How Shanahan got Babcock as new Leaf off Wings’ tree

The Detroit Red Wings start their season tonight, and the opposing team will be led by Mike Babcock, the former Detroit coach, who was hired by Brendan Shanahan, the former Detroit player. You’ve heard of chickens coming home to roost. Is this the wolves coming home to eat the chickens?

Not really. You talk to Shanahan, now the Toronto Maple Leafs president, and all you hear is respect, respect and more respect.

“When this all started,” Shanahan says, “I called Kenny Holland (the Wings GM) and said, ‘I don’t know if there’s a good time or a good way to ask this question, but if and when Mike (Babcock) can talk to other teams, I’d like to be first in line.’ ”

Was that hard to do?

“No. … I knew if I was out of line he would have told me to go (bleep) myself.”

Instead, when the time actually came, Holland informed Shanahan, and the ex-Wing went after Babcock hard. “I pursued him around the globe,” he admits, even trailing him to the World Championships in Prague.

But in the end, after offering eight years and a stunning $50 million, he took his foot off the gas. “You make your offer, and that’s it,” Shanahan said. “There’s no bullying Mike Babcock. I let him decide, and I waited until the phone rang. And then he called.”

What did he say?

“He said, ‘You still want to do this?’ ”

What did you say?

“I said, ‘Who is this?’ ”

Shanahan laughs. “No, I said, ‘Yeah, I still want to do this.’ And he said, ‘OK, I’m in.’ ”

Shanny thought he blew it

Now, consider how strange this must have been. Here was Shanahan, who, as a player, was signed by Holland and coached by Babcock. Both men had been his bosses. Both had been responsible for his earnings and his playing time.

Now here he was, offering $50 million to one of them, and leaving a big hole for the other.

Fortunately for Shanahan, this wasn’t his first rodeo in post-playing awkwardness. In 2011, he became the NHL’s chief disciplinarian, a job about as popular as it sounds.

“Taking a thankless job in the NHL was good training,” Shanahan says. “Calling Glen Sather or Lou Lamoriello in the playoffs to tell them one of their players is suspended — that’s awkward. Talking to Ken or Mike wasn’t awkward.”

Shanahan said the harder part with Babcock was being blunt about the uphill challenge in Toronto. The Maple Leafs have defined futility for decades. There’s no way to hide it.

“If you know Mike, he asks very blunt, up-front questions. He’s a guy who would smell bull—-. I had to be really honest about the size of this challenge and how much help we needed.

“I remember getting off the phone with him after he’d asked every question that I hoped he wouldn’t. And I told my wife, ‘I think I just blew it.’ ”

Holland’s descendants

Instead, Babcock couldn’t resist the Toronto challenge any more than Shanahan could. Did the money play into it? Sure. But so did national pride. So did childhood memories. “For me, as someone who grew up here, it was like asking a kid from the Bronx if he wanted to run the Yankees,” Shanahan said.

Know this: If Shanahan and Babcock somehow manage to return the Leafs to glory, they’ll never pay for a beer in Canada again.

So tonight, the former Detroit coach and the former Detroit player come over the border in hopes of knocking off their former Detroit team. Meanwhile, Ken Holland will be the same place he was when he hired them both, perhaps thinking about all the proteges he’s sent into the NHL (Steve Yzerman running the Lightning, Jim Nill the Stars, Shanahan the Leafs).

“I’ll give Kenny the credit,” Shanahan says. “There are certain organizations in hockey that have the kind of leader that makes you want to stay in the game.

“Kenny, Jimmy Nill, they were good, they were fun, they were pros and they were kind. And I think that’s why you see a lot of Red Wings stay in hockey.

“There are a lot of teams when guys retire they just play golf. Steve (Yzerman) went right to work. And I remember thinking that’s what I want to do. Kenny made work look like fun.”

That’s pretty high praise. I ask Holland how he takes such a compliment.

“I don’t know if I had that big of an impact,” he says. Then he quickly adds: “But our goal is to win another Stanley Cup.”

It might be easier if he didn’t keep stocking the league with rivals. But then, that’s hockey. You don’t get mad. You just pay your respects, go across the ice and lace ’em up.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.

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