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Mike Babcock started by picking a fight.

He'd only been back home for a couple of hours. They brought him out squinting into the TV lights. He sat there looking intense while Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan ticked off the money men and corporate fellow travellers. Babcock, the Leafs' new coach, is one of those people who have the quality of seeming loud when they're being perfectly silent.

"This is a great, great city. Unbelievable fans and …" – an open-mouthed pause – "… it's the Maple Leafs," Babcock said.

He said it with an air of pure wonderment, like he couldn't believe how lucky he'd got.

When was the last time anyone with real options felt that way about this barren sports landscape? Sure, they love the money and the attention and the whole big-league feel of being part of the country's most recognized brand. But very few have the decency to seem awed. Mostly, they seem like they're already edging toward Blue-and-White hysteria.

"Some people are afraid. And some people aren't afraid of being afraid," Shanahan said approvingly of his hire, an inside-out tautology.

They're the same thing – the difference is that some men rush toward their fears.

That's what Babcock's done by taking one of the most pressurized jobs in global sport. Every coach is occasionally under water. Eventually, they're all crushed. Babcock's going deeper than anyone else. He'll be walking the sea floor for years to come.

The really crazy thing? He's looking forward to it.

He talked a lot about "challenges" and "commitment." It'd have been fitting if he'd come out in a hair shirt. He's here to suffer for hockey so that you don't have to.

Twenty-four hours removed from the Detroit Red Wings, the new Leafs coach already seems like the most committed banner man in Toronto sports. The best way to prove it is by mocking a few pretenders. He hurried on to that part.

"I've had a lot of opportunity to coach Canada's teams … Whether you believe it or not, I believe this is Canada's team. We need to put Canada's team back on the map."

This guy's won a pair of Olympic gold medals. He's provided two of our most binding cultural moments of the past decade. And he thinks the Leafs are bigger than that – so meaningful to Canada, they're more important than the national team. You don't have to buy it. But, given his stature, you do have to respect the source. (Also – stick it, Montreal.)

Breaking protocol, people began to clap. Someone in the media section actually sobbed and said, "Wow."

That's the key to this decision, which wasn't clear a day ago and apparently still isn't to the man who made it. He got a bunch of money and a big ego boost, but he came back for history.

Babcock told a story from his Detroit days – which already seem very long ago – and then-assistant coach Paul MacLean.

When things were good, the pair of them would look at each other and say, "This is NHL." And when things were great, they'd say, "This is original six." Ted Lindsay coming in during the playoffs and sitting with the team at his old stall – that was original six.

It's clear that for Babcock, at least right now, Toronto is all original six all the time. You can't fake the sort of impulsive emotion he showed at Thursday's unveiling. No one with half a brain would try – this town would sniff it out like a truffling pig. Going back 40 years, the executive branch of Toronto's hockey club has been a safe haven for bullies, charlatans and roaring incompetents, but it cannot protect phonies.

The city long ago stopped judging the Leafs on their achievements. It has never ceased administering loyalty tests. The worse things get, the more important faithfulness becomes. It's the last thing the average Leafs fan can hang on to. Now they've got two guys on top – Shanahan and Babcock – who don't have to invent a hometown connection.

This attitude was encapsulated a day earlier in an excoriating series of tweets scattergunned about by Argonauts defensive lineman and Toronto-area native Ricky Foley. Annoyed that the feel-good sale of his CFL club had been pushed to the news-cycle fringes by Babcock's arrival, he began saying the sort of things fans in this city think, but keep to themselves. Every single bit of this small portion is (sic):

"I feel sorry 4 T.O sports fans…Every yr hype 4 teams who don't EVER win…Spending $ 2come see mostly Foreigners play with no heart/effort."

"Foreigners." With a capital-F.

It's a political minefield, but it doesn't make it less true. We've all grown sick to death of the well-meaning new arrival who gets up on an MLSE podium and gushes about Toronto's "cleanliness" and "nice restaurants." Mostly because we know in our hearts he spends the whole winter bunkered in his downtown condo, only leaving to go to the arena or the airport.

Toronto is the sort of city people are either raised in, resent or feel nothing in particular about. That's fine. Just don't put guys in a position where they have to lie to us about it.

The pleasant side-effect is that we recognize instinctively when someone is speaking about being one of us in a genuine way.

Babcock knows how bad it will be, at least at first. That was the point he kept banging on about.

"There's pain coming," Babcock said, leaning in with the metaphoric needle.

This wasn't the flirtation we assumed. According to Shanahan, the Leafs put an offer to Babcock before the recent world championship. They met two more times to discuss the offer. The deal did not change in any substantive way. Babcock just needed the time to accept it. In the end, the eureka moment came when he thought of what it would mean just to be here.

It's no guarantee of success. But it's the right start off in that direction.