As a professional hockey coach, and as a leader of men, Mike Babcock is first and foremost a teacher. But the new head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs also is a student — of hockey and, even more so, of life.
That’s why he loved the situation in his two terms of gold-medal success with the Canadian Olympic team. He grew as a person and as a coach alongside quality people like Ken Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff, Jacques Lemaire, Claude Julien and Ralph Krueger.
The 52-year-old Babcock could have stayed in Detroit and remained comfortable with the Red Wings. He could have shuffled off to Buffalo to begin a new chapter with the Sabres and their bright future with top prospects Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel and others.
Instead, he took the most challenging job in the NHL as the coach of a club that has hit rock bottom. A club that has committed to a lengthy rebuild. A club that is two springs away from marking the 50th anniversary of not only its last Stanley Cup championship, but its last trip to the NHL final.
Yes, the massive contract — reportedly a front-loaded eight-year deal worth $ 50 million US — sure sweetened the pot. The opportunity to live in a downtown condo in a big city also was something Babcock and his wife, Maureen, always wanted to experience.
The guy with the “burning desire to win,” as he stated in his introductory press conference at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday, wants the daunting challenge of turning the Maple Leafs into a winner.
That’s why he circled back earlier this week to discuss the Maple Leafs situation further with interim general manager Mark Hunter. Eventually, the experience of coaching the Maple Leafs and the biggest opportunity for growth is what enticed Babcock to move to Toronto.
Initially, Babcock didn’t believe the Maple Leafs were the right fit. But he was impressed with Shanahan’s commitment to the organization’s rebuilding plan. Shanahan also was relentless in his pursuit. He talked to Babcock a few more times in Prague at the world hockey championship.
Babcock is a relentless person himself. The decision did not come easy. Most felt it was down to Detroit or Buffalo on Tuesday evening. Babcock even admitted he had not made up his mind until late in the process.
Going from rock bottom to the top of the heap is something Babcock hasn’t experienced. Sure, he turned the University of Lethbridge program and the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs into champions. He also took pressure-packed national-team jobs, leading Canada to its fifth consecutive world junior title in 1997 and winning Olympic gold in 2010 and 2014. He also steered Canada to the world championship in 2004.
But in the NHL, Babcock has never stood before a challenge of this size. After being promoted from the minors to the job of Anaheim Ducks head coach, he pushed an underdog team to the seventh game of the 2003 Stanley Cup final. But that team came with some valuable parts in Paul Kariya, Adam Oates and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the goalie who caught fire in the playoffs.
At an early age, Babcock showed a desire to learn. He asked his Dad about life as a man and about being a boss while remaining a friend to his workers. He wondered how his father — a hard-rock mine pit boss — could become so angry with his men yet remain popular with them.
“Dad, how can you get people to work so hard?” the son asked
“You can’t ask people to work hard if you don’t work hard yourself,” his father replied.
Although just a boy at the time, the sentiment stuck. The young Babcock had no idea back then he would become a hockey coach — a boss of boys in juniors and, later, of men in the pros. Along the way he’d put in plenty of time in the classroom, earning a bachelor’s degree in education and a post-grad diploma in sports psychology from McGill University.
“Everything I believe in comes from [my father’s] philosophy,” Babcock once told me. “I want to be successful. I always say to the guys, ‘I want us to work hard and be able to be proud of that work ethic.’ But if you ask for that, you better practise it.”
That work ethic was apparent in his days as a player. Babcock loves to tell this story that, fittingly now, has a Maple Leafs connection. After a game, a Leafs scout once told him, “Kid, you did a lot tonight for a guy with no talent.”