Sunday, 21 February 2021

Full Circle

1994 was the last time Mike Babcock walked the halls of arenas in Canada West hockey. He coached the Lethbridge Pronghorns in one of the most surprising seasons of Canadian university men's hockey as they went 34–11–3 en route to shocking the nation by hoisting the CIS National Men's Hockey Championship trophy in the program's eleventh season which had never seen it finish above .500 in any season previous. They were ranked first-overall nationally in December 1993 after amassing a 13-3-0 record in conference play, raising eyebrows from many who only knew of Lethbridge as a program where opponents worked on special teams. A few months later, after defeating UBC and Calgary in the Canada West playoffs, these Pronghorns embraced destiny and downed Acadia in the CIS semifinal before meeting Guelph at Maple Leaf Gardens for the final. The rest, as they say, is history following a 5-2 victory for the University of Lethbridge.

You may be wondering why I'm waxing poetic about a team that no longer exists and a coach whose mere existence in the hockey world makes people cringe, but it was announced on Saturday afternoon with an official release later in the day that Mike Babcock, Olympic gold medal-winning and Stanley Cup-winning head coach, would be taking over the head coaching duties for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men's hockey team on a volunteer capacity for two seasons once current head coach Dave Adolph officially steps aside for retirement on May 1.

As I wrote the above paragraph, I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, Canada West and Canadian university hockey can certainly use a celebrity boost in a big way when it comes to attracting media attention outside the walls of the schools' respective athletic communications people. Mike Babcock brings that celebrity factor in a big way, similar to how Hayley Wickenheiser did for the women's game when she joined the University of Calgary Dinos. Mainstream media paid attention to what these stars did, and this will certainly help Canada West and the Canadian university game gain some additional eyes from those who control the amplifiers.

On the other hand, though, I'm not really excited to see the "Mike Babcock Redemption Tour" ride through Western Canada as the long-time coach looks to repair his image following some high-profile gaffes at the NHL level. His interview with Pierre Lebrun wasn't the best when it came to showing remorse for his actions that ultimately led to his demise in Toronto with the Maple Leafs, and many people questioned how a guy whose lustre was so tarnished over his alleged actions could land a job with NBC Sports or a volunteer consultant coaching position with the University of Vermont considering what people knew.

I know people reading this article right now are polarized on either side due to what they know about Babcock. Yes, his list of accomplishments are impressive and it's hard to ignore those credentials when Mike Babcock expresses an interest in coaching his hometown team. However, his means of earning those accomplishments raises eyebrows and casts a dark cloud over some of the accolades he's reaped. People don't forget those missteps, particularly when they affected many players, so the decision by the University of Saskatchewan to hire Babcock hopefully came with some in-depth vetting that went beyond the trophy case.

By coming full circle back to Canada West hockey and to a program like the Huskies, which has seen enormous success without a U SPORTS national championship banner, there's an expectation that Babcock will recreate the magic he brought in 1994. I can't say that will happen due to the way the game has changed over the last 27 years, but there will still be an expectation from the players and the coaching staff every time they step on the ice: bring your best and work your hardest. The Huskies have never been short on talent, but I'm going to assume they'll be expected to give every last breath they have for sixty minutes so they don't suffer another quarterfinals loss to a lesser team like they did against the Western Mustangs in Halifax in 2020. Anything less wouldn't be acceptable under Mike Babcock's watch.

In 2017 before the Leafs played the Washington Capitals in the opening round of the NHL playoffs, Sports Illustrated's Alex Prewitt filed a great story about Mike Babcock's time with the Lethbridge Pronghorns. It's a fantastic write-up about the 1993-94 year that shocked the Canadian university hockey landscape, but one line stands out from that entire story to me, and it's how Mike Babcock described his coaching efforts that season with the Pronghorns: "'The best job I've ever done,' he says. 'By far. Not even close.'"

The Huskies are hoping that line gets updated for the 2021-22 season when they take the ice, but it might also be a line that Mike Babcock can use if he seeks future NHL coaching positions. If he leads the Saskatchewan Huskies to a national championship banner without any player or school complaints of questionable conduct, that's a step in the right direction on that "Mike Babcock Redemption Tour" for his professional career. If he grants interviews, makes himself part of the university hockey community, and goes out of his way to help the players become better people and the best students they can be, that's a big step in the right direction as well.

There's a belief in sports that winning quiets the complainers and everyone's happy when things are going well. There's some truth to that statement, but it's a little different when it comes to Mike Babcock's past transgressions. There will still be microscopes following his every move until he can earn the benefit of the doubt again, but he also deserves a shot at establishing his presence with the program as well.

On top of that, with media hovering over every practice and game where Mike Babcock is early in the 2021-22 season, he can do wonders for the University of Saskatchewan and Canadian university hockey by leading the Huskies successfully while talking up how good the hockey is. After all, he helped save the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns once by showing everyone "[t]he best job I've ever done" with that national championship run in 1994.

In this case in 2021, he can help the Canadian university game as a whole and help himself if he can conjure the same magic while standing behind the bench for his hometown university team.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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