As media and members of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment made their way to gate five at Air Canada Centre on Thursday morning, you could feel this wasn’t your typical head coach announcement.
When Mike Babcock was announced, he was greeted to an amount of applause perhaps not seen before. There was reason to be excited.
When Babcock was allowed to explore opportunities with other suitors for his coaching services, he instantly became the number one commodity on the free agent watch this summer. Typically, a spot that is reserved for a player.
With several reports about where he will and won’t go to, there were reports as recently as two days prior that suggested the Maple Leafs were out of the running for Babcock’s services.
In the end, silence was golden.
“We were quiet, somehow word got out that we were out of it,” said Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan. “I didn’t feel we were ever out of it. I wasn’t sure we had him. We were making sure we had other options.”
Babcock remained undecided until Wednesday when he informed the Maple Leafs that he was going to join Toronto to help them succeed.
It came down to the challenge that comes with being in Toronto. While other candidates may have had a different set of prospects or positioning that could build them into contenders, it was the challenge of building Toronto into a winner that was most desirable for the new head coach.
“Lots of teams were set up better,” acknowledged Babcock. “But they weren’t the Maple Leafs and they weren’t in this city.”
But here comes the most important thing in what will make this work: Patience.
When Brian Burke came to Toronto as President and GM with much fanfare, patience wasn’t exhibited with him believing that you don’t necessarily have to wait things out to achieve success. Before Babcock ultimately decided to come here, he needed to approval from now-President Shanahan and the Board of MLSE that the team wouldn’t stray from ‘the plan.’
“I can tell you that was one of the questions he had for us and it was the opposite,” Shanahan explained. “If we’re four points out, are you guys (management and ownership group) still willing to stick to the plan? And that was an important answer for him to get, especially from our board that we’re interested in building a team that has the potential to challenge for the Stanley Cup, not to simply get in and out at the cost of the future.”
The temptation will always be there, but a long-term commitment is one that shows this is a long-term play. Babcock won’t be judged for his record the first few years as coach, but he will be expected to extract the best from his players and ensure their development for years to come.
“Let’s stick to the plan. Let’s be patient enough and let’s not get in our own way. I think the fans understand that better sometimes than the people who are running it,” Babcock said. “Be patient, don’t get impatient; it’s going to take a long time. People have gone impatient. Why? The fans aren’t impatient, they’re smart. They’ll stick with you if you are going in the right direction. It’s going to be hard — let’s go."
Next for the Maple Leafs is finding a new general manager and Shanahan says all possibilities are still being explored.
But one thing is clear: This current plan is the Leafs’ best chance at long-term success in the way they are constructed as of now. No more grand gestures or bold proclamations. The admission of Brendan Shanahan in a note to season ticket holders was the most humbling of situations any fan had ever seen from the organization.
Now the Leafs will climb the big mountain. It will be tough as they aim to march forward. But there wasn’t any other coaching candidate you could say would get this done over the one they just landed.