It’s been one of the burning questions in the hockey world for the last year and a half: when and where would Mike Babcock get another chance behind the bench?
The answer surprised even him.
“I never thought once about coaching at the University of Saskatchewan. I never thought about it at all. If (chief athletics officer) Dave Hardy hadn’t called me over Christmas, obviously this wouldn’t have happened and when he first called me we just laughed about it, to tell you the truth,” Babcock said.
The 57-year-old has signed on as the Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey coach, replacing Dave Adolph, who is retiring at the end of April after 28 years with the program.
So what changed Babcock’s mind after initially laughing off the job offer? In a word: family.
“I have two sisters that live right there in (Saskatoon). My wife has her mom and dad…they’ve got a 65-year love affair going. We don’t get to be around them as much, especially with COVID…(my wife) said to me, ‘hey, this (opportunity) isn’t bad,'” Babcock said.
Babcock grew up in Saskatoon and played one season with the Huskies in 1981-82. After spending the following year in junior he transferred to McGill University but the chance to return to his roots and coach at USask was one he simply couldn’t pass up.
“I look back and I think about my time at McGill, it built a foundation for the rest of my life. My parents had done a good job and built a foundation of confidence so I could go out and try things but that really added to it and in the end it was a huge difference-maker for me, and I think that’s a real important thing to understand as the coach at the U of S,” he said.
But Babcock’s hiring, which will see him serve on a full-time volunteer basis, is drawing mixed reviews.
Many fans are excited about his track record of success, which includes a Stanley Cup title with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 and back-to-back Olympic gold medals with Team Canada in 2010 and 2014, but others worry that he’s too hard on his players.
Babcock was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2019 amid allegations of bullying, and some former players have since spoken out about incidents of mistreatment they experienced under his watch.
The coach acknowledges he’s made mistakes but he feels those mistakes have been mischaracterized.
“Have you ever had a conversation with your wife you’d like to be reaching out and grabbing the words and bringing ’em back? Yes. But was your intent good? Absolutely. Have I tried to hurt anyone ever along the way? No. Am I ultra competitive? Absolutely. Am I proud of my coaching career? Without any question,” he said.
Babcock also points to his resume as evidence of his good character.
“Bryan Murray hired me from Cincinnati to go to Anaheim. He spent two years with me every day before he hired me to do that job. He knew me good…Ken Holland and Jim Nill were with Detroit, they had two farm teams, they were working with me all the time. They hired me to come to Detroit,” he said.
“This isn’t a Zoom interview. This is like being with you every day. Steve Yzerman played for me for a year and worked with me for four years, then hired me to coach two Olympic teams. (Brendan) Shanahan took me to Toronto. He played for me. Something doesn’t add up.”
The man in charge of Huskie Athletics says Babcock’s perceived transgressions are not a concern, especially given how much scrutiny he’s been under since his last job.
“He’s a good man and sometimes a personality doesn’t work with another kind of personality. So I feel that Mike is conscious of that now, probably more conscious than he was before he left the Leafs,” Hardy said.
And Babcock now has a chance to prove it while trying to lead the Huskies to an elusive national title, something he did with the Lethbridge Pronghorns the last time he coached at the university level in 1994.
Coincidentally, the coach that preceded him at the U of L was none other than Dave Adolph. So could history repeat itself?
“I’m gonna work as hard as I possibly can, enjoy the guys, try to help them become better men and better players and in the end, we hope to knock on the door,” he said.
Win or lose, Babcock is back in the spotlight. The hockey world will be watching closely.