Columbus Blue Jackets Announcement

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 Nov. 20, 2019. visited Babcock 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 second story in a three-part series. (Part 1 | Part 3)

BRIGHTON, Mich. -- Mike Babcock met with a player while volunteering as coach at the University of Saskatchewan in 2021-22. His son, Michael, was one of his assistants.

“I think the meeting’s spectacular,” Babcock says. “The next day, my son comes up to me and says, ‘The player says to me you’re all over him.’ I said, ‘I thought we had a great meeting.’”

Babcock has shared that story multiple times since becoming coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 1. He recognizes that there has been a disconnect with players in the past, that he has been unaware of it in the moment and that he needs to take steps to fix it in the future.

His stint at Saskatchewan has inspired him to make a communications plan and a mental health plan for each player in Columbus, and he has asked everyone to let him know if something is wrong.

What is a communications plan? What does it look like?

Babcock used to make a contract with each player entering the season. He’d ask for three areas in which the player felt he needed to improve, and they’d write them on a card. Often, they were the same areas he had in mind. Sometimes, he’d make a change or an addition. They’d refer to it in meetings during the season to track progress. It was all about on-ice development.

Now he and the players will focus on off-the-ice development too.

“We’re also going to have a communication contract, because I learned that I was brutal at it, and I thought I was good at it,” Babcock says.

Babcock says he’s receiving help from an expert at Ohio State, and he’s talking to each player about what’s best for him.

“I don’t know if it’s a contract,” Babcock says. “It’s, ‘This is what I’m thinking. This is what you’re thinking. Here’s how we’re going to communicate best.’"

Babcock says one player might tell him, “'Babs,' when you get [ticked] off on the bench at me, it does me no good. If you want to talk to me, just lean over in my ear,” but another player might say, “I actually need a tightening every once in a while, Babs. Make sure you got me.”

“I want them to tell me how they want to be talked to, how they want to meet,” Babcock says. “Some guys don’t ever want to come into your office. Are you getting them a coffee? Are you getting them under the stands on the way out? I used to skate around with guys before (practice), but now if you skate around with a guy, there’s an article (written about it), so you can’t do that.”

Here’s what he wants the players to know:

“I want to treat you with the utmost respect,” he says as if speaking to a player. “My intention is going to be kind. But I want you to maximize what the good Lord gave you. I want you to push. I promise you this year in Columbus we’re going to work, I promise you, so you have to buy into that.”

Nick Cotsonika on Mike Babcock returning to coaching

Babcock and his wife, Maureen, have three adult children. They communicate with each based on the individual. The idea is to figure out how to do that with the 23 players on the NHL roster. It’s going to be a process.

“We’re going to treat everybody fairly and with respect,” Babcock says. “In saying that, we’re going to treat everyone different. Why? Because they’re different.

“Now it’s way easier [when] you meet with a veteran guy. He [doesn’t] mind telling you. You meet with a kid, it’s going to be harder for them to be comfortable at the start.

“You want to push them, not offend them. You want to help them maximize their skill set. You don’t want to push them away; you want to pull them in. You want to be there for them.

“The other thing: It takes a long time to build up trust; it can be wrecked in a second.”

What is a mental health plan? What does that look like?

At Saskatchewan, Babcock coached student-athletes, not professionals. In meetings, the first question was, “How’s school?” The second was, “How’s your mental health?” Hockey came after that.

Babcock wants to talk about more than hockey in Columbus. He says has gotten ideas from his daughter, Taylor, an occupational therapist at a children’s hospital in Denver, and reached out to a psychologist in Colorado. But at least in spirit, it’s simple.

“You and I get together,” Babcock says. “‘How’s your mental health?’ ‘I’m not doing very good.’ ‘OK, are we talking to somebody? Do we have your own person? Have we talked to our guy? What steps are we taking?’

“You can think of nothing worse than suffering in silence. Sometimes because of the stigma, people say they don’t want to share. Well, actually, the more you talk about it, the more you share, the better you feel, and if you’ve got someone to share with and get ideas, that’s a positive thing. ‘Open up the dialogue’ is what I’m basically saying. On a consistent basis.”

Babcock says he is not pretending mental health is his area of expertise, but “you’re trying to make sure they’ve got all the resources they need, and you’re trying to make sure that they can talk to you.”

* * * * *

After the Toronto Maple Leafs fired Babcock on Nov. 20, 2019, negative stories surfaced about how he had dealt with players in the past, most notably Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner and Detroit Red Wings forward Johan Franzen. He has said he wishes he had handled some things differently.

Babcock, who coached in Detroit from 2005-15, brings up forward Todd Bertuzzi, who played for the Red Wings from 2009-14.

“I remember I crossed the line with ‘Bert’ one time, but I went back in the room the next day and said, ‘I crossed the line last night,’” he says. “That’s what I should have done with every one of those situations, but a lot of times when you crossed the line, you don’t know. That’s where your coaches got to tell you. That’s where your managers got to tell you.”

Maple Leafs 2019-20 Babcock

At Saskatchewan, Babcock cultivated that kind of relationship with chief athletics officer Shannon Chinn. They often chatted over a beverage.

“If he was doing something that I thought was goofy, I would tell him, and if he was doing something that was great, I would tell him,” Chinn says. “We just had a really, authentic, open conversation. There was no strategy behind it. There was nothing but just honest talk.”

In Columbus, Babcock has begun trying to cultivate that kind of relationship with his colleagues. As an example, he uses director of player development Rick Nash, who won Olympic gold under him with Canada in 2010 and 2014.

“I talked to ‘Nasher’ yesterday,” Babcock says. “‘If I need to know … ’ ‘Don’t worry. I got you.’”

Babcock has told the players to tell him if he crosses the line, and he plans to keep doing it.

“I’ve got to do a better job of telling the people that, and I’ve worked hard at that with these players to tell them that and keep telling them that,” he says.

As if speaking to a player, he says, “When we meet, before you leave, make sure you’ve said what you wanted to say when you came, and make sure you were truthful, and I’m going to do the same. If you don’t agree with me, you don’t even have to tell me there. Come back and tell me, ‘Babs, that was a terrible meeting.’”

Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially for younger players. Babcock can be intimidating. He controls ice time and influences roster spots. It might not be in a player’s nature to confront a coach.

Even defenseman Zach Werenski admits a little discomfort with it, and the 26-year-old is a seven-year NHL veteran with the security of five more seasons on his contract.

“It’s one of those things where I’m not used to doing that, so it might take some time,” he says.

But it’s going to take team leaders like Werenski, defenseman Erik Gudbranson and forwards Johnny Gaudreau, Boone Jenner and Sean Kuraly to step up and speak up.

“He’s like, ‘Listen, there’s going to be times where I think I say the right thing and it comes off the wrong way,’” Werenski says. “He goes, ‘Just come into my office and tell me. You. 'Booner.' 'Goody.' Kuraly. Johnny.’ He said, ‘Just come tell me. I’d rather hear from you guys right away and I’ll fix it, rather than hear it from management or an agent or the media later on.’

“He said he was trying to learn this. Sometimes the message is right, but it’s received the wrong way or comes out the wrong way. He doesn’t know that. He’s been very honest with me, at least, in that sense. Like, ‘Hey, come into my office and tell me, and I’ll fix it.’”

Perhaps no player will talk to Babcock more often than Jenner, the Blue Jackets captain.

“As far as the communication, it’s huge,” Jenner says. “You have 25 different personalities where, I think, some guys are going to be different or respond to different things. What Babs is trying to find out is, what’s the best way for us to communicate to get on the same page and pull in the right direction here? And that’s big for us as a group.

“Obviously, as the captain, you want to be that anchor, especially (for) younger guys coming in (who are) not sure what to say or (don’t how to) approach a coach, I guess. I can definitely help with that, and the other older guys in the room. The more you just speak up, have that communication line open, the better off you’ll be.”

* * * * *

About 10 days after Columbus hired Babcock, Werenski spent three hours at what Babcock calls his “tiki bar” on the lake down the hill from his house. The coach and the player got to know each other.

“Talked a lot about expectations, me taking the next step,” Werenski says. “One of the questions he asked me was, ‘How do I help you get there?’ A coach has to worry about 23 guys and a team and winning and all that stuff, but it’s nice when you know your coach is trying to help you become the best player you can be for the team.”

Werenski got in his car to drive home and saw a text message from Edmonton Oilers forward Zach Hyman. They had played together at the University of Michigan in 2014-15, when Hyman was a senior and Werenski was a freshman. It had been a long time since they had talked.

“He was like, ‘Hey, give me a call when you get a minute,’” Werenski says. “And I had no idea what it was about.”

Werenski called him immediately.

“He’s like, ‘Hey, I’m just calling you about ‘Babs,’” Werenski says. “I’m like, ‘That’s funny you said that. I just left his house.’ And he started laughing. He’s like, ‘Hey, you’re really going to like him. Like, I really like him.’”

Hyman began his professional career with the Toronto organization in 2015-16, when Babcock was in his first season with the Maple Leafs. Hyman played most of the season in the American Hockey League. The Maple Leafs finished last in the NHL.

By 2017-18, Hyman had 40 points (15 goals, 25 assists) in 82 NHL games. The Maple Leafs had 49 wins and 105 points, team records at the time. In 2018-19, Hyman had 41 points (21 goals, 20 assists) in 71 NHL games. The Maple Leafs had 46 wins and 100 points.

The Blue Jackets finished 31st in the NHL last season.

“‘Obviously, there’s stuff with every coach that might go the wrong way or whatnot or might come off the wrong way, but he cares,’” Werenski says, quoting Hyman. “‘He’s emotional. He’s passionate. He’s going to push you, but he’s very fair and very honest, and you’re going to like playing for him.’”

Werenski brings up Philadelphia Flyers coach John Tortorella, who coached Columbus from 2015-21.

“To be honest, that’s kind of the coach I like to play for, similar to ‘Torts’ in a sense, very honest, very open,” Werenski says. “You know where you stand.”

2017 NHL Awards And Expansion Draft

Babcock 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 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.

“You know, you hear stories and all this stuff about him, but I’ve talked to a lot of guys that have played for him, and they all say not to read into that,” Werenski says. “I think when it comes to the negative stories, and the stuff with Marner, and the Franzen stuff, like, obviously you’re going to hear the bad stuff and stuff that he probably knows was wrong, but it’s one of those things where you don’t always hear the good stuff, and there’s a lot of good stuff.

“So, I’m excited to play for him. Everything I’ve heard has been really good stuff. So yeah, it’s off to a good start, me and him. I’m very impressed so far.”