Mike Babcock will receive an honorary degree at the U of S Spring Convocation. (Photo credit: Light Imaging)

Making hockey history

Mike Babcock was a wide-eyed teenager when he followed in the family footsteps to take classes at the University of Saskatchewan back in 1981.

By James Shewaga

Little did he know that one day he would become one of the most decorated coaches in hockey history.

The 53-year-old former member of the U of S Huskies hockey program has gone on to become the only head coach to win the three most prestigious championships in hockey—the Stanley Cup (2008), an Olympic gold medal (2010 and 2014) and a world championship (2004). The U of S will pay tribute to Babcock at Spring Convocation ceremonies on June 2 when he is awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws for outstanding achievement and exceptional service to the community.

"I don't know if you can ever in your wildest dreams think of this stuff," said Babcock, the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach who will also guide Canada's team in the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto this fall. "But if you keep opening doors for yourself and embrace lifelong learning, like the U of S sets you up to do, then you have a chance…

"Getting a university degree doesn't guarantee success, but it gives you a platform to pursue it and then it's up to you. So it's a launching pad, but it's a heck of a launching pad. And to me, I'm living proof that dreams do come true."

Indeed. Babcock's remark-able resume is a story of success that starts right here in Saskatoon. After playing junior hockey with his hometown Saskatoon Blades, Babcock moved on campus to join the U of S Huskies and play for legendary coach Dave King, who would go on to guide Canada's national team and coach in the National Hockey League.

"I was a kid who had left major junior hockey to play at the U of S and I didn't know much about education or about where I was going, or what I was doing," said Babcock, whose mother, wife, and his sisters and their children all attended the U of S. "Dave was a renowned coach at the time and the U of S had a good program, I think we lost in the national final that year. He had a veteran team and I was one of the young guys on it and I enjoyed my time at the U of S. It was great. And for me, growing up in Saskatoon, when you get an opportunity to go to the school in your town, it's a special, special place."

Babcock later moved on to finish his degree at McGill University, where he also did some post-graduate work in sports psychology, before embarking on a brief pro career in hockey overseas as a player/coach that kick-started a coaching career that has now spanned almost three decades.

Getting his education before taking a shot at pro hockey was important to Babcock, who knows better than most how fewer than one percent of players in junior, college and university hockey ever play in the NHL.

"I think it is so important to get your education, obviously," said Babcock. "It builds a foundation for the rest of your life. It gives you a platform to pursue your passion and your goals and your dreams. The other thing about sports is sports end, especially if you are a player. It ends and it ends young. And what are you going to do with the rest of your life? So you need something and I am a big believer (in education)."

A former teammate of current Huskies head coach Dave Adolph, Babcock is one of three former U of S hockey players from Saskatchewan who fill three of the 30 head coaching positions in the NHL, along with Todd McLellan (Edmonton Oilers) and Willie Desjardins (Vancouver Canucks).

"There have been a whole bunch of us (from the U of S) over the years and who knows why that has happened, but what I believe and one of the reasons why my wife and I bring our kids home every summer, is there is something about the authenticity of the people of Saskatchewan," said Babcock, who played with Desjardins on the Huskies in 1981-82 and had McLellan alongside as one of his assistant coaches during Babcock's 10-year stint as head coach of the Detroit Red Wings. "When you go across the country, you meet people who are U of S grads who are doing well and that are having an impact on society and more importantly, they are having an impact on their family and the people around them because they love what they do. And when you do that, it is contagious."

Babcock reached the pinnacle of the profession by leading Detroit to the Stanley Cup in 2008, bringing Lord Stanley's mug to campus that summer for a trip to Royal University Hospital. He is excited to return to the U of S next month for this spring's convocation ceremonies.

Babcock will become the latest Saskatchewan sports star to be awarded an honorary degree from the U of S, joining the likes of NHL legend Gordie Howe and former Canadian Olympians Diane Jones-Konihowski and Catriona Le May Doan. He said he is truly honoured to join the select company of honorary degree winners, a U of S tradition dating back to 1919.

"It's special," said Babcock, who is also well known for his charity work in the community. "You don't grow up thinking that someone is going to give you an opportunity like this (to coach at the highest level). What you try to do is you try to treat people right and you try to work hard and enjoy what you are doing and share your passion with others. And if you are fortunate enough to find your passion and you get to work at it, then you never have a job in your life, you just get to do what you love to do. So I have been very fortunate."