There was a brief moment during Thursday's introductory news conference for Mike Babcock, the new Toronto Maple Leafs' coach, when the subject turned to his eye-popping compensation package – $50-million for eight years, the most by far to be paid to an NHL coach.
Babcock glossed over it nicely, saying the length and the terms of the contract were less about the dollars than "simply a commitment from the Maple Leafs to success. They've made a long-term commitment to me, so I understand they're totally committed to the process. That to me is what it's all about."
Babcock went on to say he usually drives a Ford F-150 pickup truck and will continue to do so – even though he could now afford a fleet of them.
So there! This peculiar omertà, this unwillingness among the NHL coaching fraternity to discuss their salaries, is an interesting leftover from a bygone era and mirrors a time when player salaries were also a closely guarded secret.
All that changed under the leadership of NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow, who understood that once player salaries were published and made a matter of public record – permitting players to no longer guess at what the superstar on the divisional rival made – compensation would soar, and it did.
There is no comparable definitive resource for NHL coaching salaries, but according to sources, the bar was raised twice this week. Until Babcock joined the Leafs, the highest-paid coach in the NHL – for a brief two-day period – was the new Edmonton Oilers coach, Todd McLellan.
McLellan received a five-year deal, worth $3-million a season, up from the $1.7-million he annually earned in his previous job with the San Jose Sharks.
Until McLellan joined the Oilers, the leader had been the Chicago Blackhawks' Joel Quenneville, at an annual compensation of $2.85-million. The Boston Bruins' Claude Julien was next at $2.5-million followed by the Los Angeles Kings' Darryl Sutter at $2.25-million, and then two others at $2.2-million – the New York Rangers' Alain Vigneault and the Montreal Canadiens' Michel Therrien. Next in line are the Dallas Stars' Lindy Ruff and the Nashville Predators' Peter Laviolette at $2-million a season followed by the Arizona Coyotes' Dave Tippett at $1.95-million.
In the current era, many coaching contracts also include the possibility of an upward revision, depending upon a team's playoff success, which is why Vigneault is where he's at – up from the $2-million he earned the year before, the base salary he negotiated when he joined the Rangers from the Vancouver Canucks.
For this year, the Washington Capitals' Barry Trotz, who signed a contract that will pay him $1.5-million a year on a four-year deal, is in line for a raise because his team made it to the Stanley Cup quarter-finals. Others in that $1.5-million annual range include the St. Louis Blues' Ken Hitchcock and the Winnipeg Jets' Paul Maurice.
Hitchcock's contract, low by the standards of a coach with his experience level, also includes a built-in severance package worth $1.4-million to be paid out by the team over a two-year period whenever he leaves the organization. According to the same sources, the Carolina Hurricanes' Bill Peters – one of the many Babcock assistants to make his way to the NHL – is thought to be the lowest-paid coach in the league at $750,000.
The general sense among NHL executives is that Babcock's contract may well be a unique one-time occurrence – and is tied more to the financial clout that Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment can wield than an expectation that other coaches will receive comparable compensation packages.
The only exception might be Quenneville, who has now slipped to No. 3 on the compensation charts. Under Quenneville, the Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup twice in the past five years, with a chance to win a third this season, with Chicago currently playing Anaheim in the Western Conference final. He is third on the career coaching wins list (754) behind Scotty Bowman (1,244) and Al Arbour (782) and first among active coaches.
Quenneville was coy when asked for his reaction to the Babcock contract Thursday, acknowledging that he did watch the announcement on television and noted that he was "happy for him. We'll see how that all plays out."
League-wide, it is believed that the new benchmark for NHL coaching salaries may well be established by McLellan's deal, not Babcock's.
Two summers ago, when Vigneault and John Tortorella were looking for new positions and Tippett needed to be re-signed in Arizona, all the new deals came in at roughly the same dollar figures – in the $2-million range.
What changed was the length of term – all received five years.
This represented a seminal shift in thinking, because teams were making a longer-term commitment to their coaches, which in turn provided added security in a job that traditionally had very little.
Term has become an important issue among NHL coaches because it changes the hired-to-be-fired dynamic at work for so long in the industry. Until Babcock broke the bank, NHL coaches routinely earned about the same salary as the 20th player on the roster, and were on a comparatively short leash. It made firing a coach the easy out when a team hit a rough patch.
Nowadays, any NHL GM who commits to a longer term needs to think long and hard about dumping a coach, if he's earning a generous wage.
In many ways, coaches are their own worst enemies in this exercise because they are uncomfortable discussing their compensation levels.
"They've never had salary disclosure for coaches like they do for the players," Bowman said. "Every league is different financially and maybe Toronto is a good example because they are a very strong financial organization and they also own the Raptors. NBA coaches make a lot more than NHL coaches. I know the coach of the [Detroit] Pistons made twice as much as Babcock did, and they didn't have anywhere near the same success."
Bowman began as a fulltime NHL coach the year after the Leafs won their last Stanley Cup, earning $15,000 with the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues. His 30-year career ended with the Red Wings in 2002, where he broke the $1-million per year salary barrier for NHL coaches.
Bowman's influence on salaries parallels Babcock's. After getting to the Stanley Cup final in his first year with the Blues, Bowman was also given the GM's title and a big raise for doing both jobs. He was earning $37,000.
"I thought it was millions," said Bowman, who eventually left the Blues to join the Montreal Canadiens in 1971 and took a pay cut – to $30,000 – because the job did not include a managerial component. From there, Bowman received a $10,000 bump every year. By the time, he left to join the Buffalo Sabres in 1979 as coach and general manager, he was making $90,000.
"There was no money in coaching in those days," Bowman said. "That's the way it was. What could you do about it? If you don't want it, don't coach. That's why so many coaches wanted to be managers – because managers always got paid about double."
Bowman finally hit the financial jackpot after he'd led the Pittsburgh Penguins to the 1992 Stanley Cup championship, replacing Bob Johnson, who'd fallen ill. At that point, the Red Wings made him a staggering offer – as out of step with that era as Babcock's new deal is in 2015.
"They offered me $600,000 – I was flabbergasted," Bowman said. "I went from $250,000 in Pittsburgh to $600,000 in Detroit and I worked it up to $1-million. But they were a good, strong organization and treated me very well. I don't know what other coaches around the league were making, but I don't think it was nearly as much."
According to sources, Babcock privately told his peers last summer that as he decided his own future, one of his goals was to raise the salary bar for all NHL coaches.
On Thursday, Babcock told The Globe and Mail's David Shoalts his wish ultimately didn't enter into talks in a meaningful way (presumably because the Leafs' original offer came in at $50-million, so there was no real haggling over money).
Babcock indicated that while he did a lot of research on coaching compensation in other sports, he didn't end up using any of the material he'd gathered, when the offers started pouring in.
"Because of the way it happened, the way they approached me Day 1, you didn't have to think about that," Babcock said. "The money was not a factor in Detroit, it was not a factor in Buffalo and it was not a factor here. Now, if you want to give me credit for something, that's great, [but[ you'd be giving me credit without me actually doing [anything].
"That was my plan originally [to help his coaching brethren], but never happened."
According to Maurice, a former Leaf coach, members of the coaching fraternity were both pleased and thankful with how the Babcock talks unfolded.
"It is a unique situation," Maurice said. "Part of that is, Mike is really, really good. And the Toronto Maple Leafs wanted to get the best guy they could and gave him a long-term deal so that everybody knows where they're going.
"It's a great, great hire – for Toronto, for the league and for coaches."