THN in Sochi: Mike Babcock is controlling, pig-headed and stubborn. And he’s a genius

Ken Campbell
Canada

SOCHI – Mike Babcock can be the most controlling, stubborn and pig-headed person you’ll ever meet. And because of that, Canada is playing in the gold medal game Sunday against Sweden.

Throughout this Olympic tournament, Babcock has been receiving criticism from all corners, including this one, for everything from how he was deploying his players to the suffocating defensive style of play to having Chris Kunitz playing on the top line with Sidney Crosby. Through it all, Babcock remained defiant and confident and has never, ever waivered from his playbook.

And that is making him look like a genius. Canada played as close as you’ll ever see to a perfect game in Friday’s 1-0 win over USA in the Olympic semifinal, a game that featured a frenetic pace, all kinds of personal sacrifice and outstanding goaltending. It’s a credit to USA, and particularly to goaltender Jonathan Quick, that the Canadian team played as well as it did, yet only won the game by one goal.

Now it comes down to a showdown with Sweden, a team Babcock knows well through his association with the Detroit Red Wings. He calls the Swedish team “egoless” and he’s right, but he could also use the same adjective to describe his own group. Canada has some of the most talented, highly paid and decorated players on the planet, but when it comes to individual accolades, they just don’t care. What they cared about Friday was executing a game plan, which they did to perfection. They were first on almost every puck, they were impenetrable and they outskated an American team that was supposed to have a big edge in speed.

“We haven’t scored and no one seems to care,” Babcock said. “It doesn’t matter. As you watch these other athletes at the Olympic Games compete and they spend four years of their life…you know how important the Olympic Games are. It doesn’t matter about any individual success, it just matters about team.”

So Babcock and the Canadian team may feel as though they’re looking in the mirror when they cast a glance to the other side of the ice during warm-up on Sunday. Both teams have thrived on outstanding defensive play and goaltending. Both have high, high, high-end offensive talent and both represent countries that are social democracies. What more could you want?

“Obviously, I’m a huge fan of Swedes,” Babcock said. “It’s a beautiful country and they’re good people. There are really good men on that team who I’m a huge fan of. They play well, they play structured, they don’t give anything up for free, their power play is very dangerous. It should be fun.”

Babcock claims the team will find its scoring touch. It has one game to do it. And the funny thing is, it might not need to locate it. Ever. This is a team that could conceivably win a gold medal by scoring 15 goals in six games. This is a team that could conceivably win a gold medal with Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Rick Nash, Chris Kunitz and Patrick Marleau scoring the same number of goals as Roberto Luongo. All it has to do is win another 1-0 game on Sunday.

How many of us think that possibility is entirely feasible? Thought so.

All Canada has to do to against Sweden is what it did to the Americans. USA could not play the game that best suited its roster simply because Canada wouldn’t let it. It neutralized the American’s speed by staying with their players step for step, by making the right play almost all the time, by having the puck on their sticks for a remarkable amount of time. And by getting one single goal off a shot-pass deflection. Both Babcock and USA coach Dan Bylsma remarked after the game that there were a ton of chances that were better than the only goal of the game.

Crosby had a lot of those chances. In fact, he and his Pittsburgh teammate Kunitz had arguably the best zero-point effort in the history of hockey, along with linemate Patrice Bergeron. Their ability to trap loose pucks allowed goalie Carey Price to simply concentrate on stopping the puck. No worries about having to direct it out of danger into the corner. If Price stopped the first one, as he did while being at his technical best, there almost never was going to be a second one.

“They were right there to clean up any of the messes I left,” Price said.

And in doing so, they managed to keep their record unblemished and their house completely in order going into what will be one of the biggest parties of their lives.