Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mysterious Babcock Knows Just What to Do

Of all the coaches in all of the four major sports, you'd have better luck putting a sawbuck down on "00" on the roulette wheel than be able to accurately guess what a hockey coach is thinking.

The other coaches don't hide their feelings or thoughts so well.

You know what's running through the mind of the football coach.

In fact, they make it easy for you to guess.

Clutching those laminated sheets of plays, color coded for every possible situation, it doesn't take a soothsayer to surmise what the football coach is thinking on third down and six.

The basketball coach is easy to profile, because he's a raving lunatic, stomping his wing tip shoes on the floor, his face looking like he just drank sour milk.

His thoughts are easy to guess, and can be summed up in three letters, courtesy of the text messaging age.


The baseball manager sits in his dugout, chews sunflower seeds, and you don't have to be the Amazing Kreskin to figure him out, either.

Should I hit and run? Is it time to pull my pitcher out of the game? How come we can't move the runner from second to third with nobody out?

Good luck mentally undressing the hockey coach.

I've been watching the sport for 41 years and I still don't really know what those guys are thinking behind the bench.

They all have the same looks on their faces, like they're trying to remember whether they turned the iron off at home.

They look up at the scoreboard a lot, which is funny, because you don't need a calculator to keep track of a hockey score, like you do in basketball.

Either that, or they're the most obsessed clock watchers you'll ever meet, like they're afraid they're going to be late for a plane.

Scotty Bowman, Hall of Famer, never changed his expression once in the nine years I watched him coach the Red Wings. If you had to rely on Scotty's face to tell whether the Red Wings were winning or losing, you were in trouble.

He would have made a hell of a poker player.

Mike Babcock, coaching today's Red Wings, doesn't change much either, facially. His look is more of confusion mixed with a mild headache. He looks up at the scoreboard a lot, too.

But don't you dare think that Babcock doesn't know what to say, or when to say it.

Babcock's brilliance as the best coach in the NHL was on full display this past week.

His team, so rich in talent and rarely in need of their coach's size ten boot delivered to their pants, was in the throes of a two-week stretch of un-Red Wing-like play.

Turnovers. Bad special teams. The startling inability to win at home consistently. Suspect goaltending, even more suspect play in the defensive zone.

Very un-Red Wing-like.

Babcock, after last Wednesday's 4-1 shellacking at home at the hands of the Nashville Predators---the Preds' second win over the Red Wings in five days---had seen enough.

After that game, Babcock used the word "unacceptable" a lot in describing his team's play. He questioned his players' work ethic. He not only had no problem with the fans' booing the Red Wings off the ice, he wanted to join in, during the post-game meeting with the press.

Babcock then did something he's rarely needed to do since arriving in Detroit in 2005: he delivered his size ten shoe square between the players' back pockets.

Babcock skated the Red Wings hard Thursday during practice, gathered them together Friday morning in Boston for a talking to, then waited to see how they'd respond that night against the high-flying Bruins.

The Red Wings, themselves disgusted with their subpar play, stepped onto the ice at the TD Garden and destroyed the Bruins in front of their home fans, 6-1.

Less than 48 hours later, in Detroit, engaging in one of those rare and glorious home-and-home series with an Original Six team, the Red Wings took care of the Bruins again, 4-2.

Those two games should be Exhibits A and B if you ever needed to make a case before the judge as to why Mike Babcock is peerless as an NHL coach.

The Red Wings are filled with veteran leadership, but even the vets need an old-fashioned butt kicking from time to time.

Babcock keeps this method in a glass case at Joe Louis Arena, labeled, "Break in case of emergency."

It worked, perfectly.

Don't be surprised if the Red Wings continue their roll, especially with Brad Stuart and Mike Modano close to returning to an already deep lineup.

We may not be able to figure out what Mike Babcock is thinking on a nightly basis.

What shouldn't be a mystery, is why he's such a damn good coach.

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