In Toronto, Babs continues his own hat trick: Win, Anger, Annoy

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

Image result for mike babcock

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.

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From the Archives: My Interview with Brendan Shanahan in 2010

In honor of Brendan Shanahan being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, here’s a piece I wrote in April 2010 after spending some time with the newly-retired Shanny in a rink in Trenton, where he was promoting a Fox Sports special in which he was participating.

BRENDAN SHANAHAN Me and Shanny

PLAYOFF HOCKEY WITHOUT SHANAHAN NOT THE NORM IN THE NHL

April 24, 2010

Brendan Shanahan played 21 physical, angry seasons in the NHL yet he could walk into a Hollywood producer’s office tomorrow morning and be cast as the male lead.

Shanahan, 41, still has his looks; most old hockey players have faces that are zippered on and are the texture of corduroy.

Shanahan is still the best looking man in most rooms these days, plus among the smartest and most charming, and it’s enough to make guys like me sick.

I’m not telling you anything the ladies don’t already know.

He sat behind a desk in an office inside the Kennedy Ice Center in Trenton Saturday and spoke eloquently on a number of subjects, including his involvement in a fascinating story involving two local high school teams from 1999. But more about that later.

This used to be Shanahan’s time—right now. Spring hockey. The playoffs going on. Lose four games within a seven-game window and you’re on the golf course tomorrow.

Shanahan loves golf and he’s very good at it. But he never loved it enough to choose it over playoff hockey.

“I miss playing at the elite level. I miss the highest level of competition,” Shanahan told me. “I miss playing for the Stanley Cup.”

Shanahan isn’t in the playoffs this year for the first time in 14 years, because he retired last fall. That’s the only way you could keep him out of the post-season; Shanny played 21 seasons in the NHL, and he made the playoffs in 19 of them.

The last time he missed the post-season, it was in 1996 and it was because he was playing for the awful Hartford Whalers. Shanahan scored 44 goals in the 1995-96 season and those were ten more than the wins the Whalers had.

Shanahan, at that point, had played nine NHL seasons and his teams’ playoff runs lasted about as long as a 4th of July sparkler.

The Red Wings in 1996 were elite. They’d just set an NHL record with 62 wins, but were blasted out of the Western Conference Finals by the hated Colorado Avalanche.

In the early throes of the ’96-97 season, Shanahan got himself some ideas.

“(The trade to Detroit) took about two weeks to come together,” he said. “It wasn’t a phone call that said, ‘You’re traded.’”

Shanahan, unhappy with the tenuous Whalers, who would soon relocate to Carolina, looked at the Red Wings and saw an opportunity.

“They were an Original Six team, they were on the cusp of winning, and I thought I could help,” he said, adding a gross understatement at the end of that sentence.

The Red Wings had been manhandled by the Avs in the ’96 Final Four. They were humiliated by guys like Claude Lemieux and mocked by goalie Patrick Roy. The Red Wings’ overall team toughness was seriously questioned.

The Stanley Cup drought in Detroit had reached 41 years. And counting.

And here’s 44-goal scorer Brendan Shanahan, annually garnering triple digits in penalty minutes, a tough Irish guy who was as lethal with his gloves off as with them on, and he thinks he “could help”?

Yet not everyone agreed with him that Detroit would be an ideal destination.

“The players’ union tried to get me to go to Washington,” Shanahan told me. He nearly rolled his eyes when he said it. “There were others who tried to convince me that there were better places for me to go [than Detroit].”

But Shanahan wanted to make Shanny-to-the-Red Wings a reality.

I asked him about that first night as a Red Wing—when he was introduced at the team’s home opener, having rushed into town after the deal was finally done, to a mighty ovation. Thunderous, was more like it.

“When I stepped onto that ice, it was like, ‘OK, it’s official now. It’s all worth it.’”

Eight months later, the Red Wings exorcised their Stanley Cup demons. They won the thing 42 years after Lindsay and Howe and Sawchuk skated the Cup around the ice.

Shanahan played in all 20 of the team’s playoff games and scored nine goals, seemingly every one of them big—and was whistled for 43 penalty minutes. Natch.

The Red Wings weren’t soft any longer. Shanahan “helped” in that department, big time.

He’s helping in a different way now.

Shanahan, working with the folks at Gatorade, will serve as honorary coach for the 1999 Trenton Trojans high school reunion team who will take on the 1999 Detroit Catholic Central Shamrocks to settle some unfinished business. Those hockey powerhouses, fierce rivals, played to a 4-4 tie in a game at Trenton that was suspended following the horrific injury suffered to Trojan Kurt LaTarte, whose throat was slashed by a skate.

It’s all part of a TV series called REPLAY, where high school teams are reassembled to replay games that ended without a winner. The Trenton-CC game was selected for replay among over 2,000 applicants.

The CC honorary coach is Scotty Bowman. Yes, THAT Scotty Bowman.

“I want to win,” Shanahan said of the May 9 game. “I want to win at checkers. It should be an intense game. These players are blessed. They have a chance, 11 years later, to settle the score.”

Shanahan knows intense. He played hockey with a fierceness and fearlessness that I hadn’t seen in Detroit from a player of his talent prior to his arrival.

The playoffs, especially, were Shanahan’s time. He played in 184 post-season games and scored 60 goals. He racked up 279 penalty minutes. He helped import the term “power forward” from basketball’s lexicon.

And he won three Stanley Cups.

Shanahan scored, and he fought. He also increased the interest in hockey among the females. Often all in the same game. The Brendan Shanahan Hat Trick was a goal, a fight, a swoon.

I wanted to know what this time of the year meant to an old NHL warrior like him.

“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”

And the payoff?

“That’s what I liked most about it. When the final horn sounded and you were the winner and the season was over, that’s when you sort of pulled the blinders off and really took a look around you. You were on a mission. You were focused entirely on winning, and that was a lot of fun.”

Saturday was just the third time Shanahan had been on skates since he announced his retirement last fall. And don’t expect him to join any men’s leagues or appear in any old-timers games.

“Once you’ve climbed Mount Everest,” he said, “why step up a hill?”