We think we know Mike Babcock by who we see on our television screens. He comes off as a steely-eyed competitor, a taskmaster who pushes and prods his players to strive for an on-ice perfection that, by the nature of the game, is unattainable. In the end, we see a hockey coach and a man who has won at virtually every level of the sport – a champion.
That Mike Babcock is for public consumption. He is the button-down, blazer-wearing Stanley Cup champion and coach of Canada's 2010 Canadian Olympic Men's Hockey Team. He is just a sliver of the true Mike Babcock. For as much as Babcock strives to be at the pinnacle of his sport, his upbringing and family values tell him that true success is measured off the ice.
"My wife always laughs — she sees me wearing a suit behind the bench and wonders who that is because I'm wearing shorts and a t-shirt and ball hat most of the summer; I'm just like everybody else," says Babcock. "It's just that when people see me, they have me in that different light – my kids don't know who that guy is, either."
That guy is the one who never saw himself as a hockey coach but rather an academic and educator. He's the guy who resurrected a seemingly stalled coaching career by rejuvenating an on-the-ropes hockey program at the University of Lethbridge and guided the Pronghorns to an unlikely 1994 national title.
"I never dreamed I was going to be a coach in the first place. I thought I was going to be in the college world the rest of my life. I thought I'd go on and get a PhD and teach," says Babcock, who has an undergraduate education degree and graduate degree in sports psychology from McGill University. "I liked being in the college environment. I thought it'd be a great job to be around young, excited people getting better and going places. I thought I'd always be a part of that."
After previously taking Red Deer College to a national final, Babcock accepted a coaching challenge at the U of L. The 1993-94 Pronghorns were not considered a championship contender. The program itself was in trouble and faced the prospect of being cut from the U of L athletic landscape. The Horns had never made the playoffs or even finished a season above the .500 mark.
"When I came to the U of L I had a pretty strong belief in how I thought hockey should be played and what we needed to do to have success; we instilled that from day one," says Babcock.
"I believe there's a right way to play the game and there's a right way to approach life, and I tell that to my kids all the time. I'm not a very cautious person; I'm not a very careful person. I believe in living and getting the most out of every day, and I believe that's also how you play the game."
It's a philosophy that has stood the test of time. Following his one-year stint with the Horns, Babcock guided the Spokane Chiefs for six seasons, twice advancing to the WHL championship series. In 1997, he led Canada to a World Junior Championship gold medal. Two years later, after a brief stop in the American Hockey League, he was coaching the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the National Hockey League. In his first season he took the Ducks to the Stanley Cup final and in the five years since, he's been to two more Cup finals with the Detroit Red Wings, capturing hockey's Holy Grail in 2007-08.
"You have to get better each and every year if you're going to be successful in all walks of life," he says. "It's all about lifelong learning. The things I did at the U of L, technically I might not do anymore, but believing in people and getting them to work hard, to commit to one another and to the team are exactly the same things we talk about today in Detroit."
With the 2010 Olympic opportunity just around the bend, Babcock's approach will not vary. Why would it?
"What a great thing, eh? I'm excited like you can't believe. It's a dream come true to have the chance to be an Olympian," Babcock says, relishing the expectations of, and pressure from, a nation of rabid hockey fans.
"The reason we have expectations is because we have a chance. The tournament now is going to be closer than it's ever been, everybody has a chance to win; we're just big believers that we're going to find a way to get it done. I don't know exactly how we're going to do that, I just know we are."
It's been 15 years since Babcock guided the U of L Horns to that national title, and while everything around him has changed, he still sees himself essentially as the man he was in the fall of 1993, hunting in the foothills every day following practice, looking after his family and striving to be a better person and coach.
"I've always been a little fearful of not being good enough, so that gives me a little bit of drive to try and be better," says Babcock.
Born in Manitouwadge, Ont., Babcock spent much of his childhood in the Northwest Territories, where his father worked as a mining engineer. When Babcock was 12, his family moved to Saskatoon, Sask., where his father still lives today. In the off-season, it's also the area where Babcock, his wife and three children call home.
"I want my kids to be grounded," says Babcock. "My kids are growing up different than I did, but in saying that, we're hoping to raise really good people who are confident and who are going to be difference-makers in the world. That's how my mom spoke to me, and that's how I speak to my kids."
He lost his mother to cancer in 1992, but the lessons she taught still resonate with him today. They are part of the values with which he raises his family and that he also takes to the rink.
"I always say I learned to work hard from my dad, and I learned to talk to people from my mom," says Babcock.
His growth as a coach has garnered the respect of the hockey world and allowed him to work with the most talented players and personalities in the game. Still, despite his rise in professional status, he manages to stay true to the principles by which he was raised.
"It's been a work in progress, and I like to think that I keep getting better, and I'm going to be a better coach next year than I was last year," says Babcock. "You have to be in a constant stage of development if you want to be the best you can be.
"Am I still the same person? I'd sure like to think so. I tell people all the time, the measure of me as a man isn't going to be about the number of games I win, it's going to be about the family I raise."