Tearful Babcock says farewell, thanks Detroit ‘for the best 10 years of my life’

Former Red Wings coach Mike Babcock talks with the media in Detroit on Friday.

DETROIT — Holding a newspaper clipping from his first day on the job 10 years ago, and fighting back tears frequently, Mike Babcock said goodbye to Detroit a day after signing on for a new and very different challenge as coach of the rival Toronto Maple Leafs.

Babcock seemed to thank everyone — from owners Mike and Marian Ilitch; to Wings icons, such as Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay; to the people he met sweeping the floors at Joe Louis Arena; and all those in between — during a media briefing at Joe Louis Arena Friday. He offered up a specials thanks to friend, confidante and general manager Ken Holland, and his players.

"I’m going to try to get this out this morning," Babcock said, pausing and putting his head down as his eyes welled up during his opening comments. "It’s been real special, to say the least."

He thanked the Ilitches "for the opportunity they gave me here … they afforded my family to grow up here, for my kids to go to school here, finish high school here."

He thanked Holland "for his friendship and guidance, for his help along the way … he’s the best general manager in hockey, bar none."

He thanked the media for the coverage, the people in the Detroit area who were so friendly and supportive, the fans for their allegiance, the office people around the hockey club, and even "the guys who clean the rink and the security people I walk past every day, all the great people who I’ve met over the years."

Most of all, he thanked his players, especially the guys who had letters on the fronts of their Red Wings sweaters: captains Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg, and recent assistants Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall.

"I love those guys, and I’m going to be friends with those guys forever," Babcock said. "When Pav goes home (to Russia) to set up his sports school one day, I’m going to go help him.

"These are great men. You don’t win as a coach without great players and great leadership. They provided me that opportunity here."

Regrets? One stands out.

"I would have liked to have won Game 7," Babcock said, referring to the crushing loss at home to Pittsburgh in the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals. "We did everything we could. We prepared as hard as we could, and I think we could have won back-to-back Cups if Pav didn’t get hurt that year.

"But what I liked is that we gave ourselves a chance. We knocked on the door year after year. We created a lot of excitement in town. I think the fans are proud of us here. I think we’ve done a nice job. If you want to look for negative things, I don’t know where it is. You’d have to look pretty hard."

In fact, Babcock was armed with some statistics he said were provided by one of the other four teams that wanted to hired him this week: Over the past 10 seasons, his teams averaged 106.4 points and played 23 rounds in the Stanley Cup playoffs — both tops in the NHL.

In other words, he said, the Red Wings have provided him with a model he hopes to duplicate in Toronto, where the Leafs have managed to qualify for the postseason just once in the past 10 years.

"The Red Wings are going to continue to be great. The Leafs are going to be a work in progress," Babcock said. "It’s going to be hard. I have a burning desire to win, and where I’m going, it’s going to be different. It’s going to be harder, but they’ve made a big commitment to me there, a long-term commitment, and I’ve made a long-term commitment to them. We’re going to rebuild that franchise."

He went to say that it might not be fun at times, but that it will always be special in Toronto — every bit as special as it was in Detroit.

"For a kid from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, whose buddy was Gordie Howe’s nephew, and you got to coach the Red Wings and now you get to coach the Maple Leafs, I feel very, very special to have had this opportunity," Babcock said. "I had a fabulous 10 years here, and I’m excited about the future."

By the end of his 30-minute session with the media, Babcock was back to himself again, able to string a few sentences together without welling up.

"It’s like a purging moment. I feel better now," he said. "It’s emotional. I love Detroit. These have been the best 10 years of my life."