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Mike Babcock

In Behind the Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey's Greatest Coaches author Craig Custance has one-on-one sessions with some of the best minds in the business as they roll the video on the biggest game of their careers. Coaches profiled include Joel Quenneville, Claude Julien, Ron Wilson and Ken Hitchcock. This excerpt explores Mike Babcock, who guided the Red Wings to a Stanley Cup championship and Team Canada to gold medals in the Olympics and World Cup, and his relentless pursuit of learning how to be a better leader.

Mike Babcock was the first coach I talked to about participating in this book. I approached him once at Joe Louis Arena with a half-baked plan, and he sent me out of his office tasked with coming up with a better one. He wrote down the names of the coaches he thought needed to be in the book to make it something worth doing.

Behind The Bench Cover

The message wasn't explicit but it was understood: don't bother him until there was a clear vision of exactly what was needed from him.

So when I returned to his office a second time, we were ready to get serious.

He invited me in and we sat down at his desk on opposite sides.

He immediately started opening mail. Babcock is a multitasker, not a guy who sits and does one thing at a time. He's always moving. He ripped open a giant manila envelope sent by a fan and pulled out a glossy photo of him coaching during the Winter Classic. In the photo, Babcock is wearing a black fedora and what looks like a Red Wings varsity jacket. He pulled out a Sharpie and signed it.

We started talking about leadership, because ultimately, to him, that's what this book should be about. If Babcock's not teaching and you're not learning, he feels it's a waste of time.

I'm passionate about the topic, too. In fact, some of my favorite conversations are ones I've had with Babcock about leadership. We both read books on it. We talked about influences, and legendary Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman's influence on Babcock is clear. Bowman is a lifelong learner. He has to be better today than he was yesterday. The same is true of Babcock.

I mentioned how much I'd enjoyed a podcast called Startup, because it provided a behind-the-scenes look at building a business from the ground up.

He grabbed a pen and wrote it down. He does that anytime somebody makes a recommendation. Anybody. He wants to learn from every conversation he's having at every moment. It's all about growing as a leader.

"Leadership is a journey. My potential five years ago and my potential now are totally different," he said. "Leadership, to me, is a lifestyle. I don't believe any bullshitter ever motivated anybody. That's a thing of the past. You have to be transparent. You have to be authentic. It's not what you say, it's what you do. But it's every day. That's the hardest part of the job and the best part of the job."

It's a job he's passionate about, a profession he's passionate about. He cares deeply about fellow members of the coaching fraternity. He's proud that a growing number of his assistants are now head coaches. The Babcock coaching tree is full of branches and bearing more fruit than ever. In my mind, he's the best coach in the game.


About a decade ago, Babcock met Pierre-Paul Allard, who has became influential on him and his coaching.

When they met, Allard was a top executive at a California technology company called Avaya. This is what makes Babcock so unique among his coaching colleagues. So many of his current influences come from outside the game.

"I'm a thief," Babcock explains. "I steal from everybody. I read all the time. I'm trying to meet people all the time to learn."

Babcock met Allard while hunting sheep.

Now, I'm no hunting expert but I can't help but wonder how high the degree of difficulty is to hunt sheep.

Mike Babcock

"It's impossible. I'm talking those big horn things. It's a 10-day hike to the middle of nowhere and you're freezing your ass off," Babcock says. "I'm above the Arctic Circle and the wind was blowing 900 miles per hour."

The weather was so cold, they were forced to hang out in a cook tent playing cards for hours and hours.

"When you're 10 days in the same base camp, you get pretty close with people," Allard said when we chatted. "The first thing that hits you when you meet Mike is how inquisitive he is. He will ask you or anybody constant questions on what you think."

As Allard got to know Babcock and started watching him closely as a coach, he was struck by his intensity. He told Babcock that he was a much nicer person than he appeared to be on the bench. But Allard admired his temperament. He saw somebody who had a strategy in place and set out to execute it. There was no panic, no overreacting to the game or the referees. He saw that calm reflected in the teams he coached.

"The other thing that's really cool is he is very much a strategist. That's where we hit it off. I view myself the same way," Allard said. "My success in business has been driven by the capacity to execute to a strategy and hold fast, be patient, and execute."


A few months before we sat down to watch the game, Babcock was a keynote speaker for a venture capitalist group. A group of CEOs came in and presented during the afternoon and Babcock was part of a team there to help tighten their pitches.

"These are brilliant guys with brilliant ideas and people are giving them feedback," Babcock said. "I got to be around them all day."

Mike Babcock

By the time it was his turn to speak, Babcock had changed his speech, applying everything he had learned that afternoon while sitting in on those sessions.

He does this stuff all the time.

"It gives you ideas that spur more ideas and spur thought," Babcock said. "You never know where you're getting your best idea. It could be from your rookie player, it could be from your power skating instructor, it could be from the guy who cooks breakfast. You have to be open-minded."

That's how you create change. You steal ideas from CEOs. You steal ideas from other coaches. You steal ideas from the person who serves up the coffee at Tim Hortons.

No matter what field they're from, Babcock enjoys being around people who are the best at what they do.

"The best of the best are so passionate about what they do, and that passion allows them to grind harder and longer than the next guy," he said. "That's the difference between good and great."

-- Excerpted by permission from Behind the Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey’s Greatest Coaches by Craig Custance. Copyright (c) 2017. Published by Triumph Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes. Follow Craig Custance on Twitter @CraigCustance. Learn more about Craig in this interview with ThePostGame.