Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock has kept his job, while several of his Detroit coaching peers have been shown the door. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
Detroit — It’s happening, ahead of schedule or behind schedule, doesn’t matter. The Red Wings are transforming rapidly now, fewer constants left. That’s how it works in pro sports, but they’ve long defied the odds, and one guy has defied the most.
Mike Babcock still looks the same and sounds the same. Coaching is supposed to wither faces and wear down wits, but the Wings win and Babcock endures, or Babcock wins and the Wings endure. Either way, this is a great lesson in adaptability and survivability, and it isn’t over yet.
Babcock, 50, has been the Wings coach for nine seasons, as long as Scotty Bowman, as long as any Wings coach in 44 years. The Pistons have gone through six coaches, the Lions have gone through five and the Tigers’ Jim Leyland just ended his eight-year run, all since Babcock replaced Dave Lewis in 2005.
You evolve or dissolve, and this is the biggest challenge yet for Babcock and GM Ken Holland. The Wings love experienced players, but they have an impressive batch of youngsters who need to play, even as older guys get healthy. The toughest thing to do is learn on the fly and win on the fly, and the Wings are determined to pull it off, as their 22-season playoff streak teeters. Four of their best players — Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Jimmy Howard — missed Tuesday’s 5-0 loss to Philadelphia, and injuries are the staggering new constant.
Crushing at times? Yes. Enlightening at times? Yes.
“One of the best things that might have happened to this organization is us being so injured,” Babcock said. “What I mean is, we get to see these kids on the ice, so you know what’s in the cupboard. They’ve been way better than I thought. I’m optimistic now that we don’t have to fall off the map and go through misery for 10 years like others do. I see great things coming.”
With all he’s accomplished, Babcock reasonably could be hitting the age of entrenchment and entitlement. He’s the best coach in Detroit sports since Bowman, and he’ll guide Team Canada in the upcoming Sochi Olympics, hunting for a second gold medal.
But the transition here just might invigorate him. He’s trying to change as his team changes, a delicate process. He’s demanding in a high-pressure environment and some players don’t like it, but no coach survives on fear without being fair.
“If you walk in our dressing room today, a lot of guys are (ticked) off at me, and they’re probably different than the ones (ticked) off last week,” Babcock said. “Normally, they’re the ones that aren’t playing. One thing I can’t do is confuse the player with the person. I love the people, but they don’t pay me to evaluate that. They pay me to evaluate the player. I have to base my decisions on what I see, shift to shift, game to game.”
Babcock has one year remaining on his contract and Holland wants to discuss an extension this summer. The general rule is, after four or five years, coaches and players grow weary of each other. It happens in the NHL as much as any sport, where only Nashville’s Barry Trotz (15th season) is longer-tenured than Babcock. More astonishing, 21 of the 30 NHL coaches have been in their positions three years or less.
For some veterans, Bowman’s message was old shortly after he arrived. Then the Wings won three Stanley Cups and another in 2008 under Babcock.
“I think Mike has learned, from ’05 to now, to let them breathe a little bit,” Holland said. “He lets certain players have a little more freedom, and certain have a little less freedom. He’s constantly tweaking, but at the same time, he’s stubborn. Personally, I think that’s an important trait for a coach. You can’t be wishy-washy.”
It took time, but Babcock developed a good working relationship with Steve Yzerman, enough so that Yzerman has him coaching Team Canada. Babcock consults with Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and others on scheduling. He canceled practice Monday, recognizing players would have to slog through the snow to get to the rink before the flight to Philadelphia.
Before coming to the Wings, Babcock coached for 17 years — in college, junior hockey and with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. He has a strong education background and experience with young players, so this isn’t exactly foreign to him. When he talks about youngsters such as Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and others, his voice rises. He doesn’t want it misunderstood, though. For the Wings to win, they’ll need their veterans healthy and productive. Mikael Samuelsson and Jordin Tootoo were sent to the minors and Todd Bertuzzi and Daniel Cleary have been scratched at times, tough but necessary moves.
Holland miscalculated on those signings, trying to buy time for the young guys. The Wings will have more difficult decisions ahead, but Babcock has excelled partly because he’s not afraid of conflict, even if he doesn’t enjoy it.
“When you send a really good human being to the minors, if you think that’s easy, it’s not,” Babcock said. “You can say it’s not personal, but it’s personal to them. But every single veteran player at some point took someone’s job too, right? I think the greatest players I’ve ever coached never believed it was coming to an end.”
That’s blunt talk from Babcock, not brash talk. Ask him about his future, and he’s not certain. He timed his latest contract to expire when the last of his three children graduates from high school in 2015.
After that? Holland said he considers Babcock among the top two or three coaches in the world. He also knows about shelf lives and adaptability.
“I’m gonna sit down in the summer and see what Mike’s thinking,” Holland said. “Certainly I believe we have a great working relationship. He’s got tons of passion, tons of work ethic. We’ve never missed the playoffs under his watch, and I’m confident we’re gonna find a way to play our way in. The team plays hard and seems to respond to him.”
Effort and competitiveness generally aren’t issues with the Wings. Babcock is eager to teach and willing to freshen things up, and has shuffled his coaching staff a few times. He’s a hungry reader and avid brain-picker, even talking with Tom Izzo about short-term preparation during tournaments. Babcock uses the Izzo method of concise instruction, right down to the team walk-throughs in hotels.
The Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews recently raved about Babcock’s preparedness for the Olympics. In the Wings’ dressing room, players don’t toss around warm fuzzies quite as much, but the respect is there. These days, Babcock can’t really get mad with such a jumbled lineup, and he tries to spend more time encouraging the newcomers.
“That’s the way he kind of has to be with younger players,” Kronwall said. “Guys have done great so far, and I think Babs has been pretty good with them.”
Babcock doesn’t couch his opinions. When the Wings play awful, he says it. When he says he wants to “puke” about all the injuries, you believe it. His style wouldn’t last if the Wings didn’t win, but consider this: In such an emotional sport, how many times have you seen Babcock lose his cool or create an ugly scene? Pretty much never.
He has changed without changing, if that’s possible. He’s still here in place — yes, with his famous hair in place — because he’s content with who he is, but not satisfied.
“I’m a big boy, I understand if you don’t win, the grass is greener somewhere else,” Babcock said. “I’m thankful I’ve been here a long time and worked with great people and great players. In all relationships, there’s normally sickness — you get sick of them, they get sick of you. It hasn’t happened to me. I got a good place to water ski, a good place to pheasant hunt, I love my boss, love my owner. If I felt it wasn’t working, I wouldn’t want to stay. No chance. My ego is way too big and I want to win way too bad.”
The longer he’s here, the greater the challenge. I doubt he’d like it any other way.