by Howie Stalwick

If Mike Babcock had any doubts he'd finally hit the big time, all doubts were erased when he saw that his new hockey team has a dressing room and an undressing room.

Strange but true tales of life in the National Hockey League: The Anaheim Mighty Ducks actually have one room where players undress after games, and another where they slip into their street clothes. Wouldn't want a millionaire goalie having his suit coat brush up against a sweaty elbow pad, you know. "It is," sums up Anaheim defenseman Kurt Sauer, "pretty nice."

"Pretty nice" is a fitting description for Babcock's first season in the NHL. The winningest coach in Spokane Chiefs history, just three years removed from 16-hour bus rides in the Western Hockey League, Babcock has helped the Mighty Ducks -- including Sauer and left wing Kevin Sawyer, both of whom played for Babcock in Spokane -- develop into one of the NHL's surprise teams this winter.

"The biggest thing that stands out for me about Mike is that it's his first year in the NHL, and he never misses a step," Sawyer said after a recent Ducks victory in the gorgeous Arrowhead Pond arena in Anaheim. "He's so confident. He never shows any doubt about himself."

"He's fun to play for," says Sauer, a first-year pro signed at Babcock's urging after Sauer completed his junior eligibility last season in Spokane. "He's always studying film. All the coaches, sometimes they leave the hotel for the rink for morning practices (on game days on the road), and I don't know if they ever get back to the hotel. They work hard."

Hard work is a trait Babcock has preached to others and displayed himself since growing up on the frozen prairies of Saskatchewan in central Canada. A miner's son, Babcock dreamed of playing in the NHL -- "I thought I'd be a player, for sure'' -- but never got past the WHL.

As a player, that is. As a coach, Babcock has enjoyed great success virtually everywhere, from the English pro leagues to the Canadian college ranks to the North American major junior level to the pro minor leagues and, now, the NHL. The Mighty Ducks have surprised most "experts" by making a determined run at a playoff berth, and the club record of 36 victories seems likely to fall.

"It's no different than coaching the Spokane Chiefs in that you're dealing with overachievers and guys who want to do well," Babcock says. "You're trying to develop an organization so it was like it was in Spokane, with a 'We're going to win every night' attitude. We've got a ways to go in that area."

Give the man time. The Mighty Ducks, you must understand, have experienced just three winning seasons in their 10-year history. Only twice have the Ducks reached the playoffs, and only once has the team finished more than one game above .500 (36-33-13 in 1996-97).

Contrast that with Babcock's history of success. He guided Canada to the world junior (under-20) title in 1997, won a Canadian university championship at Lethbridge (Alberta) in 1994 and coached the Canadian junior college silver medalists at Red Deer (Alberta) in 1989. He coached Spokane's only two division champions in 1995-96 and 1999-2000, set club records with 50 wins and 104 points in 1995-96, led the Chiefs to the WHL finals in 1996 and 2000 and coached the Chiefs in the Memorial Cup (North America's major junior championship tournament) in 1998.

"I want," Babcock says with his standard ferocity, "to be the best."

Babcock, 39, said he first gave serious thought to coaching in the NHL when he found success in Spokane. After six years with the Chiefs, he joined the Anaheim organization in 2000-01 as head coach of the Ducks' No. 1 farm club at Cincinnati in the American Hockey League. Two playoff runs later, he replaced Bryan Murray as Anaheim's coach when the latter was named general manager after last season.

"It's a riot," Babcock says of his new job. "The pressure's no different than with Spokane or the University of Lethbridge or Red Deer College or Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan, where he first coached in the WHL at age 28). "The pressure comes from within. If you have the will to win, what can be more pressure than what you put on yourself?"

He scoffs at the idea that he first began preparing in earnest for an NHL coaching job when he was hired by Anaheim last spring. "I've been getting ready for this for 16 years," says Babcock, who routinely taped and studied four NHL telecasts per night when coaching in Spokane. "I've always been a student of the game. I'm always studying games.

"I went to tons of (NHL) games in Columbus when I was coaching in Cincinnati. Columbus was an hour and 15 minutes from my home. I went there and watched every game I could."

Obviously, all the preparation and dedication and hard work has paid off for Babcock, whom Sawyer calls "the most intense person I've ever met." Babcock has never stopped raving about his living and coaching experiences in Spokane -- he gushes with praise for team owner Bobby Brett and general manager Tim Speltz -- but he has gone on to bigger and better things.

"I think things have gone really well so far this season," Babcock says. "But in saying that, we're in the day-to-day winning business. Doing it over the long haul is the real test."

With all due respect, Coach, surviving 16-hour bus trips on ice-slickened Canadian highways in the dead of winter was the real test. Compared to that, winning a Stanley Cup, your ultimate goal, is just icing on the puck.

Publication date: 02/20/03

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