Babcock learns from the master

By CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency


Canadian men's hockey assistant coach Jacques Lemaire yells orders from the bench during the first period against Switzerland at GM Place in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010. (ANDRE FORGET/QMI Agency)

VANCOUVER - In a rare quiet moment, they sat in the sun the other day, the student and the mentor in a conversation that meandered a bit, but never far from what connects them, from the passion for hockey that binds them.

Mike Babcock is the boss now, the head coach of Team Canada, but he still looks up to Jacques Lemaire, one of the few — maybe the only one— of Lemaire’s peers who has managed to get close to the 64-year-old.

It is remarkable that Lemaire, one of the most complete two-way players in his Hall of Fame career and also a Stanley Cup champion as a coach, has never before been a part of Team Canada.

But he is clearly enjoying this chance to work on the world stage, the best players in the game at his disposal, debating, discussing and creating ideas with Babcock and fellow coaches Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock.

“There’s a lot of ideas,” Lemaire said, “a lot of ideas.”

The connection with Babcock, 47, is the reason Lemaire is finally here.

Babcock has long been an admirer, following Lemaire’s career in Montreal while Babcock was attending McGill University. While Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman put the coaching staff together, Babcock endorsed the selections and has been relishing the opportunity to further pick Lemaire’s brain.

While he was coach of what were then the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Babcock sought out Lemaire whenever he could. He sent him questions by e-mail, found him before their games. Lemaire recognized the respect he was being paid.

Lemaire does not often open the heavy door to the room where he keeps his ideas and concepts, culled, both good and bad, from years playing for men like Toe Blake — “I don’t remember anything Toe Blake said.” — and Scotty Bowman — “Some guys, they say, ‘you’ve got some Scotty in you.’ And I always say I won’t do what he’s doing.”

“Maybe it’s a more simple (approach) to coaching. And being a player, I remember as a player when the coach was talking, I didn’t listen to him,” Lemaire said. “You listen when, you know, you feel it’s really important.”

Did he listen to Bowman?

“Let’s say I remember,” said Lemaire.

Bowman, who’s here watching the Games, said he long ago saw Lemaire’s potential to be a coach.

“He was a real heady player and he picked up on things,” Bowman said. “He would say after a practice or game, ‘we weren’t very good,’ and make some keen observations. He was very studious and a hell of a defensive player. I coached him in junior and he was a whirlwind scorer. He went up to the NHL and made himself into a great two-way player.”

Babcock is learning from Lemaire now.

“We were sitting in the sun and I don’t know how many questions I asked him, about his career, about how much longer he would coach. He’s a fantastic man who understands the game,” Babcock said.

“He comes from the old school where he doesn’t share anything. I’ve been one of the few who have been blessed enough to have a relationship with him and that helped me a lot when I was in Anaheim. We’ve built the relationship over time. I just think he’s a smart, smart hockey man. He’s got unbelievable energy. He’s won more Stanley Cup than just about anybody.

“In pressure situations, knowledge and preparation and experience defeat fear and he has all those things.”

For Lemaire, it’s clear Babcock is a large reason why he’s in Vancouver. The protege followed his career, liked his style, adopted some of his ideas.

In fact, Babcock makes no secret of the fact he flat out stole Lemaire’s concept for penalty killing after talking to Lemaire at the Olympic orientation camp in August.

“I know he did. I look at his team and they’re doing exactly what we’re doing,” Lemaire said. “Again, he’s finding other ways of doing things. He’s got his own way, which is very different than mine.”

After years on the outside at events like this, Lemaire is now in the middle of it. He’s up at 7 a.m. each day, begins meetings an hour later and doesn’t stop until he goes to sleep.

“Being with all these great players, these great athletes,” he said, “I can’t stop looking at them and realizing I’m behind the bench and a part of this.”

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

POLL