Mike Babcock stood at the front of the familiar dressing room at Joe Louis Arena, this time for something of a farewell address.
He became choked up after about a minute of talking, and at one point he even held up an old newspaper from a decade ago.
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”I dug it out here today – I’m going through and cleaning out my office,” Babcock said. ”There it is. That’s my first day on the job.”
After 10 seasons, Babcock is no longer the coach of the Detroit Red Wings, having been hired to take over the Toronto Maple Leafs. He moves from one storied franchise to another, and the cracking in his voice Friday indicated just how much he still appreciates the team he’s departing.
”As you can see, just as I talk – emotionally involved with the franchise and with the city and with the people,” he said. ”It gives me great pride for what we were able to accomplish in my 10 years.”
Babcock was introduced Thursday in Toronto – a celebratory, hopeful event for a team that has had precious few of those lately. A day later, he was back in the Red Wings’ dressing room to speak with reporters there.
Babcock thanked Detroit owner Mike Ilitch, described the past decade as the best 10 years of his life and said he went back and forth on his decision ”a hundred times” before finally choosing Toronto. As appealing as Detroit’s stability is – Babcock won a Stanley Cup with the Red Wings in 2008 and the team has reached the playoffs 24 consecutive seasons – the chance to try to turn around the Maple Leafs was hard to pass up.
”I just felt for me to invigorate me, what was I going to do with the next 10 years of my life?” Babcock said. ”This challenge is a way different challenge.”
Now Babcock, who has twice coached the Canadian Olympic team to the gold medal, will head to that country’s largest city and try to revive a franchise that has made the playoffs only once in the past 10 years.
”If I’m going to leave, I have to go to an Original Six franchise,” he said.
The opportunity to coach in Toronto was appealing – and then there were the financial considerations. Babcock’s deal with the Maple Leafs is for a reported $50 million over eight years, a massive commitment that the 52-year-old coach both acknowledged and downplayed.
”Money to a certain level is an important thing,” Babcock said. ”The Ilitches were fantastic to me. It’s not like I was going to be on food stamps. Like, give me a break. They looked after me big time.”
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said Wednesday he wasn’t prepared to offer Babcock anything longer than a five-year deal. Babcock said Friday that was fine – and that he had actually suggested to Holland that a three-year contract would have been OK.
In a rebuilding situation with Toronto, though, the extra commitment was important.
Although he said Friday that coaching an Original Six team was important, Babcock was also in talks with the Buffalo Sabres, a team in a smaller market that had the worst record in the NHL last season. Babcock has ties to Sabres general manager Tim Murray from when they were both with the Anaheim Ducks.
Babcock visited Buffalo and met with Murray and owner Terry Pegula earlier this month.
”I thought Terry Pegula was a superstar,” Babcock said. ”I thought they were set up great, they had great, great kids. They had gone through a tough spell and they’re ready to take off and go. … There was lots of real positive things. In the end, I couldn’t make it work.”
Detroit’s search for a replacement will begin with Jeff Blashill, who coaches the team’s minor league affiliate in Grand Rapids and has familiarity with players who have come through the Red Wings’ system.
”This guy’s ready to be an NHL coach,” Babcock said. ”If he’s not in Detroit, he’s going to be somewhere else for sure. He trained all these guys that are his kids.”