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Mike Babcock during an outdoor practice for the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto on Feb. 7, 2019.The Canadian Press

On the day NBC announced the on-air talent that will lead its NHL broadcasts into the future, it took a moment to pay homage to the past. In a call with reporters on Monday afternoon, NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood paid tribute to Mike (Doc) Emrick, the legendary hockey broadcaster who called his final game last October after 47 years, and noted that Emrick will be a part of the network’s opening night triple-header on Wednesday. Analyst AJ Mleczko added that she would miss her former colleague, explaining that “he’s a better human being than he is a broadcaster, and of course, we all know what an incredible broadcaster he is.”

Things took a hard turn from there.

Only hours before, news had broken that NBC had permanently parted ways with Mike Milbury, the spiky analyst and former NHL head coach and general manager who had flown too close the sun with his hot takes one too many times.

Last August, during a lull in an Islanders-Capitals game, Brian Boucher was talking about the benefits of the NHL’s Return to Play bubble – “if you enjoy playing and enjoy being with your teammates for long periods of time, it’s a perfect place” – when Milbury had quipped that there was not “even any woman here to disrupt your concentration.” Well, then. The next day, the NHL expressed its displeasure, Milbury issued an apology, and NBC informed him that his services in the Toronto bubble were no longer required.

The network had already axed Jeremy Roenick in February, after he joked on a podcast – albeit not on NBC’s air – about sexual threesomes he might consider having with colleagues, naming a couple of men and one woman as candidates.

With all of that baggage, NBC evidently decided during the off-season that Milbury was too much of a risk to continue putting on-air.

And so, perhaps feeling the loss of two Mikes was too much, NBC went out and hired Mike Babcock to shore up its bench of studio analysts. Babcock, of course, was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs 23 games into the 2019-20 season and then found himself tarred and feathered when former players suddenly began breaking hockey’s code of omerta, speaking out about the psychological abuse they had suffered at his hands. Mitch Marner and Chris Chelios shared stories of Babcock’s toxic head games; Johan Franzen said his former Red Wings boss, while being an “extremely accurate and prepared” coach, was also “a terrible person, the worst person I’ve ever met.”

(Translation: He’s no Doc Emrick.)

Nevertheless, Flood told reporters that, after Babcock “reached out to us through representation during the playoffs last year,” NBC almost brought him on board at that time. “But because of COVID protocols … we decided to wait until this year.”

Flood revealed that he had met Babcock in 2006 through the analyst Pierre McGuire, who was working for TSN at the time. “Pierre and I would go to Mike’s office before the many Detroit games we produced, and we would sit in that little office of his and have a conversation about hockey and about life. And he was a fascinating, insightful man,” Flood said. “And I thank Pierre for creating a relationship and getting me into that office all those years ago. And those are the moments that reveal who you want to have on your team. And Mike was a fascinating guy to spend time with, and I think he’ll be a great addition.”

It was an impressive bit of rhetoric on Flood’s part, simultaneously dismissing the elephant in the room while not specifically even acknowledging its existence. And who’s to quibble with his decision? If he wants to hire someone he believes will be an asset to his team, that’s his right. Babcock’s alleged sin, after all, was mental abuse, and even if his ex-boss, Brendan Shanahan, decreed his tactics neither “appropriate or acceptable,” they fell on a spectrum of ugly behaviour by coaches and trainers that had often been seen as necessary to get the best from athletes.

Which is, really, all Flood had to say when reporters hit him with a couple of follow-ups. Instead, a call that NBC had arranged to celebrate a fresh start quickly took on a noxious odor.

“After Mike Babcock was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs, there were accusations of psychological abuse by some of the former players,” ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski said to Flood. “His reputation took a hit because of it. He hasn’t really addressed these issues publicly since then. Is this something you discussed before hiring him, and might this be something that you might have him discuss on the air?”

Flood replied: “We’ve had a full process of conversations, as we do with anyone we bring in, onto the team.” The line went silent. Then the moderator moved on to the next question.

A few minutes later, The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro brought up Shanahan’s comments about Babcock, and asked whether NBC had any concerns about the allegations. “We looked at everything,” Flood said flatly. Another eight seconds of silence – even the moderator seemed caught out.

Nobody is suggesting that Babcock be cancelled. (There’s no real threat of that, anyway: last fall, before he signed with NBC, he interviewed for the Washington Capitals’ head-coaching job.) But reputational rehabilitation is supposed to begin with acknowledging what you’ve done; then you make amends, if those you’ve wronged are interested. But until you clear the air, your ugly past is going to hang over everything you do, like the cloud of dust and bugs that follows poor Pig-Pen in the Peanuts cartoon.

NBC may have thought it was playing enforcer for its new hire on Monday. But nobody wants to drop the gloves with the network or with Babcock. We just need him to finally, fully – and publicly – address the issue of his past behaviour, so we can all get on with the business of listening to what he has to say about hockey.

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