We’re past the point of theoreticals, and it’s time to deal with absolutes. Mike Babcock is the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he’s going to be for a while yet. Today, he spoke to the media for the first time, and addressed the pressing concerns.
The new bench boss gave a bunch of reasons, from personal to professional. There was the story about how he told a friend he would one day, with his wife, live in the downtown core of a big city in a nice condo. There’s the fact that his kids are all going to be in school as of next year, scattered across the country. But the icing on the cake? Despite already coaching Team Canada to multiple gold medals in the past, he felt national pride was at stake. “I believe this is Canada’s team, and we need to put Canada’s team back on the map.”
It wasn’t an easy process, though, and nothing was set in stone. “I talked to lots of teams. When you talk to teams, negotiation is in that process. I had no idea where I was going.” Many were lead to believe that the Buffalo Sabres would be the team of choice, including the Sabres, but ultimately, talks with the family created the momentum shift. “We went back and forth so many times, trying to figure out what the right thing to do was. If you think Terry Pegula isn’t a star, you’re mistaken.”
Babcock admitted that he discussed term and financials with the Sabres, but denied that he committed and backed out. “That doesn’t go anywhere near who I am and what I’m about. I’ve been straight forward in the process with all of the teams.”
As it turns out, the decision wasn’t all about the money. In fact, Buffalo’s offer was bigger. Many will wonder what the price tag means to the team, but for the man getting the paycheques, it means more than the currency. “To me, it’s real simple. The contract is simply a commitment from the Maple Leafs to success. They made a long term commitment to me, so I understand they’re committed to the process. That’s what it’s all about.”
No Sharp Turns
Babcock made it clear that he wasn’t coming here to throw a wrench in the rebuild plan. “I never came here to make the playoffs. I came here to be involved in a cup process. That goes from scouting, to drafting to development, to analytics, putting an on ice team and an off ice team together.” It was a welcome contridiction to the narrative that had so many people concerned. “On game day I’ll be short sighted, but I’ve got a big picture in mind. So does Shanny, so does Larry [Tanenbaum], so do the others in our staff.”
While Babcock didn’t use the same “character” terminology, he plans on bringing a similar frame of mind to the team philsophy that Tim Leiweke was preaching for the mega-organization when he came in as CEO. “You develop people, you develop leadership. We’re going to be men, we’re going to be straight up and honest, and we’re gonna take responsibility for how we play. You don’t win without good people, and we’ll have good people.”
Interestingly enough, Babock has nothing in his contract regarding player personnel decisions, but Shanahan stated that he’ll have a say. “Whoever the head coach may be, I want his input. Do we want Mike to have his fingerprints in, and his input? Absolutely. I don’t think that’s a unique position for any NHL team.”
A New Group
Babcock showed enthusiasm, but mentioned that leaving Detroit wasn’t a decision he took lightly. “Change is exciting. Its envigorating, it gets you going. I have to be honest with you, Ken Holland is a great man and a good friend, and it was very emotional. I needed the Kleenex box out when I was in his office, because of what he’s done for me.” Given his ten-year stay and the success he had there, that’s of no surprise.
Despite seeing the Leafs play a bunch as a divisional rival, Babcock is making no judgements yet. “What I’ve always done over the years, is when we’re evaluating the other team, we say to ourselves ‘he knows them better than we do’. Lots of people have come here before, really good men and really good coaches, and it hasn’t gone as well as they’ve hoped. I’m going to get to know these guys, guys that are on the tema, and train them, and we’re going to grow together.”
A player he’s already familiar with, however, is Dion Phaneuf. He’s coached against him many times and has had him try out for Team Canada on a couple of occasions. A few months back, the Red Wings nearly acquired him at the deadline. Despite the speculation that he’ll shopped around, Babcock is excited to have him for now, but wants to grow him into an even better leader. “I’m going to get to know Dion, and he’s going to get to know me. I like to think I’m a straight forward communicator. I like to know what they want, I don’t want to read their mind. I want them to tell me.”
Bringing this team back into an age of success is going to be a tough task, but the 50 million dollar man is prepared. “They love this team here, there wouldn’t be all this people here if there wasn’t love for the franchise. Now we need to make it safe for the players here. It’s going to take time, but we’re going to do it.”