Beneath that gruff, impenetrable exterior we’ve seen and come to admire these past 10 years was beating muscle on the verge of a breakdown today even as its pulse quickened at the prospect of an exciting new challenge.
"It’s a career decision," Mike Babcock said, pausing and tearing up. "I’m a big believer that I’ve spent a lot of time in my life just chasing a dream. . . (another long pause to swallow away a lump in his throat that halted his speech) . . . thinking you can make it happen. And it’s worked out thus far. So when you challenge your kids to do the same, I think it’s important you do that, too.
"Don’t get me wrong," he told a group of about three dozen reporters who showed up to record his farewell message to Detroit. "I love it here, but I also think it was time for me. . . I wanted a different challenge."
Babcock was back at Joe Louis Arena packing up a decade’s worth of memories a day after being introduced as the new coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs — the worst of the five teams he talked with — including the Wings — over the past two weeks. His commitment to winning, a chance to win another Stanley Cup, would most influence his decision, Babcock said repeatedly.
Which is why everyone around the National Hockey League counted out the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that lost its only playoff series in the last 10 years. And why Babcock is taking a lot of heat for his decision to take $50 million over eight years to coach a team that even its executives say is probably seven years from seriously contending for the Cup.
"In the end, is it about money? Sure it’s about money," he said. "But there was enough money in every place that I talked to so that it wasn’t a factor."
More of an issue, he said, was the challenge to build something special in a city with rich, but long-dormant hockey tradition. "Canada’s team," as Babcock referred to the Leafs when he was introduced at the Air Canada Centre, hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in nearly 50 years. But like many good hockey men before him, Babcock admitted to being seduced by the tradition.
"I got it in my head that I’m coaching an Original Six franchise here, the model of the National Hockey League," he said, "and if I’m going to leave, I have to go to an Original Six franchise. I just have to."
We can accept that, eh? I mean, we’d have to be pretty heartless ourselves not to.
Mike Babcock has given this city 10 really good years — a decade’s worth of playoff hockey that included a Stanley Cup title followed by a near miss. Have there been disappointments along the way? Sure there have. But there’s no point now in talking about those painful blown 3-2 series leads — including this year against Tampa Bay.
So now Babcock, at 52, is off on a new, much-needed adventure. You could hear it in his voice when he spoke to the Toronto media Thursday and again today in Detroit.
"Yesterday I felt like I was 25 again. I was jacked up — and scared to death," he said. "Now we’ll see, but I believe you put your foot on the gas and go get it, and that’s what we’re going to do.
"I love it here, and I’m going to love the next place, too. Can we make it go like the Red Wings? That’s our goal and that’s our hope."
In his final visit Sunday morning to the home of his close friend and General Manager Ken Holland, Babcock was greeted by Holland’s wife, Cindi.
"She gave me a big hug and said she was on her way to church to pray for me," Babcock said. "Tells you what kind of people they are."
We don’t have to pray for the guy any more. His prayers have been well-answered. But on a day when his heart was breaking as he told Detroit farewell, the very least we can do is wish him well. The Toronto Maple Leafs are the Wings best and longest rivalry, and a good team down the 401 in Toronto will only make it better for all of us.
So good luck, Mike Babcock, and thank you for the memories. It has been a truly good run.