The Red Wings brass credits coach Mike Babcock with keeping a winning, positive attitude throughout the long postseason grind. Babcock made his second trip to the Finals count with a championship. (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)
DETROIT -- It's a rite of summer for Mike Babcock. Pack up the family, head home to his native Saskatchewan, and spend the longest days of the year at his offseason cottage on Emma Lake.
He'll get up early to go water skiing -- the kids will go wakeboarding -- and he'll stay up late, enjoying a glass of wine with his wife, Maureen.
"And once a summer, I'll get together with my brother-in-law, Rob, and bunch of my buddies," said Babcock, who Wednesday completed an improbable 20-year coaching odyssey -- from the Canadian college ranks to a Stanley Cup championship.
"It's something we do every year. You sit around the fire too long, and you get to tell everybody what you're proud of."
This year, it just might turn into a show-and-tell session. Babcock, the first Saskatchewan-born coach to win the Cup, is bringing hockey's Holy Grail home with him. And when he does, Babcock knows just what he'd like to do with it.
"There's a kid up there whose dad drives him around in the boat on the lake and he plays the bagpipes -- you'll hear him out there in the evening on a calm night," Babcock said. "And I always thought that'd be perfect, on a houseboat parading the Stanley Cup around the lake for everyone to see, with the kid playing the bagpipes. I think it would be fantastic."
Of course, barely 12 hours after Babcock had held the Cup over his head and kissed it sweetly, he was short on sleep -- and short on a few minor details, too.
"You know what? I've never even met the kid," he added, laughing. "I don't know who he is, and he's gonna end up hearing about this idea before I even get a chance to ask him. But I'm sure he'll be happy to do it."
Celebrating in Northville
Indeed, the folks back in Saskatchewan -- "authentic, real people" Babcock says proudly -- were celebrating the triumph just like they were in Northville, where Babcock and his wife, Maureen, and their three children -- Alexandra, Michael and Taylor -- returned home from Pittsburgh early Thursday.
"You know it has happened," Babcock, 46, said. "But the more you hear from people, the more it sinks in. I got up this morning and there was a huge (banner) over the play structure in our backyard saying 'Congratulations on winning the Cup.' And when I went for breakfast after dropping the kids off (at school), people are running over to you with the newspaper wanting you to sign it. I mean, it's real."
What did it all mean? Babcock was still mulling that over Thursday morning as his cell phone kept buzzing with phone calls and text messages from well-wishers.
"We woke up this morning Stanley Cup champions," Babcock said. "For a number of our guys, they're four-time Stanley Cup champions. But for a lot of us, it's our first time. To share that with them, and then to share that with your family, it's just a special thing."
A special coach, too.
Ken Holland was convinced of that three years ago, when he hired Babcock, who in 2003 -- in his first season as an NHL coach -- had swept Detroit in the first round of the playoffs en route to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Prior to that, Babcock spent the better part of two decades coaching in the hockey hinterlands: from college jobs in Red Deer and Lethbridge to junior hockey in Moose Jaw and Spokane and eventually the AHL in Cincinnati, where the Wings' front office finally got a good look at their future.
"He had all the ingredients to work with: Great passion, great work ethic," Holland said. "He has a plan -- he doesn't make it up on the fly -- and the first thing he does is he makes the team accountable."
Wings, coach adjust
In Detroit, where the Wings had trouble keeping track of all the winning, that didn't sit well with some, at least initially. Owner Mike Ilitch was laughing Wednesday night as he recalled a conversation he had with veteran forward Kris Draper about Babcock's first training camp.
"It took a while for the coach to get a feel for the guys, and for them to get a feel for him," Ilitch said. "Because he came in as a lieutenant, he came in tough, and he maybe went down to sergeant or corporal. He took it just a little easier on them. He learned, and he admits it."
Babcock said: "The more you win, the more it allows you to be calmer, more consistent and steadier on the rudder."
And that, too, was evident in this 2008 playoff run, beginning with the first-round struggles against Nashville, when Babcock benched starting goaltender Dominik Hasek in favor of Chris Osgood.
Likewise, it was his steely resolve after the gut-wrenching, triple-overtime loss in Game 5 of the Cup Finals that helped Detroit stay on a championship course.
"Don't worry: We're winning tonight," Babcock told a reporter, matter-of-factly, the morning of Game 6.
Draper said: "That's what he kept reminding us the whole playoffs: That we were going to be successful. If we played a certain way, we were going to win. That was the message. And it's a big reason why we did."
"I think he's the best coach in the NHL," Holland said Wednesday, smiling as he clutched an unlit victory cigar. "And obviously, he's the right coach for this team."
He'll put that in writing soon. Holland is close to finalizing a three-year contract extension for Babcock, and an announcement could come as early as today. Babcock's mind was made up long ago, though: All season he has said he intends to coach in Detroit as long as he's welcome.
"We're not moving," Babcock said Thursday, chuckling. "My wife's even getting someone to paint the walls in our house, and we never do that."
First, though, they'll head to Saskatoon, where Babcock spent his teenage years and where his father, Mike Sr., a 71-year-old retired mining engineer, still lives. From there, they'll head to the lake. And as always, Babcock has a plan.
Cue the bagpipes, kid.