Detroit Red Wings and Coach Mike Babcock: Will There Be a Seven-Year Itch?

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It’s hockey season in Detroit again. Time to put up with another 82-game grind. In the city’s self-ascribed “Hockeytown,” it’s considered par, not impolite, to look past the months of October through March so that the fans can worry about playoff match-ups.

The 82-game regular season is something that is tolerated in Detroit, not necessarily enjoyed. It’s a longer opening act than a bad comedian.

Wing Nuts actually had to pay attention, a little, to the regular season two years ago, when the calendar turned to 2010 and the Red Wings were still monkeying around, trying to secure a playoff spot. But that drama was short-lived and by the end of February, order was restored as the Red Wings distanced themselves from the bottom feeders.

It’s never a matter of if the Red Wings will make the playoffs. It’s, “How far will they go?”

The 2011-12 season is just underway, but I submit that this campaign might, just might, provide a legitimate sidebar.

Mike Babcock, the steel-jawed, facially scarred coach, is into his seventh season helming the Red Wings. Yes, seventh.

That’s longer than any Red Wings coach since Jack Adams, with two exceptions: Sid Abel (11 years) and Scotty Bowman (nine years).

The fear is this, simply: will the Red Wings get a seven-year itch with Babcock?

Is seven years, in this day of modern pro sports, too long for one coach with the same team?

I suppose we’re about to find out.

Coaching and longevity are fickle partners. You can be a coaching “lifer,” but that’s typically done with a whistle in one hand and a road map in the other.

The coach who stays put in one city for any longer than three years is, frankly, usually a “dean” in his division.

Terry Francona just had a rather messy break-up with the Boston Red Sox. All Francona did in his eight years as Red Sox manager was make the playoffs just about every year and win two World Series—ending the franchise’s 86-year drought with the first one.

Yet a bad September this year proved to be Terry’s death knell.

The seven-year itch in Detroit when it comes to Babcock and his players might just be the warped bleatings of a worry wart sports blogger.

Yet I suggest that the Red Wings are entering into a potential danger zone with Mike Babcock. And it has nothing to do with whether he’s the best coach in the entire NHL—which he is.

It won’t matter how good of a coach Babcock is if he can’t get his players to keep him tuned in.

The coach’s voice starts to grate after a few years, depending on the character of the team involved.

Which makes it a decent bet that my Chicken Little hand-wringing over the Red Wings and their seventh-year coach is much ado about nothing.

The Red Wings are veteran-laden. Their captain is 41 years old and his face doesn’t look a day over 30. They have worked in some younger players over the past several years but their core is still Nick Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom—not a spring chicken among the group.

Hey, is Chris Chelios still on the team?

He may as well be.

The greatness of the Red Wings organization is that, for them, familiarity hasn’t bred any contempt.

They’ve had the same owner since 1982.

They’ve had the same GM since 1997.

They’ve had the same assistant GM since about that time, too.

They’ve had the same VP since 1990—and he started in 1982, too.

They’ve had the same trainers, equipment guys, masseuses and probably even the same mechanic for the Zamboni machine for years.

And, of course, they’ve had the same players, for the most part.

When you play for the Red Wings, you skate for them until they pull the sweater over your head and tell you that enough is enough.

Oh, they do it in a nice way, but Chelios, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Chris Osgood have all departed in recent years, and in every instance, they were pretty much stared down by management.

In a nice way.

But the flip side to that is that when you’re done as a player wearing the Winged Wheel, you stay with the organization in some capacity. The Red Wings reward their fully-vested employees almost as much as Bob Ficano does in Wayne County.

The ex-Red Wings, in addition to the aforementioned—who all have jobs with the club—dot the org chart.

There’s Mark Howe, who heads the advanced scouting department.

There’s Aaron Downey, who works in strength and conditioning.

There’s Jiri Fischer, whose domain is player development.

To name a few.

Yet the coach, Babcock, is the one we should keep an eye on. It’s always the coach, isn’t it? That is, if it isn’t the goalie.

Babcock brought in two new assistant coaches this season, perhaps as a nod to the concern of the players hearing the same voice, being preached the same thing in the same fashion.

The seven-year itch.

It didn’t get Bowman, who lasted nine. But they weren’t exactly nine blissful years. Just ask Steve Yzerman, or Brendan Shanahan. Two Hall of Famers, each who would have liked to jam a puck down Scotty’s throat from time to time.

Babcock, in six seasons as Red Wings coach, has delivered a Stanley Cup, two Finals appearances and three conference final appearances.

But the two most recent seasons have seen the Red Wings bumped out of the playoffs in the second round—to the same team.

This is Hockeytown, which is the Bronx of the NHL. A season that doesn’t end with the Red Wings raising the Stanley Cup over their heads is a season wasted, followed by a summer of consternation.

It’s been that way since Bowman re-instilled a level of excellence that had been missing for decades.

Now Babcock is the keeper of that flame. He’s going on seven years of being on the job. That’s a mighty long time, anymore.

Just something to chew on, as you bide your time waiting for the playoffs.

(Greg Eno is a freelance sports journalist and has been following the Detroit Red Wings since 1970. You can follow him on Twitter @GregEno and also read more of him at www.GregEno.com)

 

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