It's Christmas in August for Team Canada coach Mike Babcock
Why not? What kid sleeps in on Christmas morning, anyway?
Canada's Olympic orientation camp is all that and more for Babcock, whose regular September-through-June job entails prodding the Detroit Red Wings deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs. He thinks of his Olympic job as "winning the lotto," but has exhibited more of a boyish sense of almost holiday wonder since Monday night when he began putting Canada's best hockey players through drills.
Instead of post-practice sub sandwiches at the Saddledome, Babcock should have arranged a pitcher of milk and some Christmas cookies.
The pace at the orientation camp has been occasionally astonishing, the drive conspicuous. Compared to the more measured camp in Kelowna, B.C. four years ago that was overseen by
This is pure Babcock, a 46-year-old who is not an especially warm and fuzzy coach -- indeed, how many of the top ones are? -- but who has put together a creditable portfolio in the NHL with Anaheim and now Detroit.
"He's a Type A personality," said assistant coach
The difference between Babcock and Quinn is that the Edmonton Oilers' new coach was an astute manager of personnel and team mood -- coach as CEO -- who would give his hockey wonks such as Hitchcock leeway in fine-tuning tactics. Basically Quinn would make sure the players minded their Ps and Qs while taking a minimalist approach to Xs and Os. Like a nursery schooler around the finger paint, Babcock is hands-on. Although he happily delegates -- Buffalo Sabres coach
Quinn painted the big picture in winning two of those three major tournaments -- and finishing seventh in Turin in 2006 -- but Babcock is the pointillist.
"I've been going to coaching seminars for a long time," Hitchcock said, "and this is the first time I've worked with a guy like Babs (who's) so good at the how and the why. A lot of coaches are good at the how, but he's really good at the why. That's why he's so successful. The 'why' part of his coaching is going to be very helpful to the guys in the locker room.
"Pat provided the big canvas kind of coaching. Mike is one stroke at a time. That's going to be a change for some of the veteran players. Mike's feeling is that the big picture will take care of itself if every stroke is taken care of."
Occasionally there also is a stroke of sheer genius, which Hockey Canada employed by including Lemaire on the staff. The Devils' coach is a rank outsider to this clubby group, which generally demands an apprenticeship in its state-of-the-game program. (Ruff, for example, coached Canada at the 2009 world championships.). Nor had Lemaire ever evinced public interest in international hockey. While it was a necessity to hire at least one coach who spoke French for an officially bilingual nation -- with Boston's
Lemaire is a presence, generally revered if often misunderstood within the game. Rather than viewing this font of sometimes counter-intuitive hockey wisdom as a threat, Babcock saw him as an extraordinary resource. When Team Canada executive director
"Mike's maybe the only guy who would have called me," said Lemaire, who turns 64 next month. "He said he watched a lot of (old tapes of the Wild) and looked at our penalty killing and the success we had, our 1-2-2, our forecheck. For me, it's great being around younger coaches. Lindy's a little older, but he's like me -- he played (in the NHL). But Mike came out of university. (Babcock played at McGill; he later coached the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.) It's a different adaptation.
"I'm learning an enormous amount. I think he's got a great perception of the game, how to play it. He's extremely good at finding offense, which he does with the type of players he has (in Detroit). He's very well prepared. It comes out -- bang, bang, bang. You gotta get it. For sure it's a little quick, but the guys'll get used to it. Like I am. At the start I couldn't understand anything of what he was saying. Different terms. But you can really tell he's ahead of things."
Lemaire plans to incorporate some of the drills he has seen here while Babcock will be borrowing liberally from some of the insights his assistants have offered.
These elite coaches have checked their egos at the door and are learning from each other. For Canada and the NHL, this is one great gift under the hockey tree.