“These are my best friends in the world,” Mike Babcock said, looking down at an old picture of the 1986-87 Redmen hockey team. “We’ve been together for a long, long time and we still get together all the time.”
Being the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs is an exhausting job. The 53 year-old two-time Olympic gold medalist and Stanley Cup Champion is under constant scrutiny in arguably the most hockey-obsessed city in the world. Despite the big stage and the persistent strain, he has never forgotten his McGill roots.
“I can’t tell you how special this place is,” Babcock said.
His journey to hockey immortality started long before McGill. Unlike so many young Canadians, he wasn’t born with a hockey stick in his hands or pads on his legs.
“I never started playing hockey until I was eight,” Babcock said. “I lived in the Northwest Territories and we didn’t have a skating rink. I had my own dog team and a trap line when I was a little kid, but no hockey. Then I moved to Lynn Lake, Manitoba, where all the other kids played hockey, so I started playing hockey and it just went from there.”
In Lynn Lake, Babcock fell in love with the sport and dreamt of one day skating around the rink with the Stanley Cup hoisted high above his head.
“I wanted to play in the National Hockey League, but wasn’t good enough and ended up at McGill,” Babcock said. “I had been to college at the University of Saskatchewan, [then] I went back to Major Junior [Hockey, because] I thought I could be a pro, but I didn’t get signed that year, [so] I came to McGill.”
It was during Babcock’s time with the Redmen that he discovered a love for academics. He was never a good student growing up, but applied himself at McGill and began to thrive off the ice.
“I thought I was going to stay at McGill forever, get my PhD, and teach here,” Babcock said. “[Then] I took a year off and lost my way.”
In that year, Babcock travelled overseas where he became a player-coach for the Whitley Warriors in northeast England. That job was the beginning of what would become one of the most illustrious coaching careers in modern hockey history.
“That kind of got me involved a little and it just went from there,” Babcock said. “[When] I got my job at Red Deer College, my first real job, I thought it was the greatest job in the world.”
Babcock has considered every job he has ever held to be the greatest job in the world and has never taken any position for granted. Now in Toronto, Babcock recognizes the pressure that comes with being the head coach of the Maple Leafs.
“Montreal people aren’t going to want to hear this, but Toronto is the hockey Mecca of the world,” Babcock said. “But the team is an original six team that lost it’s lustre and needs to be restored to its rightful place in the league and that’s our job.”
Bringing Toronto its first Stanley Cup since 1967 will be no easy task for Babcock. However, there’s nobody better qualified to take on the challenge. He brought a Stanley Cup to Detroit while winning more playoff and regular season games than any other team in the league during his decade-long tenure with the Red Wings. On the world stage, he led the Canadian men’s national hockey team to Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014. And, despite his impressive résumé, Babcock is always looking for ways to improve—a mindset he attributes to his time with the Redmen.
“If you want to be the best of the best, you have to evolve,” Babcock said. “If you embrace lifelong learning, which […] you learn at McGill, […] you’re going to change every day of your life [….] I plan on getting better every single day until I’m no longer here.”
Favourite Player: Bobby Orr
Favourite McGill Class: Nutrition
Pre-game rituals: I do the same things over and over again, it keeps me feeling warm and cuddly.
Stanley Cup or Gold Medal: What I suggest is you just win both and you don’t have to decide.