Honesty about mental health key to Leafs coach Mike Babcock’s playbook

Honesty about mental health key to Leafs coach Mike Babcock’s playbook

Mike Babcock, the Maple Leafs coach, wanted to talk about a problem in his family.

Not a problem in what he calls his hockey family. Things are going awfully well around Toronto’s NHL team this season. And not a problem in his immediate family, either; this wasn’t about his wife and three adult children. Babcock’s point of contention, brought up unprompted in an exclusive interview with the Star this past week, was aimed at members of his extended family, who could probably stand in as members of almost anyone’s. To Babcock’s eye, they’re seeing loved ones struggle with mental health issues and refusing to confront the issue.

In an exclusive interview, Leafs coach Mike Babcock opens up about the impact of mental health issues and ways to make things better: “The conversation, in my opinion, is still the greatest thing we can be doing.”
In an exclusive interview, Leafs coach Mike Babcock opens up about the impact of mental health issues and ways to make things better: “The conversation, in my opinion, is still the greatest thing we can be doing.”  (Mark Blinch / GETTY IMAGES file photo)

“I don’t know if I’m allowed to, but I’m going to talk about it anyway: The people in my family whose kids are struggling (with mental health challenges) … The parents won’t admit to it,” Babcock said. “They won’t admit to it. What they want to do is to make sure they’re showing everybody that everything’s perfect — you’ve got a perfect house, a perfect car, go to school. What a crock.”

Babcock paused a moment, as if incredulous, and continued.

“If you won’t admit it, how are you going to help your child?” he said. “That, to me, is the biggest thing I’ve seen over the past couple of years.”

Talking about mental health issues isn’t always easy for some of us. It’s still seen, in unenlightened eyes, as a shameful weakness to be hidden, not a treatable illness better brought into the light. And Babcock wanted to make the point that he knows this to be true first-hand. Even though he’s the famed coach of hockey’s richest franchise — even though he’s been a high-profile advocate for mental health initiatives in the few years since he saw two family friends lost to the ravages of the disease in one grim summer — his extended circle is not immune to the unhelpful cone of silence. Even among his own relatives, there are those who still choose blind eyes and zipped lips over openness.

Still, statistics say one in five Canadians will suffer from mental illness, which means everybody knows somebody affected, which is why continuing the public discourse remains vital. And so Babcock keeps talking.

“The conversation, in my opinion, is still the greatest thing we can be doing,” Babcock said.

The societal fixation with keeping up appearances in the age of social media is a sore point with the coach. If he’s risen to become the game’s highest-paid coach while styling himself as an obsessively competitive perfectionist, off the clock he sees the obsession with curated personal utopias as an unhealthy pursuit.

“That’s what today’s world is all about. Instagram — I’m not on it, but I just see from my kids. The projection out there is that everything’s perfect. What a crock,” Babcock said. “What mental-health talk, to me, is about is … life’s messy, period. And there’s tough times for everybody. And just because I can put a suit on at night and it looks like everything’s going good, that doesn’t mean it’s going good necessarily. And the same for our athletes.”

Still, anyone who’s watched Babcock work knows he’s a demanding boss who’s been known to test the limits of his players’ self-confidence and expects his athletes, as he says, “to bring it every night.” I asked him how he reconciles what he knows about mental health with his penchant for fostering cutthroat internal competition that keeps players on edge.

“I disagree with that, 100 per cent. We’re not trying to put anyone on edge. We’re trying to be demanding and supportive,” Babcock said. “We believe that people play better when they know you care about them, when they know you’ve got their back, when they know the parameters. But we expect you to do it right.”

Babcock insists his public persona as the uncompromising, hard-driving coach doesn’t jibe with a private reality that’s geared toward the well-being of every single player.

“The image that’s out there of who I am and the amount of time we spend dealing with each individual and being concerned about them is totally different,” Babcock said. “What’s wrong with doing it right? I think somewhere along the way, we think that being demanding is harsh. No, it isn’t. It’s real. Why do you want slippage in your life? Just do it right. I don’t think you’re holding anyone to a standard they don’t want. These athletes want to be the best they can be, so we’re demanding on them. That doesn’t mean we’re not loving and caring and appreciative and supportive.”

Babcock was speaking in support of the Movember Foundation, which raises funds for various causes including mental health. Last month, teams in the Greater Toronto Hockey League sold Movember Babsocks, a special-edition printing of the popular hosiery that bears the coach’s jaw-prominent caricature. Five dollars from each $20 pair went to Movember’s young men in sports program, another $5 went to the minor-hockey team. The team that sold the most socks wins a practice at the Maple Leafs’ Etobicoke training facility to be presided over by Babcock and his staff. Perhaps the lucky winners bend the coach’s ear on what he sees as his high-flying team’s lingering weaknesses.

“We have to get heavier,” Babcock said. “That doesn’t mean acquiring more players. That means learn to play heavier. We need to be more battle proven, and we’ve got to play better defensively. That doesn’t mean eliminate our offence. That means be better defensively — give up less.”

Babcock also cited the career arcs of historically great NHL captains Alex Ovechkin and Steve Yzerman, who both had to wait until age 32 to first hoist the Stanley Cup. He said his 20-something stars might yet endure more “playoff miseries.”

“Rome wasn’t built in a day. We’d like instant gratification. That’s the world we live in. That’s not reality,” he said. “Often you need battle scars, disappointments. That’s the springboard for opportunity in life. No different than mental health. Everybody has momentary setbacks. Can you continue to push through it?”

So what does Babcock do when he sees a member of his extended family suffering a setback while those around them apparently feign obliviousness? Life’s messy. Babcock said that no matter how much he talks, “it doesn’t necessarily mean anyone’s going to listen.” The thought has occurred to him that maybe he’s crossed a line, that maybe it’s none of his business. He’s not sure there’s an easy answer. But silence certainly doesn’t seem like one.

“The biggest thing is, you’ve got to be willing to have the conversation,” Babcock said. “To me, you’ve got to be willing to speak your mind a little bit. Once you know — and you know through your personal skills — that you’re crossing the line, then you’ve got to back off. In saying all that, I think it’s still important to try to help. I really believe that. We all need help in our life … I just think that as we continue to have this talk.”

Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk

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