Wings coach finds silver lining

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:09 AM ET

DETROIT -- The first change Mike Babcock noticed about going from NHL champion to Game 7 loser was in the wildlife at his cottage in northern Saskatchewan.

The music, clinking glasses and boisterous talk from a summer-long celebration in 2008 gave way to lapping water, bird calls and other natural sounds of a lakeside retreat. If you wanted to hold a cup, it meant black coffee, not champagne.

"The parties at my place didn't go on day and night for months on end," Babcock said with a laugh. "People actually left. Some people didn't even drop by, which was kind of nice."

Not that the Red Wings coach was happy his team faltered so close to a second title in a row, which would have made him the league's first back-to-back Cup coach since Scotty Bowman. Gutted so near the finish line would keep gnawing away at another man for months afterward, but a small part of Babcock doesn't envy the Pittsburgh Penguins right now.

"The biggest difference, you're much more exhausted when you win," he said. "Now that's just my experience. That doesn't mean that's true, the point being it (the Cup) is just a party magnet. You want to celebrate it with every body. It's been the greatest ride of your life and you want to share it. I don't doubt Pittsburgh did that. They can tell you anything they want.

"I told my players all year we're not tired, yet I knew we were exhausted. My point is the emotional well is only so deep, you've got to recharge. I'm optimistic we've had that opportunity."

The loss made Babcock draw on his analytical powers. Coupled with the notes he exchanged with fellow coaches Lindy Ruff, Jacques Lemaire and Ken Hitchcock at the Canadian Olympic camp, it became an off-season of vital professional development.

"You're stretched, you were hit with a bunch of new ideas. So I thought that was a fantastic summer."

Babcock finished last year with the NHL's oldest team, but the average age will drop now that Motown Methuselah Chris Chelios was not offered a contract at age 47. Babcock and general manager Ken Holland are forecasting as many as seven new players this season.

"We hope some of the kids can take the minutes off the old guys," Holland said of cutting Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk's ice time by four minutes a night if possible. "We've played a lot of hockey the past three years and you worry that your core group will run out of gas."

Not a problem for 36-year-old Kirk Maltby, who was too miserable to talk to anyone for weeks after the final game. He was counting the days until camp, but agreed with Babcock that a second summer of whooping it up, on top of next week's trip to Sweden to open the season and a compressed schedule before the Olympics, could have meant a major hangover by mid-October.

"Well, you don't have to worry about planning your parades," Maltby said. "Not that you don't want to, but it definitely allows you to be more focused and train the way you want to."

Now a year-round Detroiter, Maltby found the city in a very forgiving mood after the Wings' run took the collective mind off the auto industry crash for a couple of months.

"At the grocery store, the restaurant, the golf course or just walking around the mall, everyone was great," Maltby said.

"Maybe the odd person will be blunt, but almost every one treated it as if we did win, that we had nothing to be ashamed of."

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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