Skip to main content

In the end, the reality was Mike Babcock was never going back to Detroit.

For all the prolonged agony that was this season, with the questions and the headlines appearing weekly, that much was made very clear on Wednesday.

It wasn't just the money, either. Certainly, money mattered, and so did the term, with the Toronto Maple Leafs blowing the Red Wings' offer away to the tune of three years and $30-million (U.S.) above what general manager Ken Holland would put on the table.

No one was turning that down.

But if you listened closely to Holland on Wednesday, the organization had its doubts about Babcock. And Babcock certainly had his doubts about Detroit.

It had been a good marriage, but by head coach standards, it had also been an incredibly long one, longer than any other team-coach relationship in the league. With three first-round exits in the past four years, both sides were concerned it had become a stale one.

Babcock wondered if the veteran core there was still hearing his message. And he couldn't help but ponder what impact he could have elsewhere, with a new group, an altered message and a new challenge.

The Leafs certainly apply.

With the Wings ruled out, that left Babcock with a choice between two undesirables: Toronto and Buffalo. Both were willing to throw gobs of money at him. Both are in the league basement and believe they see the road up.

The Sabres thought they had him, but Leafs president Brendan Shanahan – who played one terrific season for Babcock in 2005-06 – won out at the last minute, promising a say in staffing decisions along with a front-loaded deal with a rumoured outclause. He paid Babcock twice what the next highest salaried NHL coach has ever received and added in so much flexibility that it became difficult to say no.

The only question was which difficult situation to say yes to.

The Sabres and their fans were breathing fire after being spurned, their second difficult blow after their remarkable tank job didn't pay off with the first overall pick when they lost the draft lottery last month. That sets up a wild situation with Babcock set to coach against Detroit and Buffalo again and again in the coming years, deepening the Leafs' rivalries within their new division.

A big part of this story is who Babcock is. He believes in himself, as much as anyone in the league. He isn't afraid of risk. What he was afraid of was complacency, of riding out his career in Detroit, a place where he began to be taken for granted and where the glory days are beginning to fade.

For all he's accomplished – with the Stanley Cup in 2008, two Olympic gold medals and a tie for ninth in playoff wins with Toe Blake, despite only 12 years in the league – Babcock feels he has something to prove to the hockey world.

Or, better stated, he feels he has something he wants to prove.

Winning in Detroit is one thing. You're following in Scotty Bowman's footsteps and you're in an organization that has made winning routine. Babcock was at the tail end of the Wings powerhouse – winning only one of those four Cups in 11 years – and the perception was that they helped him as much as vice versa.

None of that exists in Toronto. There's no aura there. There's no winning culture – or anything resembling it. He's entering on the ground floor – closer to the basement, really – with a team that has been poorly coached, finished fourth-last and that hasn't yet assembled a deep group of prospects.

Babcock will need to evolve, too, as much of his job description will be about working with youngsters and helping them reach their potential.

He'll also need to get used to losing and doing it in a spotlight that wilted other coaches with solid track records, such as Ron Wilson, who, incidentally, sits more than 100 wins ahead of Babcock in his career.

It's a challenge, all right. One many will call him crazy for taking on.

The Leafs have added name coaches in the past, even if the requisite marquee wasn't as big. They've thrown buckets of money at management types, such as Brian Burke. They've all failed miserably.

Ultimately, what Babcock to Toronto is going to be judged on is where this team is in three or four years. Everyone knows they'll be bad to start, regardless of who's behind the bench, and he'll get a grace period – as all the big names do. But it'll come down to how much he wins.

Babcock being Babcock, he isn't afraid of that. That's how he wants it. That's why he's here.


Babcock by the numbers

1 Number of Stanley Cups won (Detroit, 2008).

2 Number of Olympic gold medals won with Canada (2010, 2014)

5 Number of major titles won (two Olympic gold medals, one Stanley Cup, one world championship, one world junior championship)

10 Number of seasons with the Red Wings. They made the playoffs each year.

107 Total points accumulated over 146 games as a defenceman with the McGill Redmen.

.627 His regular-season winning percentage in the NHL.

2004 The year he led Canada to a gold medal at the world hockey championship. He is the only head coach to win a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold medal and world championship.

The Canadian Press