcock said. “When you’re making the wrong decision because of someone’s feelings, it’s compromising someone else’s feelings, is it not? So when you challenge each and every day, you challenge your kids to go out and do things right, and then when you go to work and you won’t make the hard decision, what good’s about that?”
The Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years. They went back to the Super Bowl twice after that but lost. They started 2-2 this season, and some started to write off Brady at age 37. But they came back and won the Super Bowl again after a decade of trying, and Brady was the game’s MVP for the third time.
Brady is the only player who was on all four championship teams. The Patriots completely changed over the rest of their roster. The Wings already have done something similar. Only five players were on all four of the Wings’ 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008 Cup teams – Kris Draper, Tomas Holmstrom, Nicklas Lidstrom, Darren McCarty, Kirk Maltby. Lidstrom was the equivalent of the quarterback.
“We don’t have Tom Brady now,” Babcock said.
Lidstrom has retired along with the other four. But players like Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg, once the new wave, are veterans now, and the Wings have kept regenerating. They have a new new wave of young players like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, and they have more prospects coming like Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin. Holland and his staff – which has turned over tremendously, too – deserve a ton of credit.
The Wings entered Wednesday night with 67 points, two off the lead in the Eastern Conference. They had the fifth-best points percentage in the NHL. And it was based on a strong foundation – strong possession, balanced offense, good special teams. Goaltender Jimmy Howard was playing well enough to make the All-Star Game. Then he suffered a lower-body injury, and the Wings still won seven of eight.
“If you polled the league or the people on the outside, they didn’t even have us making the playoffs,” Babcock said. “Now when you poll the league, I think they probably think we might make the playoffs, but I don’t think they have us as the team to win the Cup.”
The Wings aren’t the Cup favorites. But is any one team at this point? The Wings, at the very least, are in the mix again.
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Let’s pause here to make something clear: The Red Wings have a multi-year deal on the table to make Babcock the highest-paid coach in the league, and it’s up to him, as it has been for months. Only he knows what he’s thinking. There are a lot of variables. Read the tea leaves at your peril.
But wherever Babcock is coaching, he won’t be content just to make the playoffs every year. And in Detroit right now, he has been encouraged by the Wings’ progress and intrigued by what the Patriots have done.
“I want to win the Cup, period,” he said. “Now, are we as a group willing to do it?”
What does he mean by that? Make the sacrifices necessary?
“Yes,” he said. “And not just that. You’ve got to build your assets, and in the end, you’ve got to make some decisions, too, right? We’ve been in the process of building our assets. Now we think we’ve taken some good steps. … So here we are now. We’re in a better situation.”
Babcock has been part of the process of building the team, putting in the work, grinding every day. He said his job is to develop assets. He admires the way Belichick developed one in Malcolm Butler, the undrafted rookie corner who made the game-saving interception on the goal line Sunday. He added: “Our asset management has been crucial to where we’re at.”
He has been part of making hard decisions. Coaches tend to think short-term no matter their contract status, and he has his wish list. But by all accounts, he works well with Holland and has balanced going for the Cup now with putting the Wings in position to win it in the future. The Wings have built enough assets to burn some, but they have worked too hard to waste them. At this point, they want to pay the price at the March 2 trade deadline only for a real upgrade that goes beyond this season.
Whether he stays or goes, Babcock will have done things right in Detroit. If he stays, he will have a unique challenge and opportunity. As he took notes on Belichick and Brady, he asked himself some questions.
“I thought about this the other day,” Babcock said. “When they were standing there talking, I thought about the fact Brady’s in his 15th year. I’m going to be here a long time if I continue to stay on. Can you keep doing it? Belichick’s been able to do it. We’ve changed our whole team, really. The veteran guys are Z, Pavel and Kronner. So do we have enough in Mantha and Larkin and all these kids we have coming? Do we have enough? I don’t know.”
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