THE ARCHITECTS OF CANADA'S GREATEST SPORTING TRIUMPH ARE VIRTUAL opposites in background and in temperament. Forty-six-year-old coach Mike Babcock, a former captain at McGill University, knocked around the minors before failing in a tryout with the Vancouver Canucks, then went on to coach in England and Red Deer, Alberta, figuring he'd sooner or later end up as a schoolteacher. Forty-four-year-old general manager Steve Yzerman, meanwhile, is, well...Steve Yzerman—the sixth-leading points scorer in NHL history, captain of three Stanley Cup champions, a member of Canada's 2002 Olympic gold-medal-winning team and a newly minted, first-ballot Hall of Famer. Babcock is a fiery presence, described by Team Canada captain Scott Niedermayer as "not the type of guy you want to disappoint, because you know you'll hear it from him." Yzerman, in contrast, is positively placid, "the voice of calm and reason," says Niedermayer.
When it comes to hockey philosophy, however, the two men converge—not surprising given that they have been honing their views together in Detroit. Yzerman, who played his entire 22-season career with the Red Wings, has served as a Wings vice president for four of Babcock's five seasons there as coach. They won the Stanley Cup together in 2008 and came within a game of repeating in '09. "It's a big advantage to work [on the Olympic team] with someone you know," says Babcock. "Because Steve and I know each other well, we can sense what the other guy is thinking."
Tactically, Babcock and Yzerman believe in a system predicated on hockey sense, anticipation and smart decision-making—one in which a collection of star players would be expected to subjugate their individual statistics and flair for the betterment of the team, just as Yzerman did when he transformed himself from a pure offensive star into a dominating two-way player in Detroit. Essentially they preach a simple mantra: 200 feet. "We want the players to fight for every inch of the ice," Yzerman said six weeks before the Games. "We want them to be able to win any facet of the game."
When Yzerman was on the 2002 Canadian Olympic team, Wayne Gretzky was the general manager. In '06 Gretzky, still the team's G.M., stuck with a number of aging players from the group who had won four years earlier. Yzerman, who took over the post in October '08, was less partial to veterans and left potentially worthy forwards such as Shane Doan, Ryan Smyth and Vincent Lecavalier off the roster. While Yzerman selected nine NHL captains for the team, he also chose 12 players who were 25 or younger, including Patrice Bergeron, Drew Doughty, Corey Perry and Jonathan Toews. "We want a team with speed and skill, but also some intelligence to make good decisions," he said.
Even before these Olympics, Babcock and Yzerman commanded vast respect in the hockey world, the result, in Babcock's case, of having 310 NHL wins against just 160 regulation losses and, in Yzerman's case, of his brilliant playing career and long captaincy in Detroit. In Vancouver, Yzerman's silhouette was the model for the hockey player icon that was printed on every Olympic ticket. Maybe an image of Babcock should have been on the back: on the opposite side from Yzerman, yet very much on the same page.