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Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock reaches major NHL milestone

From The Globe and Mail – James Mirtle

When Scotty Bowman first met Mike Babcock, he was the 37-year-old coach of the minor-league Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, right out of successful run as a junior coach.

The Detroit Red Wings had several prospects playing in Cincinnati – Jiri Fischer, Sean Avery – in 2000-01 and, as was his habit, Coach Bowman liked to check in on them by calling their coach.

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Babcock impressed the legend right away.

“Confident,” Bowman said of his first impression. “Very confident. Mike was always on target. He was lively, interesting to speak to. He gave me good, in-depth reports on players.”

A little more than 15 years later, Babcock joined Bowman in an ultra-exclusive club. Babcock coached his 1,000th NHL game on Thursday night – as his Toronto Maple Leafs played the visiting New Jersey Devils – making him one of only 25 men to reach that milestone.

Bowman leads that group with an unthinkable 2,141 games, but he emphasized how special 1,000 games is. He was happy to see Arizona’s Dave Tippett get there earlier this week and knows others – such as John Tortorella in Columbus and Peter Laviolette in Nashville – are getting close.

It’s not an easy number to hit, Bowman explained, because just getting to the NHL can take decades.

Then you’re often hired by a struggling team – and have to survive.

“Some guys rocket right to the top,” Bowman said. “Mike didn’t. He’s been a lot of places.”

Babcock has been reflecting on that journey a lot this week, in the lead-up to hitting the 1,000 mark. At 22, he believed he would eventually be a professor at McGill University, after serving as the captain of its hockey team and loving campus life.

Then he spent one season in Whitley Bay, England – where he had 132 points in 36 games – as a player and assistant coach.

Babcock had no idea he had stumbled into his career, which started in earnest the next season as the head coach of the Red Deer College Kings. He was 25 and, more than anything, looking for a party.

“I just wanted to go to the Calgary Stampede and applying to the job at Red Deer College gave me a free way to the Stampede,” Babcock said. “I lost my way, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Babcock’s rise from there was slow and steady. He had some outstanding teams with Spokane in the WHL and won world junior gold in 1997. He also impressed a lot of people along the way with his work ethic and love of both teaching and hockey, something that Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill (now the GM of the Dallas Stars) noted during the Cincinnati days.

When Babcock took an underdog Anaheim team to within one game of the Stanley Cup in his first NHL season in 2003, it cemented his status as a rising star.

Babcock hits the 1,000-game mark with the second-highest win total (545 before Thursday night’s game) in NHL history. It’s fitting that Bowman, his early mentor, is the only man ahead of him (598) given their success together in Detroit. (Bowman was an adviser with the Red Wings in 2008 when they won the Stanley Cup.)

Bowman said what people don’t see of Babcock, given his sometimes stern persona in the media, is how positive he is. Even in losing skids and tough times – which the rebuilding Leafs are currently mired in – he has a remarkable ability to focus on what needs to be done.

Bowman believes that makes Babcock a perfect fit for Toronto.

“He’s such a good teacher,” Bowman said. “He likes it. I’ve never seen him really negative, which is hard to do when you’re coaching because you have a lot of days where you’re not happy with the last game. He’s able to pick himself up and keep going. I think this is probably the best situation for him. It’s a young group. The team’s got a lot of resources and is trying to establish itself. It’s got a long way to go.”

“He treats every day like it’s a chance to get better,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly explained. “That goes a long way with a coach. He takes no days off. He’s always going. We love that.”

Bowman and Babcock remain in touch, although the Leafs coach’s calls have been less frequent this year, given how laborious his task has been.

The pair, however, were able to catch up during Hall of Fame weekend in November. The Leafs had two wins in their first 14 games at that point, and Bowman had fun with his old friend’s new-found predicament.

“I said ‘Mike when you took the job with Toronto, I thought you were absolutely nuts,’” Bowman said. “‘That’s life and death, trying to resurrect a team like that, even with the contract. But this morning, when I looked out my [hotel] window, some guy was washing a window on the 55th floor. So maybe coaching the Leafs is not life and death?’

“He got a good kick out of it. I always find when I talk to him he’s always laughing. He’s a pretty happy guy.”

As for Babcock joining him in the 2,000-games-coached club, Bowman won’t bet against it.

“If he wants to,” Bowman said. “He’s a pretty healthy guy. And Mike doesn’t have many idle moments.”

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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