DETROIT – It was unprecedented, and certainly unexpected.
But Mike Babcock – who was introduced as the 30th head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs just 24-hours earlier – returned to Joe Louis Arena on Friday to say some final goodbyes and to speak to reporters for the last time from inside the Red Wings’ locker room.
At times it was a very emotional visit for the man who for a decade often exhibited a cold-steel persona with his players and the media.
Standing in front of reporters and TV cameras, Babcock worked his way through a prepared statement while fighting back tears and occasionally taking time to glimpse down at a yellow legal pad where he had scribbled some notes so as not to forget anyone.
The 52-year-old Saskatchewan native first thanked owners Mike and Marian Ilitch, Christopher Ilitch, and general manager Ken Holland. He then moved on to the players that make up the team’s leadership group – captain Henrik Zetterberg and assistant captains Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall. He also acknowledged his first two captains, Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom, as well as legends Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, who from time to time over the last 10 years stopped by the coach’s office to chat.
“This is my opportunity to thank obviously Mr. and Mrs. I and Chris for the opportunity they’ve given me here,” Babcock said. “For Ken Holland for his guidance and his friendship and his help along the way, to you people, the media for the great coverage. To a great city, to the office people, to the guys that clean the rink and the guys I walk past every day at security, to all the people that have helped over the years.
“I’m trying to get this out this morning. It’s been real special to say the least. … It gives me great pride for what we accomplished in my 10 years here.”
No doubt about it, Babcock had a historic run during his 10-season tenure with the Red Wings. But now he’s off to change the culture of a Leafs’ franchise, who has reached the postseason just once in that time.
Under Babcock’s watch, the Red Wings went to the Stanley Cup finals twice, winning it in 2008, and were the only team to reach the playoffs every spring in a competitive salary cap era.
The only real regret Babcock is saddled with is the Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh in the 2009 Cup finals.
“Did I cross the line at times with a player or did I not treat the media right one day? Sure,” he said. “But I would have liked to win Game 7. We did everything we could, we prepared as hard as we could. I thought we would have won back to back Cups if Pav didn’t get hurt that year. We didn’t. What I like is that we gave ourselves a chance. We knocked on the door year after year after year. We created a lot of excitement in the town. I think the fans are proud of us here. I think the people are proud of us. We’ve done a real nice job.”
But Babcock was yearning for a new challenge, and two weeks ago – and after some lengthy conversations with Holland – he was granted permission to test the open market and to speak to teams interested in perhaps hiring him.
“It’s a career decision,” Babcock said. “I’m a big believer I’ve spent a lot of time in my life chasing a dream thinking you can make it happen and it’s worked out thus far. … Don’t get me wrong I love it here, but I also think it was time for me. No matter how much I talk to Kenny and we went back and forth and he was great. I wanted a different challenge and when I got it in my head I’m coaching an Original Six franchise – the model of the NHL – if I’m going to leave I have to go to an Original Six franchise. I just have to. I went back and forth on it 100 times. I probably wore Kenny out being a pain in the butt and I know I wore my family out. It was gut wrenching. As much of it is emotional for me right now talking to you I said it yesterday it was like I was 25. I was jacked up, scared to death. We’ll see. Only time will tell. I believe you put your foot on the gas and go get it and that’s what we’re going to do.”
At one point, Babcock held up an old newspaper announcing his hire and a photo of him with Howe and Yzerman that he unearthed while cleaning out his desk drawers Friday morning.
Going through 10-years worth of accumulated stuff in his office, saying farewell to people he had developed bonds with wasn’t easy. Staying goodbye is never easy. But it was necessary.
“It’s way easier just to get fired,” Babcock said. “You just get fired and you just find the next team to get going. You don’t think about it, but when you’re leaving unbelievable people. … It’s hard to leave. But I’m excited for the opportunity and I’m thankful for what they did for me here.”
Regardless of where Babcock landed a new contract – Toronto, Buffalo or staying put in Detroit – he was going to get paid rather handsomely and well above the $2 million per season he had been making in his final deal with the Red Wings.
“Money to a certain level is an important thing,” said Babcock, who will make $50 million over the next eight years. “I worked real hard going into this negotiation period. I looked at every NBA and NFL coach. I went through all that work and didn’t use any of it. I didn’t. In the end, the Ilitches were fantastic to me. It’s not like I was going to be on food stamps. They looked after me big time. They made it hard. I respected everything, the same with the Buffalo Sabres. The other teams I talked to I got out of the mix before ever getting to that point so in the end is it about money, sure it’s about money. There was enough money in every place it didn’t have a factor in any of the decision. I don’t know if that makes any sense. Once you got to a certain point. I already have enough suits, I’m good.”
While leaving the Wings’ organization is one of the most difficult decisions he’s ever been faced with, Babcock doesn’t plan to cut ties to the area completely, as the family will maintain their residence in suburban Northville, while he and his wife, Maureen, shop for a condominium in downtown Toronto.
“Not selling it,” Babcock said. “My kids want to train here. They work out at Barwis there and come back. They’re college athletes. They want to come back every summer.”