TORONTO (Reuters) - Mike Babcock was handed one of the toughest assignments at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics when he was named head coach of the Canadian men’s hockey team on Thursday.
While Babcock has guided the Detroit Red Wings to the Stanley Cup finals the last two seasons, claiming the title in 2008, the pressure will be intense in Vancouver with hockey-mad Canadians demanding nothing less than gold on home ice.
Steve Yzerman, a Red Wings vice-president and executive director of Canada’s Olympic team, made the announcement in Montreal where the NHL will conduct its player draft on Friday.
Buffalo Sabres’ Lindy Ruff, Columbus Blue Jackets’ Ken Hitchcock and former Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire were named as assistants.
“To have the opportunity to be an Olympian is something I thought about lots as a kid growing up,” Babcock told reporters.
“As much as the Stanley Cup is unbelievably exciting, any time you have a chance to play for your country, or be involved in something for your country, there is a whole new level of special.”
The 46-year-old coach has a 282-139-71 record in the NHL and also took the Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003.
Babcock is no stranger to the international game and is the only Canadian head coach to lead teams to gold at the world championship (2004) and world junior championship (1997).
“I was looking for someone who would encourage the team to play the way I foresee the Canadian team playing,” said Yzerman, a Red Wing for 22 years who played for Babcock in his final season before retiring.
”I not only expect us to be a strong offensive team but that our best players are responsible defensively. That is how this team is going to play.
“We have a vision of how the Olympic team will play, the type of players we want, and I‘m certain Mike is the right guy to take the reins.”
The pressure is certain to build on Babcock until the opening ceremonies on February 12 next year.
Despite Canada’s status as a hockey superpower, success has been rare on the Olympic stage.
At the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, Canadians celebrated from coast-to-coast after the men’s hockey team ended an embarrassing 50-year gold-medal drought.
Four years later in Turin the country was plunged into despair after posting its worst result at an Olympics with a seventh-place finish.
Such a display will be unacceptable in Vancouver where a pair of tickets to the gold-medal final are already being offered online for as much as $16,000.
“I‘m a big believer good teams don’t feel pressure as much, they apply pressure and that’s what we’re going to try to do,” said Babcock. “I‘m real comfortable with our group ... we’re going to have a good team.”
He said he expected to name in 10 days a group of 40 players from which the team will be chosen.
That group will then meet in Calgary for an evaluation camp in the last week of August.
“When they sing the national anthem in Vancouver and the fans all join in, that’s a special thing when you’re standing on the bench,” said Babcock.
“I can’t even imagine how it’s going to be the first game ... and how exciting it’s going to be.”
Editing by Tony Jimenez