The sight of Mike Eaves changing a diaper, rubbing the back of a sleepy toddler and dancing with preschoolers might shock those who don’t really know the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey coach.
Those images, which came to life last week on a school-produced segment for the Big Ten Network, don’t jibe with the reputation Eaves has for being stern, forceful and demanding since taking over at UW in 2002.
“You see a different side to him behind the bench and I’m sure fans do, too,” junior left winger/center Joseph LaBate said. “He’s really focused, very intense.”
But not only did Eaves choose to spend a day at the Waisman Early Childhood Program inside the Waisman Center — it was one of 10 options available to him when the segment was shot as part of the “Forward Motion” series in September — he did it with a full-tilt, gung-ho approach that is his wont around children.
“I like hanging around kids,” said Eaves, the father of two grown boys and the grandfather to two girls and a boy. “When we got to a family reunion or we go to a place where there are adults, if there are any kids hanging out, I’m hanging with the kids.”
Asked what people will think when they see the images of him juggling, singing and wearing a bowler and a feathery pink and purple boa, Eaves laughed.
“The gamut’s going to run,” he said.
“Forward Motion” is a 30-minute news magazine that spotlights stories behind the research and teaching that goes on at UW. The segments are underwritten by funds the school receives annually from the BTN.
Eaves was part of a promotional series that also saw Badgers football coach Gary Andersen get hands-on — and in — experience with animals at the School of Veterinarian Medicine and women’s basketball coach Bobbie Kelsey help make dairy products at Babcock Hall.
Was there any apprehension for Eaves?
“There was a point when they kind of said what they were going to do and it was either, ‘Let’s do that or let’s not do that or just jump into the deep end,’ ” he said. “I went deep end.”
Eaves said he had no input on the final product and didn’t see the segment until shortly before it showed up on YouTube.
LaBate was sifting through Twitter when he came upon the nearly 8-minute segment sent out by Paul Capobianco, the UW assistant communications director for men’s hockey.
“I was taken aback because I didn’t really know what I was watching,” LaBate said with a smile. “You definitely see a different side of him than what you see around the rink. He’s a very hard-nosed guy and he’s focused on hockey, but off the ice he’s a pretty personable guy.
“He’s a parent, so obviously he’s got a pretty loving side, but I didn’t know he’d do that good with that many kids.”
Eaves readily volunteered to change a diaper — negotiating some tricky bib overalls in the process — rocked and bottle-fed a crying child, negotiated a settlement between two boys who wanted the same car and laid down next to another small boy to rub his back during nap time.
Staffers marveled at how Eaves interacted and connected with the infants and kindergartners. What those teachers may not realize is how closely the job of being a coach mimics working in child care. In fact, Eaves has said many times if he weren’t coaching he’d be a school teacher.
“We’re working with kids; they’re just bigger kids,” he said. “We have the same issues. We don’t change diapers, but we hold hands and we pat people on the back and we console and we try to fix. We’re just doing it with bigger bodies.”
UW senior center Jefferson Dahl laughed as he watched the video on his iPad tablet last week.
“I thought the funniest part was how much he was sweating,” Dahl said of Eaves, who at one point called for a towel to wipe down after a high-energy game of floor hockey in which he was the goaltender.
But Dahl, an Eau Claire product who has played 133 games for Eaves, said he saw nothing that surprised him.
“You can see he’s a very passionate man,” Dahl said. “He puts his heart and soul into everything. You could just see it with the kids.
“One of the big similarities between the two (situations) is how much he cares for us. Whether it’s on the ice or off the ice, he’s always pushing us to be better.”
LaBate, who has played 98 games for Eaves since coming to UW from Eagan, Minn., said the video captured a defining aspect of his coach.
“He cares a lot,”LaBate said. “He’s a really emotional guy. He wants the best for the team and you can definitely tell his passion that he brings to every day.
“He showed a tender side of him. I think fans will be impressed by that.”