Mike Babcock's use of ball hockey makes Canada Olympic camp fun, informative

CALGARY — They ran around in shoes, shorts, T-shirts and ball caps, some of their caps turned backward, like they were boys dreaming … well, like they were boys dreaming of winning Olympic gold for Team Canada, which they were.

Forty-five of the best Canadian ice hockey players didn’t play ice hockey Monday in preparation for Sochi. They played ball hockey.

They played on a gray surface that looked like cement in a parking lot, except they ran around on gray panels placed atop the Olympic-sized ice at the Markin MacPhail Centre, surrounded by boards, Plexiglas and seats. The lines weren’t for parking spaces. They mimicked the lines on the rink underneath.

It was fun. It was supposed to be fun. But it wasn’t for fun, and it wasn’t a waste of time. It was a window into the curiosity, creativity and attitude of coach Mike Babcock, who sought advice from professional football and college basketball when faced with a problem. It was productive as a teaching and learning tool. It was an innovation we might see in the future. It might even make a difference in Sochi. You never know.

[Cotsonika: Team Canada prepares to defend Olympic gold medal]

Make no mistake: Babcock wanted to skate at this orientation camp. He would have learned more about the players that way, and it would have been easier to use the ice. But Team Canada decided not to skate because of the cost of insuring the players’ NHL contracts, and if you know Babcock, he doesn’t mope about problems – or allow anyone else to mope about them. It is what it is. So what are you going to do about it? How can you make the best of it?

Babcock used to be a schoolteacher. He knows people learn in different ways – some by listening, some by seeing, some by doing – so he didn’t want to just lecture and show video. He still wanted to do something to explain the systems and adjustments from NHL-sized ice to Olympic-sized ice. That way everyone would get it.

Instead of practices, what about walkthroughs?

Sure. OK. Great idea.

But how do you hold walkthroughs?

[U.S. orientation camp: Quick aims for starting nod in goal in Sochi]

“It’s easy for me to come out and run stuff when you’re on the ice,” Babcock said. “That’s what I do for a living. This isn’t what I do for a living.”

Babcock loves to pick other coaches’ brains. He’s constantly searching for new information. So he talked to two coaches who do this for a living.

As the coach of the Detroit Red Wings, he stayed local. He called the quarterbacks coach of the Detroit Lions, Todd Downing. NFL teams often run walkthroughs because they need to go over a lot while taking care of players’ bodies.

At the suggestion of Wings video man Keith McKittrick, who once worked for the Michigan State hockey program, he also called Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo. One of the secrets to Izzo’s NCAA tournament success has been walkthroughs in hotel ballrooms. The Spartans outline courts on carpets with tape and go over plays, absorbing info quickly while saving energy amid the hubbub. Izzo has made six Final Fours and won a national title.

“He thinks that’s why they get there,” Babcock said.

So Team Canada issued uniform shoes, shorts, T-shirts and ball caps. The players wore gloves, carried sticks and batted around orange hockey balls. They didn’t screw around. They didn’t walk around, either, though this was supposed to be a walkthrough. Several players said the surface was a little slippery and they had to be careful when the whole point was to avoid injury. Forward Logan Couture even fell down.

“We didn’t think there was going to be as much running as there ended up being,” said winger Milan Lucic, who hadn’t played ball hockey since 2007. “Mike wanted to make it a workmanlike day, and that’s what it was.”

Babcock deliberately selected the groups, lines and pairings to keep the media guessing and the players believing. (No, just because they ran alongside Sidney Crosby on Monday doesn’t mean Chris Kunitz and Patrick Sharp will be his wingers in Sochi.)

He barked instructions as if this were a real practice, going over things like forechecking, penalty killing and line changes. The Canadians worked on their spacing and were more cognizant of it this way. Though they were running, they were moving far slower than they would have been on skates. They couldn’t get carried away, either, trying to prove something.

One thing Babcock took away from Downing and Izzo: “Sometimes the intensity of practice gets so high physically that it’s not as engaged mentally.”

The Canadians were engaged mentally Monday.

“One of the good things about [Babcock] as a coach is, he’s very detailed and very specific,” said center Jonathan Toews. “He requires attention from all his players, and you saw it right away. Guys were listening and paying attention to detail. When the team gets to Sochi, there’s no time for adjustment. Guys have to be ready to play the right way and right away.”

Assistant coach Claude Julien said minor hockey coaches should try walkthroughs when they can’t get ice. Babcock said he and assistant coach Lindy Ruff have already talked about using them with their NHL teams.

“You’ll see the Red Wings doing this in their hotel one day, for sure, to work on the power play,” Babcock said. “I thought this was great. No one got killed. It wasn’t hard. No one got hurt. There was no wear and tear on the body. It was fun, and it was different."

[Puck Daddy: Will Backes beat up Canadians again to prepare for Olympics?]

There was only one problem: It didn’t clear up concerns about Canada’s goaltending.

“Yeah,” joked Carey Price. “My save percentage wasn’t great.”