In sports, as you know, when they say it’s not about the money, it’s always about the money. Mike Babcock never said it wasn’t about the money. Good thing, too. Because when you’re talking about $50 million over eight years for a hockey coach — which is what Babcock apparently just accepted from Toronto to leave Detroit — money is certainly the story.
But, in this case, so was time.
And both are why Babcock is gone.
“He’d been the coach of the Red Wings for 10 years,” general manager Ken Holland said candidly Wednesday afternoon. “In pro sports that’s a long time. I don’t feel comfortable when someone’s coached for 10 years to do an eight-year extension. I offered him a five-year extension. And when you’re talking five-year extension and someone else is talking eight-year extensions …”
There you have it. In a nutshell, it was too good a deal for Babcock to pass up, and too rich a deal for the Wings to even think about matching. Sometimes you want to scream. Sometimes you want to point fingers. But sometimes, it’s just the right move for all sides.
This was one of those times.
Sorry to disappoint.
But, seriously, folks, are you really going to fault Babcock, 52, for taking a king’s ransom to coach a team that he rooted for as a kid? To take the reins of a franchise that is like the New York Yankees of Canada, but hasn’t won in so long, you have to have gray hair to remember?
Are you really going to fault him for accepting eight years and $50 million? There are plenty of NFL coaches who would envy that! It’s stupid money for a hockey coach — it’s big money even for a player! — it breaks the bank, and Brendan Shanahan, the Maple Leafs’ new president, is not going to be popular with other NHL executives this morning.
But you can’t pin that on Babcock. He gets to go someplace that wants him long-term, he now knows where he will be getting paid until he’s 60, and he doesn’t even have to win it all next year or the year after (unlike in Detroit, where we are unhappy any year without a Stanley Cup) as long as he keeps improving things.
“There’s not a better job,” he recently told the media about the Red Wings’ post. “There’s a different job.”
It’s different all right.
It pays a fortune, goes for eight years, plays north of the border, and comes with a whole other kind of pressure and ownership.
On the road again
Meanwhile, speaking of ownership, are you really going to fault the Wings here? What did they do wrong — except act decently to a long-term employee?
They offered him more than $3 million a year last year on a long-term deal. He turned it down. They offered him at least a five-year deal at $4 million a year this week. Either one would have made him the highest-paid coach in the NHL. And in the end, you could have added the deals together and they still wouldn’t have equaled Toronto’s!
Are you going to fault Holland for that?
You can’t fault him for not communicating. Holy cow. He and Babcock were like a Crosby and Hope road movie these last few weeks. They drove together across Michigan. They drove together across the Czech Republic. They spent more time in the front seat than cabbies. They also had meals together, sat in the stands together, flew on planes together. For all we know, they slept in bunk beds. Honest to goodness, at times it was like a Simon and Garfunkel farewell tour. They even did a TV interview together in Prague! While Babcock was talking with other teams!
So it’s not like they didn’t know what the other one was thinking. The only thing Holland and the Wings could have done differently would have been this: They could have held Babcock to the letter of his current deal, forbade him from talking to any other teams, made him an offer and told him he had to accept it before June 30 (when his contract ended) or it was off the table.
So why didn’t Holland do that?
“That was one of the options that I considered,” he admitted. “To say, ‘If you want to be the Red Wing coach here it is … and if you don’t want to, it’s off the table and we’re parting ways.’
“I don’t believe that’s how you treat someone who’s done for us (what he did) for 10 years. … We have a relationship. He’s tried to make our organization better.”
You gonna fault the Wings for acting like that? Decently? Like good bosses? The truth is, the Wings are the kind of franchise that can say, “If you don’t really want to be here, we don’t really need you here.”
And in essence, they just did.
In the wings
Now, before anyone gets too upset, Holland is no fool. He knows he has an excellent young coach waiting in the wings if he wants him, Jeff Blashill, currently coaching the Grand Rapid minor-league affiliate and familiar with many of the Wings’ younger players and future prospects. Holland can have Blashill for a fraction of what Babcock demanded. He also knows that Blashill showed loyalty to the organization by staying an extra year (and getting a big pay increase) rather than entertaining offers from NHL teams last year.
“He’s my first interview,” Holland said.
And for those who lament, “Yeah, but Blashill’s no Mike Babcock,” just remember, when Babcock first came here, he was no Mike Babcock either. He was an up-and-coming coach who’d upset the Wings en route to the Stanley Cup finals with Anaheim. More proven than Blashill, yes, but more needed for a veteran team with stars that had to win right away.
The road ahead
Remember, Babcock arrived a few years after a fellow named Scotty Bowman left, and many people thought the Wings would never survive Bowman’s departure. The fact is, it’s still players who win Cups, and the Wings have enough issues in that department as it is.
“The last three years,” Holland said, pointing out the recent direction under Babcoack, “we made the playoffs in the 48-game season in Game 48, the year after that in Game 81, the year after that in Game 81 …”
And they never got farther than the second round of the playoffs. Could it be that it was just as much time for the Wings to split with Babcock as for Babcock to split with them?
Look. I’ll say this about the guy. He worked hard. He never rested on his laurels. He got a bit testy in his last few years here, and he was a little squiggly during this shopping around phases, acting as if Detroit was paradise, that his wife was making the decision, that the world would be a whole lot easier if he stayed put, while all the while knowing, I think, that he could break a bank somewhere else, and he was going to.
But that just makes him a businessman in a business.
“I don’t know who coaches the same team for two decades,” Holland said, wrapping up. “As time wore on, you emotionally come to realize that you might be parting ways…. Mr. Ilitch’s perspective is the same as mine: Thank him for a great 10 years. … Now we gotta go out and do our business and try and find a coach and build a program. We want to beat Babcock’s Leafs.”
Babcock’s Leafs. Sounds funny, right? But nothing stays the same in sports except change. Time is money, they say. And in Babcock’s case, both of them pointed to the exit.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com.