Detroit Red Wings coach knows a little something about winning. He won a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008, and he guided the Canadian men's hockey team to a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics. But he also knows what it's like to get close and come up short, losing two Stanley Cup Finals during his time in Detroit. That experience gives him perspective as he prepares to head to Sochi where he'll once again be the Canadian men's team coach. The goal is gold — but it won't be easy to win back-to-back world championships.
Sports Illustrated Kids spoke with Babcock in December about preparing for the 2014 Games, how he'll draw on his experience from 2010, and the chances of a US-Canada rematch in the 2014 gold medal game. (The interview was conducted before the final Canadian roster was announced.)
Go back to 2010 for second, what was it like during those overtime minutes right before the goal was scored?
This is what I remember: Obviously we’re set up good. [Zach] Parise scores a goal late, and we’re fortunate that it was late because they would’ve had the momentum. We got into the locker room, we got regrouped, made it clear to our players… We talked about how we were going to play technically because it’s four-on-four. Made it clear to our players that the game was going to be over fast, there’s too much talent on the ice, to put your foot on the gas and go after it and that one of them would end up being remembered forever, the one who scored the winner. And obviously that’s what Crosby did. I felt they got a real good chance early, [Scott] Niedermayer turned it over for [Joe] Pavelski. We dominated after that.
It’s got to be different than overtime in a Stanley Cup Final or playoff game, right?
Well, you know, what’s interesting to me is, the game you’re playing is the most important game, because it’s the one you’re playing. Obviously, a regular season game is different than the playoffs, but playoffs, I’ve been in overtime games, and they have huge ramifications. So they’re huge at the time and the way you feel is spectacular. Obviously, when you win the Stanley Cup, you win it for your team and you win it for your state. When you win the Olympics, and especially when it’s at home, you win it for your country. Basically what you’re doing is starting a party in every little town and every little farm across your whole country. And it’s something that people are going to look back and say, “Where were you in 2010 when they won?” It’s a big moment in Canadian history. Saying all that, you do what you do, as a coach, as a player, as a manager. You do your job. You do it to the best of your ability, and when things work out good it’s unreal. When things work out poorly, it’s low. You get up the next day and you get on with your life.
What does it mean for you to coach these teams, and what did it mean for you to bring that gold medal back?
Well, I guess the first thing I would say to you is that when you live in a country like Canada and the whole focus is on hockey and they ask you to coach their national team or Olympic team, obviously it’s a moment of great pride. But it’s also a moment of weight that you carry because in Canada you got to get it done. So, to me, it’s been a dream come true. I’ve coached the national team in Canada in ‘97 at the World Junior and ‘04 at the World Championships and then 2010 at the Olympics, and now I get another shot at 2014. I’m thankful for the opportunities, for what Hockey Canada has given my career and myself individually, and obviously the Steve Yzerman management group. But it’s just a thrill. I’m a regular guy from Stoughton, Saskatchewan. I get to coach in back-to-back Olympics for Canada. It’s unreal.
How difficult will it be for Canada to repeat?
Oh, very difficult. To win a Stanley Cup, to win an Olympic gold, you have to line up the moon and the stars. And the reason I know this is I’ve been to the Stanley Cup Finals three times, won once. But I’ve coached in Detroit three teams that could have won the Stanley Cup. In ‘07, we lost [Niklas] Kromwell and [Mathieu] Schneider. In ‘08, we won the Cup. In ‘09, [Pavel] Datsuyk gets hurt. We could’ve won the Cup three years in a row. People on the outside who won the Cup may say no. I’m telling you, I’ve been there a number of times. We could have won the Cup all those years. That’s how fine a line is. The fine line with injuries, the fine line with goaltending, the fine line with getting the right call at the right time, the post in versus the post out. It’s hard to win. And in Canada, when we put on our uniform for hockey, our nation just thinks we’re going to win. That’s not how it happens. It’s not even the best talent, it’s the best team that wins in the end. That’s why we won last time, the best team’s going to win this time. We have to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure it’s Canada.
In 2010, you were in Vancouver, 2014 you’re in Russia. What kind of challenges or adjustments will you guys face going there to play?
Last time was an unbelievable family event. We played every day at 4:30. You could meet your family at Molson House after the game. You could really enjoy the city and the culture with your family. This time our games are at 9 o’clock at night. The time you’re done, it’s night. Lots of families won’t travel. It’s going to be more of a team and an individual event, team-wise, that way. Our family will be the rest of the Canadians in the Olympic Village.
What’s the experience like for you coaching in the Olympics against other national teams that might have Red Wings on their rosters?
You cheer for them every night they play except for the nights they play against Canada. And we’re all competitive and we all want to win. Our lives are working for the Red Wings. Our opportunity to coach for Canada, to play for the Russians, to play for the Slovaks, to play for the Finns, to play for the Swedes, is a spectacular opportunity for all of us, and one we’ll enjoy.
Are you scouting players while the Red Wings are playing other teams?
Every day. Now, am I… Like, we play [Martin] St. Louis tomorrow night. He’s a good player. I’m going to notice him and pre-scout and be aware of him because of the fact that he’s a good player, not because of the fact he’s going to be an Olympian or try to be Olympian. But at the same time, I’m going to notice him.
What do you think the chances of a US-Canada rematch in the gold medal game will be?
If I’m a betting man, probably very little. But, who knows? You know, the bottom line for me, as long as the Canadian team is in the gold medal game, it’s a homerun.
Those are all the questions I have. Is there anything else you'd like to add about coaching in the Olympics or the Canadian team?
The greatest thing about the Olympic Games are people who don’t watch sports watch them. The opportunity to sell our great game is spectacular, and best-on-best is as good as it gets. The other thing about it is you get to be part of a bigger team than hockey. You get to be part of a Canadian team or American team or Swedish team — that to me is a spectacular thing, and how many times are you going to get to compete in the Olympic Games? Dream come true.
To that point, the 2010 gold medal game, you couldn’t have asked for anything better to get more people into hockey.
Well, this is what I would say: Of the 33 million people in Canada, 28 million watched the game. It doesn’t get better than that.
For more coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics and interviews with Olympians, check out Sports Illustrated Kids'Guide to the Games!
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and space.
Photos: Reuters/Aaron Harris, Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated