TOP COP: Wings coach sculpts team for new NHL
He took over a team that was set in its ways, and now Mike Babcock has earned grudging respect from his players as the Red Wings' leader
Perceptions die slowly. But if Mike Babcock has his way, one lingering label on the Red Wings is about to expire, even if he has to hammer it to death.
The Wings skate into the second round tonight against San Jose reinforced by success, emboldened by their boldness. They're here because they're a very good team that did what a top seed is supposed to do, wear out Calgary.
They're also here because Babcock, by hook and by book, got them to change, in minor ways and noticeable ways. The transition from a smooth-skating squad of "sweeties," as Don Cherry cheerfully tagged them before the playoffs, to a team built on relentless, determined force officially is under way.
Oh, it will get much tougher against San Jose. And no, we're not suddenly branding the Wings a band of bloody marauders. We're saying the perception that they despise physical play is dying. We're saying they dished out plenty against Calgary, and in the process, began to assume the image of their ultra-intense coach.
True statement: This has been Babcock's team for two years.
Truer statement: This really became Babcock's team this season, cemented by the Wings' fearless effort against Calgary.
"I don't know if that (soft) label is gone and I don't care," Babcock said. "I think a lot of times, people talk about stuff they know nothing about -- even the so-called experts who never see us play. Only time will tell, right?
"I know we've been getting better at playing a certain way. We're way better than we were last year. We think we've got something here, but we've also got to prove it every day. I want us to be physically determined. That's what I believe sport is about and life is about."Changing with the times
The way the Wings dominated the Flames in shots, the way they took hits and hit back, they looked like a team eager to take command. Makes sense. Babcock is a tireless coach who demands they take command.
His grasp has grown, and questions about his job security are gone, if they ever really existed. General manager Ken Holland flatly said "no" when I asked if Babcock was on the infamous hot seat, especially if he had incurred two straight first-round ousters.
Through a tricky transition, Babcock has done an excellent job, although he swats away plaudits, preferring to credit his players. He also knows that in Detroit, you're only as good as your last playoff series.
"Is there pressure to be successful here? Yes," he said, measuring his words. "But there's no better job in hockey than this. So when I leave here, they're gonna have to kick me out the door. And that isn't going to be anytime soon, I can tell you that."
He stared for several seconds. The man can stare, which is good, because he took over a team probably in need of a staredown.
There was tension when Babcock replaced the eminently likable Dave Lewis, and it was natural. The Wings were an experienced group that did things one way for a long time and won a ton of games doing it.
But the NHL changed, and under the salary cap, the Wings couldn't out-talent and out-skate the opposition. So here came Mr. Steely Glare, nit-picking at everything, putting less emphasis on precision passing and puck possession and more on defensive responsibility and relentless forechecking.
Babcock didn't change everything because with Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, the Wings are still highly skilled. But he added a grinding element, and after the Wings were bounced by Edmonton last year, there was no reason for anyone to resist.
"I don't think it was resistance at first," Lidstrom said Wednesday. "I think it was just adapting to a new style. He talks every day about wanting guys driving to the net, getting the puck to the net, instead of looking for that extra pass or that pretty pass."
Labels have lag times, so Calgary attacked and assumed the Wings would buckle. Jarome Iginla was driven to frustration and buffoonery, and by the end, the Flames looked silly trying to keep up.
The Wings answered the bell. The bell grows louder against the Sharks, the biggest team in the league. Forwards Joe Thornton, Bill Guerin, Milan Michalek and others surely will attempt to pound away. With its injuries -- Tomas Holmstrom and Brett Ledba are out for Game 1 -- Detroit might not even be the favorite in the series (for the record, I'll take the Wings in seven).
The Wings must be ready to pound back. That's their mandate, carried out by the new (Todd Bertuzzi, Kyle Calder), the young (Dan Cleary, Johan Franzen), and the veterans.
"To be honest, we were challenged by the critics throughout the hockey world, and I think we answered," said the irascible Cleary, one of the Wings' best forwards in the first round. "Our team doesn't drop the gloves a lot but we'll get in your face and look you eye to eye and not back down one bit. We'll challenge you physically and we'll skate and we'll hit. Coach doesn't let us off the hook for anything."Semihappy family
That's why the transition at times was, ahem, a little uncomfortable. The always-loquacious Brett Hull said on NBC that Datsyuk wouldn't stay with the Wings because of his dislike for Babcock's style. A week later, Datsyuk signed a seven-year deal.
Dominik Hasek, who has been brilliant, chuckled when asked about his coach. Babcock publicly called out his goalie during the season for embellishing to draw a penalty. Hasek smiled as he described Babcock's personality as "very interesting."
Chris Chelios has been around long enough to know how to handle questions about the coach.
"I would call him 'structured,'" Chelios said. "I don't know if that's the right word but I'll leave it at that so he doesn't get mad at me."
Chelios laughed. I'm not sure he was joking.
Babcock's style doesn't allow for much levity but it has worked. It pushed unheralded Anaheim to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003, after the Ducks swept the Wings in the first round. It helped push the Wings to consecutive 100-point regular seasons and top seeds in the West.
The Wings certainly haven't proven themselves great yet but they do have a new-found grrr about them. In playoff hockey, everyone knows the grrr's -- grittier, greasier, grimier.
"I think they're tougher than they're given credit for," San Jose's Guerin said. "They just show it in different ways."
They show it in increasingly obvious ways, in ways that fit the plan of their coach. If Babcock and his team keep pushing this hard, who knows how many old perceptions might wither, and new ones might grow.
You can reach Bob Wojnowski at email@example.com