Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 21, 2015

Either Courageous Or Crazy, Babcock Is All In

A NOTE TO READERS: Because of travel plans Sunday’s post will be delayed until Monday, Memorial Day. Thanks as always for your continued support.

Say this much for Mike Babcock. The 52-year old hockey coach is not afraid of a challenge. As long as we’re on the subject, let’s also ask this about Mike Babcock. Has the only coach who’s a member of hockey’s Triple Gold Club lost his mind?

Babcock has long been proof that the quality of one’s playing career is unrelated to coaching ability. As a player the closest he ever came to wearing the sweater of an NHL team was a tryout with the Vancouver Canucks. He played junior hockey for a pair of franchises in Canada’s western provinces and spent a year at the University of Saskatchewan before transferring to McGill University. It was in the middle of his time in Montreal that the Canucks took a look at Babcock and promptly decided that he was a fine college player, but nothing more. In his final collegiate year he was McGill’s team captain and MVP, graduating as the second highest-scoring defenseman in school history.

With no NHL playing prospects Babcock took a job as player-coach for an English team for one season before returning to this side of the Atlantic to begin his climb up the coaching ladder. There were stops in the college ranks at Red Deer College and the University of Lethbridge, both in Alberta. In his one season behind the bench at Lethbridge Babcock, who had just turned 30, guided his team to its very first appearance in post-season play. By the time their season ended the Lethbridge Pronghorns were the improbable winners of a national title and Babcock was named Coach of the Year in the Canada West Conference.

He moved on to coach a pair of junior teams in the Western Hockey League and garnered two more coaching awards before being promoted to North American hockey’s top minor league, the AHL. Babcock took the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks to the playoffs both years he was their coach. In his first season the team set a franchise record for wins.

In 2002 and not yet 40 years old, Babcock was named coach of Anaheim, the NHL parent of his Cincinnati team. In his first season as an NHL head coach he led the Ducks to the Stanley Cup Finals. Anaheim entered the playoffs as just the 7th seed in the Western Conference, but swept the 2nd seed and defending champion Red Wings in the first round. The underdog Ducks opened the Conference Semifinals with a 4-3 win in five overtimes at Dallas; and went on to defeat the Stars in six games, all of which were decided by a single goal. Anaheim then swept Minnesota in the Conference Finals, earning the right to face the New Jersey Devils in the Cup Finals. The Ducks extended the Devils, who were in the Finals for the third time in four seasons, to the maximum seven games before eventually falling.

After a second season in Anaheim Babcock and everyone else in the NHL took a year off due to the 2004-05 lockout. When play resumed the Detroit Red Wings named Babcock their coach in July 2005. In a decade in the Motor City his team advanced to the playoffs every year, continuing the longest postseason appearance streak in the league. In 2008 the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in the Finals.

While serving as coach of the Red Wings Babcock was named head coach of Canada’s Olympic hockey team in both 2010 and 2014, and brought home a pair of gold medals. Having already led Team Canada to gold at the 2004 World Ice Hockey Championships, the Olympic medals and Stanley Cup put Babcock in the Triple Gold Club, along with 26 players who have skated to titles in the NHL, Olympics, and World Championships. Add in that University Cup he won at Lethbridge and the 1994 gold medal at the World Junior Championships, and Babcock is the only coach with five different national or international titles on his resume.

But after ten seasons and a .649 winning percentage Babcock asked the Red Wings for permission to speak with other teams after Detroit lost to Tampa Bay in the opening round of this year’s playoffs. Given his record Babcock was pursued by several NHL franchises, with Buffalo, St. Louis and San Jose among the known suitors, even as Detroit did its best to retain him. What no one saw coming was Wednesday’s news that the Toronto Maple Leafs had won the coaching sweepstakes, signing Babcock to an 8-year contract.

The deal is worth a reported $50 million, making Babcock the highest paid coach in the NHL. Cynics will no doubt point to all those zeroes after the five as reason enough for the coach to put his distinguished reputation on the line. But coaching has already made him rich and whatever team he signed with was certain to make Babcock even more so. His decision was almost certainly about more than money.

Toronto is, at present, an awful team. In the decade that Babcock was taking the Red Wings to the playoffs every year, the Maple Leafs made it to the postseason just once; in 2013 when they lost to Boston in the first round. This season Toronto finished with a better record than just three other franchises. Their roster is stuffed with fat contracts in a league with a hard salary cap. Their goaltending is questionable at best.

But Toronto is also hockey royalty, an Original Six team with a devoted fan base. The Maple Leafs have won 13 Stanley Cups, second only to the Canadiens. They are also the only Original Six team that hasn’t won a Cup in the expansion era. Toronto’s last Cup was claimed in 1967, the final season in which the NHL consisted of just six franchises.

The challenge of rebuilding this historic team and making it relevant in today’s NHL is massive. In Babcock’s initial press conference the Ontario native made it plain that’s what attracted him. “Lots of teams were set up better,” he said. “But they weren’t the Maple Leafs and they weren’t in this city.” Toronto’s new head coach is preaching patience, and emphasizing his long-term commitment. Maple Leaf fans have waited so long that a few more years likely won’t prove too taxing. But the task confronting Mike Babcock remains huge. Still no one who has followed his career would suggest that he isn’t capable of meeting it. Unless of course he’s lost his mind.

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