Mike Babcock’s Olympic hockey masterpiece close to being good as gold

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Mike Babcock’s Olympic hockey masterpiece close to being good as gold
Mike Babcock’s Olympic hockey masterpiece close to being good as gold

SOCHI, Russia — Mike Babcock is not an artist. He has a ball cap on his head and a whistle around his neck, and he has a scar carved deep into his jaw. His favorite word is “hard.” His other favorite words are “compete” and “attitude” and “opportunity.” He is all hockey coach.

Yet he’s creating a masterpiece. It’s not just that the Canadian men’s hockey team will go for back-to-back Olympic gold medals under Babcock on Sunday against Sweden. It’s why. It’s how.

“If you look at it as a painting, he looks at the whole canvas,” assistant coach Ken Hitchcock said before the tournament. “He always looks at the big picture. … He always knows the end game.”

[Related: U.S. can't keep up with Canada in epic semifinal]

Babcock has known the end game from the beginning. He has known what it would take to get here – playing fast, keeping the puck, coming back on defense, sticking with the plan in tight games and improving through the tournament.

None of this was a surprise to him – the defensive style on the larger international ice, the offensive struggles in the first few games, the second-guessing.

Listen to what Babcock said Aug. 25, the first day of last summer’s orientation camp in Calgary. Look at how things have turned out:

“The guys that play the best are going to be on the team – the guys that can skate, the guys take care of the puck, the guys that play 200 feet. This isn’t an evaluation camp at all. This is an opportunity to get to know one another, get some sense of how we’re going to play and understand what it’s going to take to beat our team.”

Babcock wanted speed, speed, speed. He wanted players who would play well with the puck and without it. He wanted players who were responsible the length of the rink. Executive director Steve Yzerman built the roster with that in mind, and Babcock prepared the players to rely on that instead of their offensive ability.

It would take more than shutting down the superstars to beat Canada. It would take keeping up with the pace, getting the puck somehow, breaking the Canadians’ structure and cashing in on opportunities. The Canadians have had the puck the majority of the time and have played hard as a five-man unit when they haven’t had it. They have allowed only three goals in five games.

“We don’t want to be making decisions over there because we got backed off because something went wrong. … Lots of times the games aren’t very pretty at the start, but we’ll get better as the tournament goes on.”

Babcock hired Ralph Krueger as a consultant, because Krueger had extensive NHL and international experience. Krueger briefed him on big-ice tactics – staying back, clogging the middle, keeping teams to the outside.

[Puck Daddy: How Canada humbled Team USA's offensive machine]

The Canadians have tons of talent and tons of opinions about it – from the outside (fans and media) and on the inside (executives and coaches). Babcock shuffled his forward lines early, looking for the right combinations, but he settled down when the tournament reached single-elimination.

And he hasn’t altered the big picture, even though the Canadians haven't scored much and eked out wins over Finland (2-1 in overtime) and Latvia (2-1). He said he would have rather won those games by larger margins - and the Canadians could have, had the puck gone in - but he said it was better for the team that the games went the way they did. The Canadians were ready for their 1-0 victory over the United States in the semifinal.

“He’s been able to find the right mix of guys,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. “We haven’t changed our preparation since Day 1. Since the summertime when we had our orientation camp, this was the game plan that they put together. Obviously there’s been some minor changes depending on the opponent, but we’ve kept the same game plan from Game 1. You don’t change it if it’s working, and it’s been working so far.”

So far. Babcock keeps reminding everyone that the line is fine, that the opponents deserve more respect, that the games could go the other way, that it is harrrd. He could be proven right that way, too, in the gold-medal game.

The Swedes won’t sit back and collapse like the Finns and the Latvians did. Even though they grew up playing on the big ice and know how to use it, they will play more of a skilled, skating game like the Americans did. Both teams want to possess the puck and play in the offensive end.

Even though they are down their top two centermen – Henrik Sedin and Henrik Zetterberg – and power forward Johan Franzen, the Swedes have plenty up front and a potent power play. They still have Erik Karlsson on defense and Henrik Lundqvist in goal.

[Related: Five things we learned from Canada's win over U.S.]

This game could come down to special teams. This game could come down to who makes saves. This game could come down to one goal.

This is the end game.

“Sometimes I think we get a little bit confused,” Babcock said Saturday. “It’s not about who scores the goals or who blocks the shots or who plays. It’s about winning. It’s about Canada. It’s about hockey supremacy. We like to brag that it’s our game? If you think it’s your game, you better show it’s your game.”

Finally, we get to see the whole canvas.

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