SOCHI, Russia — “Does anybody know who won the scoring race? Does anybody care? Does anybody know who won the gold medal?”
And with that, Mike Babcock stood up and exited the press conference, once again the head coach of the Olympic champs.
Sure, it would’ve been cooler if he’d dropped the mic before leaving, but it was still a pretty great exit, so far as exits from press conferences go.
The only performance more impressive might have been the one his Team Canada gave here in Sochi. Six games. Six wins. The first team to go undefeated at the Olympics since the 1984 Soviets in Sarajevo.
And while Canada, with all that great offensive talent on its roster, only scored 17 times, it only allowed three. All. Tournament. Long.
On top of that, in the two games that mattered most, against the toughest competition, Canada didn’t surrender a single goal. It was a 1-0 win over the United States in Friday’s semifinals, and a 3-0 suffocation of Sweden in Sunday’s final.
Just don’t tell Babcock he played a “defensive” system. Because he doesn’t like that.
“When you talk about great defense, sometimes we get confused,” he said. “Great defense means you play defense fast and you have the puck all the time. We’re always on offense.
“Don’t get confused. We out-chanced these teams big time; we didn’t score. We were a great offensive team. That’s how we coached. That’s what we expected. That’s what we got. We didn’t ask guys to back up.”
Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman concurred.
“It wasn’t strictly playing defense,” he said. “We weren’t sitting in a shell. Part of our defense was being aggressive. Forechecking. Pressuring. Closing gaps. Not letting them get the red line, or get our blue line.”
You may recall a short time ago when Canada’s scoring ability was being called into question. Like after it only managed three goals versus minnow Norway. Or, after it escaped Finland with a 2-1 overtime win. Or, after another one-goal game versus Latvia in the quarterfinals, a 2-1 win that required a late tally from defenseman Shea Weber.
“No matter how hard people were on us that we weren’t scoring goals, we wanted to stick to our game and play hard defensively,” said Weber, crediting Babcock for maintaining the team’s belief in what it was doing.
“He just portrayed the message that’s it going to come. Defense wins championships. You’ve got to shut the other team’s top guys down and get timely scoring and you’re going to win.”
Meanwhile, forward Patrick Sharp praised Babcock for, not only a great game plan, but also infusing some timely good humor.
“He was one of the guys who was loose in the locker room, kept guys on their toes,” said Sharp.
Forward Jonathan Toews, who scored the game-winner versus Sweden, saw that too, and thought Babcock’s demeanor was an important contributor to the team’s success.
“I think that’s a big part of playing well is being loose and confident,” he said. “He wants that and I don’t think he ever overreacts to any situation. He’s always pretty calm on the bench. If you do something wrong, he lets you know right away, and he’s very detailed and to the point.”
Toews also lauded the coaching staff for getting buy-in from all the players, even the superstar offensive types who may have been prone to veering from the plan, if they weren’t convinced otherwise.
“As soon as we didn’t have possession (of the puck), we were working so hard to get it back,” he said. “We had some skilled, skilled forwards and d-men, but everyone was committed to playing a defensive game, and we created offense off it.”
Of course, according to forward Chris Kunitz, there wasn’t much choice but to obey the coaching staff’s rule. Not on a team as deep as Canada.
“They came here, gave you the information, expected you to understand it, and go on the ice and duplicate it,” he said. “And if you weren’t doing that, there was someone else going to be able to take your job.”
Now, let’s face it, Babcock had more great players to deploy than any coach at these Games, and he was more than willing to admit that.
“We had a good team,” he said, slightly understating the fact.
If Dan Bylsma and Zinetula Bilyaletdinov had the roster of Team Canada, maybe it would be one of them who made all the right moves, instead of all the wrong ones, apparently.
Still, coaching Canada has its own challenges. Gold as the only option. A cadre of stars, many of whom need to be used like role players, and need to accept that.
Two Olympics in a row now, Babcock has gotten the job done.
“It started in the summer when we went in there and we played ball hockey,” said Weber. “Everyone laughed at us. We went over systems.
“I think there might be a lot of teams that are going to try ball hockey now.”
PS – Phil Kessel won the scoring race.