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Toronto Maple Leafs new head coach Mike Babcock, right, speaks to reporters with president Brendan Shanahan during a press conference in Toronto on Thursday, May 21, 2015.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

There was never any sugar-coating from Brendan Shanahan.

The Leafs president by his own admission was upfront about how far away his team is from contending when he first sat down with Mike Babcock, laying out the dramatic rebuild needed over a period of years.

Shanahan didn't enjoy his sales pitch, such as it was. He didn't know if it was a winning strategy to pry one of the best coaches in the NHL away from a winning organization in the Detroit Red Wings.

But it was the truth.

All he had to sell was how bad things were and how far away the Leafs are from being what Babcock wants, which is a championship team.

"The first conversation we had, what was coming out of my mouth, I said to my wife afterward 'Oof, those were hard things to say,' " Shanahan said. "I just told him the truth about where we were. And the size of the mountain here.

"What I knew of the man, having worked with him (Shanahan played for Babcock in Detroit in 2005-06) and known him for some time now, my hope was that the size of the mountain was what would ultimately attract him the most.

"There's certain people that are just challenge seekers. Lots of people get afraid. Then there are people that are not afraid of being afraid."

There is certainly some scary stuff when it comes to the Leafs. This is an organization that hasn't been building properly for decades now and that had to completely gut the front office only a month ago.

They appear to now have some smart people in charge – otherwise Babcock would have never signed on, regardless of the money – but they're still in the teardown process. Even compared to the other two teams in the NHL's triumvirate of exhaustive rebuilds, they're behind the Sabres and Oilers in terms of high end young talent.

And they don't even have a general manager, which is a rather unorthodox situation for a coach to step into on an eight-year deal.

But Babcock trusts Shanahan. Just as importantly, he trusts the Leafs new director of player personnel, Mark Hunter, as a builder, and he trusts the MLSE board to not throw him out the door at the first sign of turmoil.

He sees a foundation there for success, beginning with good draft picks and going young and the organization's incredible wealth advantage that they can use in all kinds of areas beyond their coach.

There will still be a rebuild. Most of the team's top players are still getting moved. Getting Babcock never changed that. It was, in fact, part of it.

"I can tell you that Mark Hunter was a big part of this," Shanahan said. "He deserves a lot of the credit for this.

"At the end of the day, Mike didn't necessarily have to be convinced what the vision should be here. He had the same idea. It was all about 'how do we build?' "

There has been a lot of talk about the money and with good reason. Babcock's $50-million salary eclipses anything remotely close to what top NHL coaches have been paid in the past, with many topping out in size-wise in the five-year, $10-million range, which is what New York Rangers bench boss Alain Vigneault is believed to make.

But listening to Babcock speak at his introductory press conference at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday, this was about much more than money. It was about his family, in the sense that his wife wanted to start their new life as empty nesters living in a condo in the downtown of a big city.

Toronto had that.

But it was also about that mountain and, as Babcock explained, the message he was sending his kids.

Don't be afraid of the biggest mountain. You can climb it.

Beyond that, from the Leafs perspective, what was especially refreshing about the entire ordeal was how little it appears to change their course. The richest organization in the NHL had just hired one of the best coaches in the league to a record-setting contract and everyone's message, again and again, was "we're not very good and we have a lot of work to do."

There was humility to it.

Some have compared this press conference to the one introducing Brian Burke as GM back in 2008, but the biggest difference here was this was not about putting on a show and making a bunch of promises.

Burke said seven years ago he didn't have the patience for a five-year rebuild; Shanahan and Co. have made it their guiding mission, regardless of what fortune falls in their lap, whether it be Babcock or the surprise success of some of their top prospects.

That's not to say it'll work. There are no guarantees, not in Buffalo, Edmonton, Toronto or anywhere else.

But the message being delivered by the Leafs on Thursday was one highlighting their difficult reality, not touting their big-ticket purchase as the next saviour. It's a refreshing change given, for too long, the Leafs have been selling their fans something else.

Something that matches the initials of the man now in charge.

"When I walked out at the end of the season [press conference] ­– I said this to Mike – it was almost embarrassing the encouragement, the optimism, that I felt from the fans for finally just telling the truth," Shanahan said. "And they're hard truths. They're very hard truths."

They are. But embracing them was also the only road up.

Shanahan sees it. And Babcock did, too.

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