A large part of Mike Babcock’s legend is how it wasn’t supposed to go this way. To hear him tell it, he became the best coach in hockey by happy accident.
“I never aspired to be a coach,” he said shortly before winning his first Olympic gold medal.
But he coached. He coached compulsively from his student days on, for whomever would have him – rec leagues, prep schools, college, major junior, university, world juniors, the AHL, the senior national team and, eventually, the NHL.
“Who knows how I ended up here?” Babcock once said. If that’s a real question, he’s the only who doesn’t have the answer. “I tell my kids I had no plan. I just got lost along the way.”
He’s coached the game at nine different levels. Whatever the original path was, he didn’t make much effort to get back on it.
Reached on Thursday, he doesn’t want to talk about the Toronto Maple Leafs – “I coach the Detroit Red Wings a hundred per cent” – but he will speak about his goals, which seem to point in Toronto’s direction.
“I feel I’m young in my coaching career. I want to have a lot more success,” Babcock says. “I don’t want to feel like I’ve reached the pinnacle at 51. I don’t think that’s what life’s about.”
Asked whether he thinks about his legacy, Babcock says, “Not for one second. I think about, ‘Can I get a win today?’ Honest to God, I don’t think about that.”
A few minutes later he says, “I want to be the best coach of my era.”
The idea of becoming the Leafs’ coach when his contract expires at the end of the year exists in the space between those two ideas. If Babcock really doesn’t care, he stays where he’s comfortable. If he wants to be considered in terms of eras, he jumps to the Leafs.
The question is, which version of Babcock is making the decisions?
Toronto wants him. They want him badly. They also know the worst way to go about that would be to pursue him in some tawdry way – offer him NFL-type money, go at him through proxies, put him in the position of feeling he’s going behind the back of a Detroit franchise that helped make him.
As a result, the Leafs haven’t approached him in any way, and have no idea what he’s thinking.
According to Babcock, the last time he talked to anyone in the Toronto organization was a short call six months ago to congratulate Brendan Shanahan on being named president.
“Shanny was a good player for me and he’s a good man and a smart guy.”
They’ll be poring over that line like the Talmud in the Leafs offices on Friday morning. This is all they have – reading, waiting and hoping.
“If he won here?” an MLSE exec said recently. “He’d be on the opening montage of Hockey Night in Canada 20 years after he retired.”
I repeat that to Babcock. He laughs, clearly tickled. But he’s too clever to be drawn into filling the silence that follows.
There are two types of strivers – the ambitious, who can’t stop reminding you how driven they are; and the successful, who let the results do the talking.
Babcock is prideful about his own abilities, but he credits his achievements to working-class Canadian values. The suggestion is that anyone born north of 49 with adequate zeal and intelligence can do this. Babcock knows they can’t, but it’s the sort of pose you can hide a great deal of ambition behind.
Having won at every level, he’s the best in the game. But he is not yet among the best ever – the Scotty Bowmans or Toe Blakes. Not even close.
Bowman hangs over him like a wraith – those Detroit teams were Bowman’s creation. Babcock took over the family business; he didn’t build it.
In order to claim credit as a legend and a creator, Babcock has to resurrect an original six club. He has to take something dead and breathe life into it. There’s only one current candidate – Toronto.
He’s said he will “probably” re-sign with Detroit. He put a deadline on it – the start of the season. Then he took the deadline off.
Why do that? There are no unknowns in the Red Wings organization. Babcock knows every inch of it. If he wants more money, he can have it. If he wants more power, he knows that’s impossible. That he hasn’t signed yet means he doesn’t want to. So where would he go instead?
At this point, what would he gain by winning in Edmonton or Philadelphia or Vancouver? Those teams can’t raise him up. Those sorts of clubs also pose no risk, and Babcock craves the cliff’s edge.
It’s the reason he went back to coach Canada’s Olympic team a second time. The risk was limitless, the rewards relatively meagre. But he did it anyway. For the juice.
Consider the attractions of the Leafs job to a man like that. To win a championship here would represent both the greatest challenge and the greatest achievement in modern North American – maybe even world – sport.
There is no mountain higher than turning around hockey’s most loved, hated and obsessed-over franchise, and turning aside history. The only thing that might come close is winning a World Series with the Cubs. But Chicago is more than baseball, while Toronto is hockey.
If you think of yourself as the best – as Babcock plainly does – how can you say no to that? How could you not think of that constantly, obsessively?
“Some day when I’m retired and I’m sitting by the fire having a rum, I’ll be able to think about all that other stuff,” he says. “In the meantime, I’m just about winning today.”
This is the same guy who claims that he rose to the top of his profession by toodling along without any idea where he was headed. I don’t believe it for a second. This is Babcock’s respectful way of slowly breaking up with a club he loves.
There’s only one destination for a man of his stature and ambition. That’s why he hasn’t re-signed with the Wings. That’s why Babcock will choose the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He may have chosen them already.Report Typo/Error
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