Detroit’s greatest coach ever

Mike Babcock is the only hockey coach to win five national or international titles.

I heard myself say an interesting thing Friday.

(The concept is not exactly as weird as it may sound. I rarely surprise myself when I hear myself speak; I normally have the advantage of knowing what I’m going to say. But this time — Friday — I didn’t know that I thought Mike Babcock of the Red Wings is the best professional coach of any major sports team that I’ve observed in my many decades around town.)

But apparently I do. And I said so.

My wife and I were watching him being interviewed by a sports reporter on a local TV news show — and I detest almost every one of those people; not sure why, but it just feels good saying so — and I found myself marveling at Babcock’s seeming ability to measure his thoughts by his words and almost always sound interesting and fairly candid performing a job in which most people will employ a hundred words to say nothing at all.

Remember Sparky Anderson?

So I said to my wife “I think that guy’s the best coach I’ve ever seen in Detroit.” A statement of that nature takes in a lot of ground and a lot of individuals, of course, so I went to work to see if maybe I knew what I was talking about. In the sport of hockey, Babcock has taken on the near-impossible task of ’succeeding’ Scotty Bowman as Red Wings coach, and has actually made many, if not most, of the local fanatics put Scotty’s memory on their brain pan’s back burner — a tremendous achievement.

On paper, Scotty is the most successful coach in hockey history; I think most of us realize that. Is it ten Stanley Cups to his credit; three of them here in Detroit? We could look it up, but I’m more interested in Babcock. Yes, Bowman brought the Wings out of sheer desolation in the 1990s, and re-connected the franchise to the magical era of the 1950s. A great accomplishment, but one undertaken at the behest of a multi-millionaire carving his way through a no-spending cap league, in an era of rampant free agency, in an obvious and frenzied attempt to become less of a multi-millionaire.

That makes for great coaching. And thus were the names Yzerman, Lidstrom, Fedorov, Shanahan, Hasek, Hull et al. plugged into — for an extended period — the sacred spaces left by Lindsay, Howe, Kelly, Abel, Sawchuk, Pronovost and their et. al; positions left unfilled for almost five decades. Those early great Red Wings team weren’t coached so much by Tommy Ivan and Jimmy Skinner as they were bludgeoned into exhibiting and maintaining their awesome talent by Red Wings general manager/hit man Jack Adams.

There can be no doubt that Bowman was a singular coaching talent. Exactly how he formulated his style and motivated his players at successive successful franchises is still being studied by hockey analysts. His, well, talent for keeping his charges performing at a high-although-confused-level is legendary around the League. I well recall a meeting at Channel 50 in the 1990s with Red Wings TV analyst Mickey Redmond and one of the long-serving Red Wing stalwarts. “How was practice today?” asked The Mick of the Wings star. “I have to tell you, it was the best practice we ever had in all my time with the team,” the player replied. “It was really great.”

“Scotty try something new?” Redmond inquired.

“Scotty wasn’t there,” the guy answered.

In praising Babcock, I in no way intend to demean or question Bowman. His record does speak for itself, and if his ways were often confusing or unsettling to his players, surely there was a highly effective method to the madness. And Scotty is among the few titans of the game who never sold out Gordie Howe to jump aboard the Wayne Gretzky sales truck/bandwagon of the 1980s in the NHL’s fevered attempt to spread their game continent-wide. (Bowman, who ought to know, and does, pulls no punches — he consistently and correctly identifies Howe as the greatest talent to ever play the game, by far.)

In comparing Bowman and Babcock, it’s worth noting that Babcock has kept our beloved Wings atop their highly competitive league at a time when his owner — while still financially resourceful — has been unable to buy up talent as he once did; indeed he is restricted by league law. The NHL wouldn’t mind having a system whereby each team goes .500 every season, and everyone has an equal shot at the Stanley Cup come spring. It has been Babcock’s task, and his accomplishment, to defy the sort of communism that wishes to woo the whimsical fans of Los Angeles at the expense of us hockey lifers here in Detroit.

When I uttered my surprising and now-practically-legendary observation (since Friday, anyway) that Babcock is best coach I’ve seen in Detroit (winner of the Stanley Cup here, of Olympic gold and a hockey World Championship for Canada), I meant to take in all the ground about us.

Our beloved Tigers fielded possibly the best manager in their long history in the person of Sparky Anderson. While Sparky struck gold here in 1984, and gave us some memorable seasons at other junctures, he would be the first to bemoan the many ‘down’ years he suffered at the Tigers helm. How much a manager can be expected to pull from squads of inferior talent will be debated — hopefully — well past the collapse of the Mayan Calendar. I do rate the Sparkster way up there near the top of local coaching personality and accomplishment, and I recall a poll that was done among MLB general managers during Anderson’s tenure here. Asked what manager these execs would prefer to handle a highly talented team in a pennant chase, the overwhelming choice of the GMs was George Anderson. Nuff said.

Your beloved Lions (as long as Ford still owns the team) offer some interesting challenges to Babcock’s status. In my lifetime (which is dragging on ridiculously) the Honolulu Bluesters had a sure genius in Buddy Parker from 1951 to mid 1957. Parker, who had a mercurial temper and a taste for exotic brews, was the classic NFL coach before classic NFL coaches had been invented. He confronted, and disposed, of Paul Brown’s supposed dynasty teams in Cleveland every time the Lions faced them except once; and brought Detroit three NFL championships (the then-equivalent of today’s Super Bowl) in his short time here. (He had the bad habit of quitting wherever he went.)

The other legitimate Lions coach who worked wonders here in town was Joe Schmidt, the onetime linebacker nonpareil who edged the Lions close to Super Bowlness in the early 1970s before the interference of the Ford front office drove him from the field, an awful and inexcusable loss.

As for our beloved Pistons, my ignorance of most things basketbally leaves me sure that Chuck Daly, from all accounts, has been the shining knight of the Piston history that began here in the late 1950s. (I actually attended a game at the Olympia back then; don’t ask why.) I’m in no position to argue. The closest I ever came to analyzing or understanding pro basketball occurred in the 1970s when I watched then-coach Dick Vitale sleep all the way from Detroit to Los Angeles on a DC-10.

So I’ll let my astounding and confounding statement of Friday to my wife stand: Mike Babcock, who has employed basic teaching and motivating methods to reach and influence modern-day athletes, with really impressive success, is the best coach I’ve seen operate in this town. Long may he reign.

If you don’t like it, talk to my wife. See if you can shock and astound her.

And yourself.

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About Tom DeLisle

Tom DeLisle is a native Detroiter. The east side resident was a city desk reporter for the Detroit Free Press from 1967 to '71, and a member of the Free Press staff that won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for reporting the Detroit Riot. After serving as an Executive Assistant and speechwriter to Detroit Mayor Roman Gribbs from 1971-74, he worked as a television writer and producer in New York and Los Angeles, including a variety of bad sitcoms and comedy specials. He wrote monologues for guest host Richard Dawson for "The Tonight Show" from 1978 to '81. Returning to Detroit, he worked in television and radio with Dick Purtan and Tom Ryan, winning five Emmy Awards for local documentaries and comedies, including the 1981 primetime "Dick Purtan Comedy Special" and 1990's "Sparky Anderson Special" (with guest Pres. Richard Nixon) for WDIV-TV. He wrote for a variety of Tigers and Red Wings specials for Channel 50 in the 1990s and 2000s, including the "Stanley Celebrations," while appearing as "The Nervous Person" for three years on the '"Ray (Lane) and Mickey (Redmond) On Ice" specials at WKBD. He is currently completing a novel, and generally slowing down, because he's fairly tired.