Championship season with Lethbridge still a golden memory for Mike Babcock

1:37 | NHL
Is Canada back to reclaim its crown?
Thursday April 13th, 2017

With the snow-capped Canadian Rockies to the west and miles of Albertan farmland across the eastern frontier, the drive to the University of Lethbridge can at times feel infinite. Every so often, the speed limit along Highway 2 will dip and another hamlet will rise into view. But mostly it’s just your rental car, the empty lanes and horses spitting steam into the chill.

The campus itself sits some two hours south of Calgary, on a hill overlooking a river valley, one turn off Whoop-Up Drive. The street was named after an old 19th-century fort where American border-crossers would stop to trade whiskey for buffalo hides with local tribes, before hitching up and heading toward their actual destinations.

Twenty-four years ago, a jut-jawed young man followed these same roads into town, accompanied by his wife and newborn daughter. He bought a brand-new house across Whoop-Up Drive, not far from the local rink where he had accepted a job to revive the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns men’s hockey team. Early on, the decision looked disastrous. One night in Sept. 1994, not long after the family arrived, a 30-year-old Mike Babcock came home from the first preseason meeting and declared, “This might be the last time I ever coach.”

It seems ridiculous, of course, imagining a world in which Babcock never stalked and glowered behind NHL benches for 1,114 games and almost 600 victories; never won two Olympic gold medals and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey while helming Team Canada; never lifted the 2008 Stanley Cup with the Red Wings. Soon he’ll likely finish as a Jack Adams Trophy finalist too, if not its eventual winner, for steering a rookie-laden Toronto Maple Leafs roster from 30th place last season to the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed this spring—the first worst-to-playoffs reversal since Philadelphia in 2007-08. But in thinking his coaching career might’ve reached an early end, Babcock was gravely serious. This makes what actually happened that much more magical.

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Over the next seven months, Babcock engineered perhaps the unlikeliest success story in Canadian college hockey history. It was a season deserving of a Disney film—provided screenwriters could work all the flaming liquor shots and F-bombs into a family friendly script. The championship rings referencing testicular fortitude would probably need some tweaking, too.

By the following summer, one of the smallest schools in the Canadian Interuniversity Athletics Union (enrollment 4,350) had captured its first, and still only, national title; a program had been rescued from extinction; and Babcock was ascending toward the NHL, off from the hitching post toward bigger things. Even now, as the Maple Leafs begin their first-round trial against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals on Thursday, Babcock traces his proudest accomplishment back to the 1993-94 Lethbridge Pronghorns.

“The best job I’ve ever done,” he says. “By far. Not even close.”

***

The truth is, Babcock had already plotted his exit from hockey before arriving at Lethbridge. Heck, one skate was out the door. After getting fired from the Moose Jaw Warriors in ‘93 following two losing seasons, and passed over for vacancies with other Canadian junior teams, he’d agreed to a plum gig at a consulting firm. His wife Maureen had recently given birth to the couple’s first child, Alexandra, so he needed a steady salary to support them. Working hockey schools on the side wasn’t paying any bills.

Entering its 10th-anniversary season, the Lethbridge hockey team had little reason to celebrate history. The Pronghorns had never finished above .500, never reached the Canada West playoffs and hit rock-bottom at 1-25-2 in ‘89-90. Babcock’s predecessor, Dave Adolph, did admirable work recruiting new talent; forwards Dana McKechnie and Gregg Gatto won conference rookie of the year honors in ‘91 and ‘92, respectively. Babcock also lured four freshmen with Western Hockey League experience, including a talented, hot-headed power forward who played for him in Moose Jaw named Jarret Zukiwsky.

But several other veterans had quit before training camp, preferring to enjoy college rather than endure a regime change. This left fewer than 25 at that initial meeting, which led Babcock to tell Lethbridge’s student newspaper, the Meliorist, “I almost went home and cried.” He coaxed some of the absentees to rejoin after some heavy guilt-tripping by Babcock. But mostly, the roster was made up of partially motivated 20-somethings perfectly happy to split weekend sets and otherwise enjoy college.

Away from the rink, the Pronghorns indeed went plenty hard. One defenseman, John Curran, worked as the campus beer rep for Labatt so the fridge in his basement was always stocked. Usually they wound up at the Duke of Wellington, located behind the Pronghorns’ home rink at Nicholas-Sheran Arena, stumbling distance from the players’ houses. The Duke specialized in two-for-one Thursdays, trouble before a weekend series; cowboy boot nights too were rowdy affairs. The players also went through a phase where they would light sambuca on fire, slug the shot, suction the hot glass to their bare buttcheeks, and traipse around the bar. “I can still smell the lactic acid,” Babcock remembered recently.

And so, once practices began, he skated everyone onto the verge of vomit. The worst exercise involved players sitting on the bench and waiting for Babcock’s whistle. At the first blast, they would vault over the dasher boards, sprint the width of the ice, touch the opposite wall, skate back, slap their partner’s hand, and wait for another round. Babcock called it the Dog F--- Line Change Drill. But he only worked them so hard because he saw promise. “Why don’t you guys believe in yourselves?” he would tell the team in the locker room. “Can someone answer that for me?”

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Faith followed results. The Pronghorns finished the preseason at 6-2-1, including 2-1-1 against conference foes. By the end of October they had pulled into a three-way tie for second place in Canada West, and earned their first-ever national ranking by sweeping the University of British Columbia the following weekend. The community buzzed with support. Players reported seeing their professors at Nicholas-Sheran, where standing-room crowds swelled several rows deep against the glass. When players ran into friends around campus, the first question they usually heard was, “How’d you do in the last game?”

Usually, though, the excitement disappeared by the second question: “Do you think the program will be cut?”

***

In 2008, Babcock clinched the Stanley Cup Final in Pittsburgh. He won the ‘97 under-20 world championships in Switzerland, the ‘04 world championships in the Czech Republic, and Olympic gold medals in both Vancouver (‘10) and Sochi, Russia (‘14). His earliest major victory, however, began across the river from the Lethbridge campus, in the basement of a bar called Sven Ericksen’s.

It was around mid-October. A month prior, during the Pronghorns’ preseason, word had broken that the university’s board of governors were “toying” with the idea of eliminating the hockey team. The program’s $125,000 annual budget represented only a fraction of the $2.7 million in proposed slashes. Nonetheless, it had landed in the committee’s crosshairs.

So Babcock attended community forums, met with academics and rallied public in bar basements. The players washed cars, pumped gas, hosted youth hockey clinics, and delivered presents during the holiday season. They enlisted sponsorships from local businesses. Took over the radio station, 1090 CKRX, and sold discounted ticket packages. In November, Don Cherry visited Lethbridge to promote the opening of one of his chain restaurants. He left with a hat and T-shirt emblazoned with the fundraising effort’s slogan: SAVE AN ENDANGERED SPECIES.

Little of it seemed to make any difference. Early into the New Year, the general faculties council met and recommended the cutting of all athletic programs by fall 1995. A board of governors vote was scheduled for mid-March. This put the team in limbo and thoughts of transferring in players’ heads. “To tell the truth,” Babcock railed to the Meliorist, “I’ve put my recruiting hat on the shelf until then and if they put it off as long as March 17, they hold no regard for the fact that we have to recruit. How do we even recruit, honestly or ethically? I find it very disturbing.”

Looking back, Babcock says, only one thing truly worked: “By winning, they couldn’t cut the program.” Amid the steady scuttlebut about their uncertain future, the Pronghorns were rocketing up the national rankings, from seventh to second to No. 1 before the calendar hit December. It marked the first time any Lethbridge team, in any sport, had landed in the top spot. An early-January sweep over the University of Manitoba moved them to 13-3, surpassing their single-season wins record. Two weekends later, Zukiwsky set another team mark with four goals and six assists in two games.

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When they were together in Moose Jaw, it hadn’t taken Babcock long to figure out the fiery Zukiwsky. Particularly that negative reinforcement made him tick. During practice Babcock skated beside his star forward, slashing him on the forearms to get him ready for opponents who would do the same. “Zuk, you suck at that drill,” he often yelled. “Are you going to put an effort in today?” Or, before games: “You’re not going to play the power play. You’ll be lucky to get a regular shift.” More often than not, Zukiwsky would respond with a hat trick. “And Mike would just laugh,” he says.

It wasn’t all iron-fisted rule, though. If Babcock sensed Zukiwsky winding up too tight, he’d sit him on the bench and wait a few shifts before asking, “Are you ready to go now? Are you back?” After Babcock made Zukiwsky one of the captains in Moose Jaw, they started hunting elk and deer together; when Alexandra was born, Zukiwsky showed up to the hospital with a giant stuffed teddy bear. “He’s the best motivator I’ve ever seen in my life,” Zukiwsky says. “A lot of coaches will be personal with players, but it’s about creating a relationship where you want to perform for him.”

“To me, life’s simple,” Babcock says. “You put your foot on that long skinny thing on the right—the gas—and your fun meter should be on high and your work meter should be on high. Some people believe you can’t have your cake and eat it too. I don’t buy that. You can do it all.”

Courtesy: University of Lethbridge Athletics

Take the final weekend in January, when Lethbridge flew to Vancouver with a chance to clinch its playoff berth against the University of British Columbia. In the dressing room before the series opener, Babcock made a deal. “You win both,” he said, “it’s a green-light night. You don’t get both, there’s a curfew.” Sure enough, after four goals from Trevor Ellerman, one of four leftovers from the 1-25-2 season, clinched the sweep on Saturday, the players hit the town that night to celebrate. And sure enough there was Babcock at the same bar, cutting a rug on the dance floor. “Oh,” Gatto thought. “He does have a heartbeat.”

Of course, a dash of divine intervention helps too. After dropping the opener of their first-ever playoff series against Regina, the Pronghorns had roared back to force overtime in Game 2. As they sat in the home locker room at Nicholas-Sheran before the extra period, an old rotary phone located in the training room started ringing.

Gatto piped up. “Dana,” he said to McKechnie, “the phone’s for you. It’s God.”

“What’s he want?”

“He wants us to win this hockey game.”

They did, 2-1, and then again in overtime in the rubber match. And so for the rest of their miraculous run, past Calgary in three games for the Canada West title and onto the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union semifinals, one of Babcock’s assistants would always sneak away during intermission, find a pay phone, and ensure that the Good Lord kept calling Lethbridge.

***

The Pronghorns arrived in Toronto with underdog status against Acadia University, the defending national champs. Babcock gladly played into the perception. “I just hope there are two pucks out there so we could play,” he humbly told reporters during media day, having heard enough talk about Acadia’s high-powered attack.

In reality, though, Lethbridge was brimming with confidence; Babcock had even started wearing a strip of tape around his pinkie finger, reserving the spot where he planned to slip a title ring. Lethbridge had its own dynamic offense led by Zukiwsky, whose 63 points topped the conference. They also had the best goalie in the country.

Listed at 5-8 and 168 pounds, Trevor Kruger was an undersized late-bloomer who didn’t transition into the crease until age 12. At 18 he got called up to join the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos and his older brother, Scott, around Boxing Day 1986. Four days later, on Dec. 30, the team was headed to Regina when the bus struck some black ice and crashed. Four died, including Scott. “It’s one of those tragic things,” Trevor says. “You move on, right? We didn’t have much time to really think about things. I wasn’t one to sit there…I had my grieving time for sure with my family, and then after the funeral and the gathering at the rink, it was right back to hockey.”

Unlike Babcock, though, Kruger fully expected to end his career at Lethbridge. After backstopping Swift Current to an emotional Memorial Cup in ‘89, two and a half years after the crash, Kruger had slogged through seven pro games in the East Coast Hockey League before returning home to Alberta, hoping to get his degree and get on with life. He instantly became one of the Pronghorns’ best players, but showed little interest in things like working out or showing up early for extra practice.

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If Babcock guided Zukiwsky with crack-the-whip, slash-the-hands discipline, he was equally hands-off with his star goalie. Kruger felt free to indulge in his goalie quirks, like conducting pregame stretches in the shower. Or how, if a scrum of players jostled for possession the corner, Kruger would skate over, pick out the puck, and spark a breakout the other way.

Only one time did Babcock truly intervene. Early into the semifinal against Acadia, Kruger wandered from his net to play the puck and lost his footing, leading to a virtual empty-netter. The Pronghorns prevailed 9-6 and though Kruger made 42 saves he couldn’t shake the first-period gaffe. Babcock knew why.

Part of Kruger’s pregame routine involved taking the edge off with a few cold ones the night before. At home this usually happened at the Duke, but Kruger had forsaken the tradition altogether in Toronto. And so, on the afternoon before the national title game against Guelph, Babcock handed Kruger $20 with strict instructions to Go. Drink. Beer. Now. “The message was,” Babcock says, “you can’t play the game with your a-- slammed shut.”

It worked. First Kruger downed a couple Coors and Labatt at a bar near the team hotel. Then he stopped 32 shots before 7,300 at Maple Leaf Gardens—and a national TV audience—in a 5-2 win. Ellerman was named tournament MVP, and Zukiwsky the CIAU rookie of the year. 

During postgame interviews Kruger was quick to thank his coach, "the spark plug to our engine." And then, he said, while winning the Memorial Cup for Swift Current was "an emotional thing...right now I feel more pride in this because nobody ever thought it was possible. I mean, the lowly Pronghorns go all the way? You’ve got to be kidding."

***

The ensuing party raged for days. It started in a hotel ballroom in downtown Toronto and migrated overnight to a recently opened restaurant called Wayne Gretzky’s, where Babcock’s daughter fell asleep inside the CIAU trophy bowl.

It continued as the team returned to campus, where 200 were waiting at Nicholas-Sheran, and across the parade route that ended at City Hall. Like always, it finished at the Duke. There, around 2 a.m., a replay of the championship game came onto the big screen TV. What few Pronghorns remained then filled the trophy with whiskey and cola, scooping their cups and rewatching their win.

All was clearly settled  on the bureaucratic side, too. At the March 17 board of governors meeting, four days after the final, the chairman brought champagne and members took turns sipping from the trophy.

And later, when the Pronghorns received their rings, they would find two reminders of their journey, courtesy of Babcock. First, an inscription in the case read, Go Hard or Go Home. And etched into the underside of the band were the words Babcock had hollered all season long, imploring his players to do whatever it took to win:

BIG BALLS.

***

A few weeks later, Babcock summoned the Pronghorns to his house for a postseason barbecue. They brought their lawn chairs and adult beverages. Babcock brought a bombshell: He had accepted an impossible-to-refuse, three-year deal with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs. After only seven months on campus, he was gone from Lethbridge.

The program has ebbed and flowed since, unable to recapture the magic of ‘93-94. A decade later, in ‘04-05 under current Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters, the Pronghorns went 5-29-2. Gatto reached the playoffs three times while helming his alma mater’s bench, but was dismissed in Feb. 2014 after three straight sub-10-win seasons.

That April, Lethbridge hired Spiros Anastas, who had been working as an assistant for the Grand Rapids Griffins, the minor-league affiliate of Babcock’s Red Wings. When Anastas first made the turn off Whoop-Up Drive and began purging junk from the coaches’ office at Nicholas-Sheran, he came across an old, dusty newspaper clipping with the headline, BABCOCK PROUDEST OF PRONGHORNS’ TITLE. Today, as the rebuild continues—Lethbridge just won 11 games for the second consecutive year—that article is still taped above Anastas’s desk for inspiration. “He’s almost become a symbol of hope for all the U of L sports,” he says of Babcock.

Many of the players still live in southern Alberta. A few occasionally drop by Nicholas-Sheran, where the crowds aren’t close to standing room-only anymore. McKechnie comes to watch his son, Sam, who had 12 points for the Pronghorns this season. Zukiwsky didn’t develop the same rapport with Babcock’s successor but hopscotched around some European and North American minor leagues for a while; he now works as a safety consultant in Lethbridge. True to his plan, Kruger quickly landed a full-time job after graduation, helping adults with disabilities. “I had a $35,000 student loan,” he says, “so I thought I’d get to work.” Today, he helps coach his daughter’s team.

You know where Babcock went after he left, of course. But know too that Lethbridge has never left him, either. A few months ago, when a reporter called to reminisce about the Pronghorns, Babcock was in his Leafs office at Air Canada Centre. On his desk was a baseball cap, which Babcock had found while cleaning up the house after his father, the elder Mike Babcock, died in March 2015. He wore it into work that morning, as he often does.

It says SAVE THE HORNS.

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