Published Jan. 13, 2018
The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967. They haven’t even appeared in a Finals since ’67. For most of these past 50 years, the franchise hasn’t really been all that close to sipping champagne from the silver chalice that is Stanley.
The hockey old-timers in Toronto can recall, vividly, the slapstick ownership of Harold Ballard in the 1970s, which wasn’t much different than Darkness With Harkness in Detroit over the same time frame. The Leafs and the Red Wings were mostly league fodder in those years—it’s just that in Toronto, the Leafs were fodder with more panache.
Mike Babcock sat at the rostrum in Toronto in the summer of 2015 and glared, steely-eyed, at the media and the television cameras. It wasn’t his scowl; it was his regular face. If Babcock was a food he’d be a prickly pear.
Babcock had just been introduced as the Man Who Was Going to Save the Toronto Maple Leafs—from themselves, really. The Leafs were a long-running league joke when Babcock left the sinking ship that was the Red Wings to hop aboard another that had already capsized in Toronto.
Babcock grabbed the money—who wouldn’t—but at least in Toronto, the Leafs organization knew they needed bailing out. President Brendan Shanahan, so smart it’s scary, was beginning his reclamation project and knew that in order to speed things up, he may as well hire the best coach in the business.
Babcock was brought into Toronto with pomp and circumstance rarely bestowed upon anyone involved with hockey, which is very niche and has always struggled to find folks who have acquired a taste for it. It’s the sushi of sports.
With his scowl, er, regular face, Babcock minced no words when speaking directly to the fans the day of his introduction.
“There’s going to be pain,” he said, and it wasn’t a warning. It was fact. “Make no bones about it. There’s going to be pain.”
Just like that, Babcock dashed the hopes of any Leafs fans who thought he was going to swoop in and bring their team to Cup contention in short order. Enjoy my hiring, he said, but now you just sit and wait. This is going to take time.
Well guess what?
Babcock is in Year Three and already the Leafs are becoming a force in the Eastern Conference.
Sure, drafting a franchise player like Auston Matthews in 2016 didn’t hurt. Neither did getting rid of yesteryear’s franchise player, Phil Kessel. Everyone who knew that a puck isn’t inflated knew that Kessel, long rumored to be a coach killer, wouldn’t last long under Babs. And, Kessel didn’t. He was traded to Pittsburgh not long after Babcock was hired.
There was indeed some pain in Toronto after Babs was hired, but it didn’t last long.
The Leafs went from 68 to 69 points in Babcock’s first season, but then leaped to 95 points last year after Matthews’ arrival and secured a playoff berth (first round loss to Washington).
This season, the Leafs are battling with the Boston Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division, which is being turned into a runaway by first place Tampa Bay, aka Stevie Yzerman’s team.
So we have ex-Red Wings galore here: Shanny, Stevie and Babs. And they’re all passing their old team as if it was standing still.
But there is some enjoyment in all this for Red Wings fans, albeit in perhaps an eye-rolling way.
In Toronto, the fans are a little annoyed with Babcock. So are the players.
The fans think he falls in love with certain players and gives them too much ice time and not enough to the fans’ favorites. The players couldn’t wait for their union-mandated five-day vacation to arrive earlier this week. They could use a break from the coach’s scrutiny.
Babcock is, in many ways, the Scotty Bowman of his time.
Neither man will ever be held up as a cuddly teddy bear by their players. Neither will be accused of being a “players’ coach.” Neither will be missed by many players when they leave for their next project.
But they will win.
Babcock did it with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks when few thought it was possible, getting to Game 7 of the 2003 Finals.
He did it with Detroit, and even though the Red Wings were set up to win when he arrived, how many times has that been the case but the team doesn’t actually win? A Cup was won in 2008 and almost again in 2009.
Now Babcock is taking on perhaps his most daunting challenge of them all in the NHL and he’s winning yet again. And he’s ticking people off again. Typical.
But Shanahan, who as I mentioned is as cerebral as any hockey man I’ve met, doesn’t care about the ticking people off part. He played for Bowman, don’t forget, and Shanny and Scotty had their moments.
It also didn’t hurt Shanny’s cause that in addition to hiring Babcock, he brought in Hall of Fame GM Lou Lamoriello to add yet another brilliant hockey mind to the organization. Shanahan’s hiring of Lamoriello wasn’t merely payback for the latter drafting Shanny as Lamoriello’s first-ever draft pick in 1987 with the New Jersey Devils.
But back to Babcock.
It’s rather humorous, to me, that a fan base that contains many folks who weren’t even born the last time the Leafs won the Cup, are crabbing about Babcock’s style and doling out of ice time. The man is resurrecting the franchise and is the best thing to hit the ice in Toronto since George Armstrong and Johnny Bower, and they’re complaining?
Even the media in Toronto, which has been subjected to the Ice Follies for a long time in that town, are questioning Babcock’s methods —with Matthews, of all people.
As for the players griping, that’s to be expected and is par for the course.
And to nobody’s surprise who knows even a thimble full of info about the NHL, Babcock looked at the Leafs’ bye week begrudgingly.
“As a young coach I would have wanted them to take their skates to the Bahamas, find some ice and skate,” he told Sportsnet.ca. “You and I both know that’s not happening.
“I think you pick the battles you can. We’ve got a good sports science team, they’ll give them information on how they can help themselves and go from there. We need the points.”
Mike Babcock was smart enough to know when to leave the Red Wings, and even smarter to choose Toronto, money notwithstanding. If he brings a Stanley Cup to that city, all will be forgiven—from the fans to the media to the players.
It’s like what one of Scotty Bowman’s players said about him during the Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1970s.
“For 364 days a year, you can’t stand the guy. And on the 365th, you raise another Cup over your head.”
The hockey denizens in Toronto, bereft of any greatness for 51 years, ought to zip it and let the genius do his work.