Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports
Mike Babcock is a Starbucks guy, I’ve been told.
This detail was mentioned to me at some point during the summer, and made me laugh. It’s just so perfect. Babcock talks like a Tim Horton’s guy – whether it’s his Saskatoon Philosopher’s King style of speech (with a light and charming Michigan inflection), or maybe the frequency with which he brings up his F-150 unprompted – but he isn’t. This a man, an extraordinarily talented hockey man, with an appreciation of the finer things: Yorkville Apartments, $6 million a year contracts, corporate speaking engagements and success on an international stage.
It’s Babcock’s taste for the latter, rather than his preference for a skinny vanilla latte (the drink order is speculation on my part, the Starbucks preference is not), that has provided Toronto hockey fans with their first, but certainly not their last, taste of false controversy this season. It had been a while.
Here’s Dave Feschuk, seemingly always in the middle of the latest media foofaraw, writing about Babcock being driven by ego in his recent decision to accept the post of Head Canada coach at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey:
Maybe Babcock’s status as the national coach will sway elite players to come to Toronto. Maybe it won’t. What’s undeniable is that the 2016 World Cup will be Quenneville’s first experience on a Team Canada bench; the fact that Quenneville hasn’t worked at the past two Olympics doesn’t seem to have hurt his NHL coaching acumen.
Babcock expects people to believe he’ll be gathering otherwise unavailable intelligence on the members of World Cup rosters that he wouldn’t otherwise get watching on TV. But the games, every one of them, are in Toronto. He could easily run the Leafs training camp by day and observe the action in person by night.
That’s what he’d be doing if he made this decision using his brain. Clearly it’s his ego in charge here.
And it says a lot about the way things run in Leafland that nobody in the hierarchy overruled it.
Yes. The consensus pick for best coach in hockey accepting the honour of a plum, high-profile coaching gig is really a stinging indictment of Babcock and the Maple Leafs organization that successfully wooed him this summer…
Seriously though, the first thing that Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan’s acquiescence suggests to me is that they’re aware that it’s not a huge detriment to the club if Babcock takes the gig. And we should mention that they both have World Cup experience: Shanahan as a player in the epic 1996 World Cup of Hockey tournament, and Lamoriello as the architect of the best American national ice hockey team in history, which I fondly recall crushing my nine-year-old dreams.
Lamoriello and Shanahan know the score. They’ve been there before. And they don’t seem to mind. Probably because participating in the tournament isn’t a big deal.
It’s not as if the Maple Leafs were unaware that Babcock may have some international commitments to take on from time to time when they recruited him. And coaching a preseason tournament seems like a much more relaxed environment for a current head coach than, say, preparing for the Olympics during the season – which Babcock has done twice, while at the helm of playoff teams.
It also seems odd to extend a standard to coaches that we’d never apply to a player. Can you imagine if the Maple Leafs had a star Canadian-born player, like, say, Steven Stamkos, and he refused to play for Team Canada because he wanted to focus on the Maple Leafs? Surely that would cause eyebrows across the Great White North to be furrowed, and lips to be pursed so as to more efficiently “tut tut”.
And the Maple Leafs – even in their current weakened state – will indeed have players participating at the tournament. Those players will similarly be absent from training camp.
James van Riemsdyk will skate again with Phil Kessel on Air Canada Centre ice for Team USA and I’d think Morgan Rielly is a shoe-in for the mutant Young Stars team (maybe on a pair with Seth Jones or Aaron Ekblad, which sounds like lots of fun). Meanwhile Leo Komarov will definitely play for Finland, the only team guaranteed to show up in shape for the preseason tournament.
Not to belabour this digressions, but I’ll also be curious to see whether or not William Nylander gets a sniff for the Tre Kronor. It’s probably a long shot, but considering what Sweden’s fourth line looked like at Sochi, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of what’s believable.
Now the obvious difference between having van Riemsdyk, Komarov and Rielly participate at the tournament and Babcock, is that the players don’t have a say in what the Maple Leafs’ 2016-17 opening day roster will look like.
That the tournament will take place in Toronto and Babcock will have a ton of support from Team Canada’s murder’s row coaching staff would seem to mitigate this concern somewhat. It’s not like Babcock won’t be able to drop in on practices, and have a sense of who is making a serious push.
Look Babcock probably is an egotist and that’s fine. You’re unlikely to find a successful person in a competitive field who isn’t. It’s likely part of what makes him successful, it’s partly why the Maple Leafs hired him and it’s probably a major part of what drew him to Toronto (in addition to the biggest contract for a head coach in hockey history).
We don’t know if ego is what’s driving this decision though, and it isn’t difficult to think of other possible motivations. Perhaps Babcock will feel a need to coach a winning hockey team as a palate cleanser after what’s shaping up to be a miserable first season in Toronto. And if you can’t relate to the need to cleanse your palate, well then I guess you either hate sorbet or didn’t read Feschuk’s piece.
This line of criticism is a complete non-story, a non-troversy if you will. Demanding complete focus on and fealty to the organization, and criticizing a coach for taking on some additional responsibility with his national team at an NHL tournament, is so unusual and dissonant that it seems disingenuous. I’ve literally never seen a coach criticized in the past for accepting an assignment with Team Canada, and I don’t buy that Babcock’s current circumstances are so unusual that he’s the first to deserve it.
We don’t demand this single-minded focus of Babcock’s Team Canada coaching compatriots like Barry Trotz, and Joel Quenneville. We don’t demand it of the players who participate at the tournament. We shouldn’t demand it of Babcock.