Mike Babcock, one of the most accomplished coaches in hockey history, is taking over the Columbus Blue Jackets this season in his first NHL job since the Toronto Maple Leafs fired him as coach Nov. 20, 2019.

NHL.com visited him at his home in suburban Detroit to talk about why he decided to coach in Columbus, how he plans to communicate better with players this time, and what he thinks of the Blue Jackets.

This is the first story in a three-part series. (Part 2 | Part 3)

BRIGHTON, Mich. -- Mike Babcock looks relaxed and happy. It’s a quiet morning in August, and he’s already worked out and water skied when he sits down at his “tiki bar,” a little piece of paradise down the hill from his house overlooking a lake. It has a roof, a bar, barstools, a fridge, a TV and wifi. There are hockey mementos on the wall.

Babcock spends a lot of time here, when he isn’t hunting on his land in Ohio or downhill skiing on a mountain in Colorado or vacationing at his place in Palm Springs, California. He and his wife, Maureen, love to visit their three adult children scattered across North America.

“My life has simply been about being around my family and hunting, water skiing and downhill skiing,” he says. “Those are the three things that I’ve done to bring me nothing but joy.”

The 60-year-old hasn’t coached an NHL game since the Toronto Maple Leafs fired him Nov. 20, 2019. He says he declined multiple opportunities until he joined the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 1, volunteering instead as an adviser at the University of Vermont in 2020-21 and the coach at the University of Saskatchewan in 2021-22.

“I said I was going to retire at 60,” he says. “I promised my wife. The 3 1/2 years early was like a gift from God. We enjoyed it so much.”

So why come back to the NHL now? Why take on the challenge of the Blue Jackets, who finished 31st in the NHL last season?

“This is a great question,” he says.

Babcock had 3 1/2 years left on his record contract with the Maple Leafs, so he had the luxury of receiving a large paycheck while he wasn’t coaching in the NHL. The contract expired. But it’s not like he needs the money.

He didn’t like how things ended in Toronto, especially with negative stories surfacing about how he interacted with players in the past. But it’s not like he has anything to prove, either.

He ranks 12th in regular-season wins (700) and eighth in Stanley Cup Playoff wins (90) in NHL history. He has won the Stanley Cup (2008 with the Detroit Red Wings) and been to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final twice (2003 with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and 2009 with the Red Wings).


He has won the IIHF World Junior Championship (1997), the IIHF World Championship (2004) and the Olympics twice (2010 and 2014) with Canada, and he has won the World Cup of Hockey (2016) with Team Canada too.

That’s the beauty of it.

“Jacques Lemaire used to say this to me,” Babcock says of the Hockey Hall of Famer. “He said, ‘The best time to coach in the NHL is when you’ve got all your bills paid and you’ve won everything, and then you just get to coach and love it.’”

Babcock has learned a lot over the past 3 1/2 years and found an opportunity in Columbus that works for him on several levels. He’s trying to evolve, but at the same time, he’s trying to get back to his roots -- to why he chose to coach in the first place.

After he was fired by Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League in 1993, he had a wife and baby at home. He accepted a business consulting job, but then he got an offer to coach the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. The team had never made the playoffs and was in danger of folding.

“The consulting job offered a lot more money, greater stability and a clearer career path,” Babcock wrote with friend Rick Larsen in the book “Leave No Doubt: A Credo For Chasing Your Dreams” published in 2014. “Ultimately, I chose to take a risk.”

It paid off. Lethbridge won a national title.

Babcock went on to coach Spokane of the WHL from 1994-2000, Cincinnati of the American Hockey League from 2000-02, the Ducks from 2002-04, the Red Wings from 2005-15 and the Maple Leafs from 2015-16 through the first 23 games of the 2019-20 season.

“The University of Lethbridge, maybe with the exception of the last three years, might have been the best eight months of my life,” he says. “Loved coaching that team. Loved those guys. We competed. We had fun. We laughed.

“And you can say, ‘Well, that’s not possible in pro hockey.’ Yes, it is. How do we make it like that? That doesn’t mean you’re getting away (with bad habits) and you’re not backchecking or you're not stopping on defense. That doesn’t mean any of that. But it means the approach is going to be, in a way, ideally …”

The sentence trails off as the breeze blows off the water.

“And maybe we’re sitting at my tiki bar, and we’re just in a fantasy world,” he says. “Who knows? But that’s our plan. Can we execute it? We’re going to find out.”

* * * * *

Babcock insists he was not preparing or angling for another NHL job the past 3 1/2 years.

He loves to read. When he coached in the NHL in the past, he’d have stacks of books on his desk about leadership, business and sports. Friends would send them to him then, and they’re starting to send them to him again now.

“Honest to God, I barely read in the time I was off,” he says. “Not like I used to. I didn’t read self-help books. You know what I read? ‘Jack Reacher’ series.”

Jack Reacher isn’t a coach. He’s a fictional action hero. The books are by British author Lee Child, two of which have been made into movies starring Tom Cruise.

“I’d read a book a day when I’d be staying over for hunting and mow them down, but they weren’t about what my next talk was going to be or how to be a better coach or how to be a better this,” Babcock says. “It was just about enjoying reading.”

Babcock loves to mentor coaches. He’d have everyone from a young video analyst to an NCAA coach at his tiki bar, and he’d take calls from NHL coaches wherever, whenever. He’d even break down video with and for them.

“My wife would call me ‘The Coach Whisperer,’” he says. “NHL coach phones. We’re in the car. She doesn’t say [anything]. I turn it on and talk for 45 minutes.

“Why do they talk to you? They talk to you because you’re a sounding board. They trust you. They know you’re not going to talk to anybody. Some guys would call me. I’d watch five games. I’d do a presentation with them. I’d talk to them. So I talked to lots of head coaches, but not with the intent of coaching.”

Nick Cotsonika on Mike Babcock returning to coaching

Vermont was an “unbelievable opportunity,” he says, because it was close to downhill skiing. He mostly helped the coaching staff off the ice.

He took the job with Saskatchewan largely because his son, Michael, agreed to pursue an MBA there if he did, and they got to coach together. Mike was behind the bench with Michael as his assistant. It was a learning experience for each of them.

Mike challenged Michael to work on his weaknesses, giving him the power play to run.

“I said to him, ‘What do you want to do?’” Babcock says. “And he said, ‘Well, I’ve penalty-killed my whole life. I’ve been a checker.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t do any of that. I’d do all the stuff you don’t know and learn how to do it better and become an expert at that.’”

Meanwhile, Mike sat in meetings with head coaches from the other sports at the school, worked with women more than he ever had in an NHL environment, and dealt with college players again instead of professionals.

That helped him develop the idea of having a communication plan and mental health plan for each player in Columbus. (More on that in Part Two of this series on Sept. 8.)

“I think he was actually just loving coaching again,” says Shannon Chinn, the chief athletics officer at the University of Saskatchewan. “You could see the joy in him.”

She laughs.

“You could see the frustration, just like any coach on any given day, too. But you could just see the pure joy. And just listening to him talk about the team and talk about the players … I think he was just fired up.

“Mike’s fired up all the time. But he just, like, had this passion about him consistently, and he would come into all-coaches meetings with his pen and his notebook, and he would take notes and listen to everybody else and contribute to conversations and give his two cents and listen to everybody else’s.”

Babcock was back in his element. He played at Saskatchewan in 1981-82 and McGill University in Montreal from 1983-87. He's famous for wearing a McGill tie behind the bench for his biggest games.

“I just found there were so many opportunities for growth that you’re back in that learning environment,” Babcock says. “I always said I was going to stay at McGill and get a PhD and live there forever. You’re attracted to that environment. You’re learning all the time. There’s all these resources to get better.”

Babcock was supposed to coach Saskatchewan for two seasons. He resigned after one largely because he didn’t want to block the development of his assistants. Brandin Cote rose to head coach. Michael got to be an assistant out of his dad’s shadow.

But Babcock continued to help. He was the driver of the men’s “Hockey Excellence Fund” at the school and one of four people who contributed to a $1 million initial donation.

“He was just honestly loving life,” Chinn says. “This may sound strange, but he always seemed he was in the right place for that time.”

* * * * *

Babcock says he almost took an NHL job shortly after the Maple Leafs fired him. But he didn’t, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Three teams called around Christmas last season, and he talked to his wife. They had plans to ski in Colorado and then head to Palm Springs. They were happy.

But then his son started working for the Ottawa Senators toward the end of last season, helping the coaching staff with scouting, game planning and on-ice skill development. Babcock would watch games in Palm Springs, note times and jot down comments on his phone, and send them to his son.

“Suddenly, I started watching every game, breaking down every single game,” Babcock says. “It’s not my job to do it, but I had the clips. I had everything. We could talk about it. And so that kind of got me juiced up about hockey again.”


The St. Louis Blues hired his son as a skills coach June 14. The Blues play the Blue Jackets in a preseason game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Oct. 2, and Babcock plans to ask Blues coach Craig Berube if his son can be on the bench for warmup.

“I’d like someone to take a picture,” he says. “So, whether you want to believe it or not, that was a big deal for me too. If my son’s going to be in the League, I better be in the League.”

Columbus is the right place at this time.

Babcock knows the area. When he started his pro coaching career in Cincinnati, Babcock attended a celebrity golf tournament but wasn’t a celebrity yet. He got razzed by a bunch of guys with whom he’s still friends to this day.

“They basically said, ‘Who the hell are you?’” he says. “I said, ‘I’m the minor league coach.’ ‘We have minor league hockey?’”

On some Cincinnati off nights, Babcock would drive to Columbus to watch the Blue Jackets, who were coached by Dave King, who had coached him at Saskatchewan. Later, when he made some money in the NHL and was looking for investments, he bought the land in Ohio on which he now hunts.

He has known the key members of the Blue Jackets hockey operations staff for years, from president John Davidson to general manager Jarmo Kekalainen to assistant GM Basil McRae. Director of player development Rick Nash won Olympic gold under him in 2010 and 2014.

“I talked to ‘Nasher’ about him when they were kind of going through the process,” defenseman Zach Werenski says. “He gave me a call and was like, ‘Hey, this is where we’re at. We’re thinking about hiring ‘Babs.’ Just from my experience, he’s unbelievable, and he knows how to win.’”

The Blue Jackets have talent, starting with Werenski on the back end and Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine up front. They traded for defensemen Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson, and they selected center Adam Fantilli with the No. 3 pick of the 2023 NHL Draft. (More on that in Part Three of this series on Sept. 10.)

“They have, in my opinion, lots of kids, and they have lots of things that I think you can fix quickly,” Babcock says.

Columbus has a fan base eager for a winner, and the city is 3 1/2 hours away from the tiki bar, where today Babcock is smiling in a Blue Jackets hoodie.

“The city’s buzzing,” Babcock says. “The fans in Columbus, they sold out eight of their last 10 games last year in the second-to-last spot. That’s impossible. They’re crazy. So what a market. It fits my lifestyle. Probably people don’t even want to hear me say that, but that’s true. So, at this stage in my life, that’s what works.”

The goal is to win, yes. But really it’s to feel the way he did in Lethbridge once upon a time.

“It gave me joy,” he says. “That’s the coach that’s moving to Columbus. That’s the guy. Why? Because that’s what it’s about.”