For the past two weeks, the hockey world buzzed about where Mike Babcock would coach next. Buffalo? Edmonton? San Jose? St. Louis? Montreal? Pittsburgh? Would he stay in Detroit?
The answer came Wednesday, and what’s funny is that it seems so obvious now.
Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan could always offer Babcock the most money (which matters to most of us); a strong, smart boss (which should matter to all of us); and the chance to resurrect Canada’s most popular team (which is incredibly appealing to Babcock).
The Babcock era in Toronto will be fascinating. More interesting at the moment, though, is how he handled this whole situation. He may have created a new model for how coaches in all sports view their careers.
Great coaches have jumped from one team to another before, of course. We’ve seen it with Bill Belichick, Larry Brown, Bill Parcells, Pat Riley, Larry Brown, Joe Maddon, Larry Brown and Larry Brown. Tom Thibodeau will probably do it in the next few weeks. Babcock even did it once before, after the NHL lockout ended in 2005, when he jumped from Anaheim to Detroit because he wasn’t confident about his future in Anaheim.
The difference here is that Babcock had no reason to leave. He would be the first to say this. The Red Wings still wanted him. Last year, they wanted to make him the highest-paid coach in the NHL. He had stable ownership—the Ilitch family will likely own the Red Wings for as long as Babcock coaches. He had a strong relationship with his general manager, Ken Holland, who is both extremely skilled and as easy to get along with as any executive in sports. Babcock liked living in Michigan, and he admitted to the Detroit Free Press recently that it would be “way easier for my family” if he stayed. The Wings are even building a new arena.
There was no reason for Babcock to leave. And yet he left.
Why? Because he figured he could hit the open market and cut the best deal for himself, regardless of history, sentimentality or loyalty.
In other words: He approached it like a player.
He approached it just like another recently departed Detroit star, Ndamukong Suh. The Lions wanted to keep Suh. He had a great job for a good team, the Lions made a fair offer, and some will disagree on this, but I think he liked Detroit just fine. Suh wanted the biggest chunk of money he could get, and he wanted a contract that showed the world how valuable he is. He bet on himself and won the bet.
It is unusual for a coach to do this—so unusual that, as it was happening, we didn’t quite know what to make of it. Most coaches switch jobs because of a fundamental problem with their current one. Maddon left for a bigger market after his general manager in Tampa, Andrew Friedman, left for a different bigger market. Parcells and Riley wanted control of personnel. Belichick wanted better ownership.
Babcock? He wanted whatever was best for Babcock. And why not? We expect teams to act out of self-interest, and we have come to expect athletes to act out of self-interest. Why shouldn’t coaches do the same?
Babcock seemed to realize what baseball agent Scott Boras has been telling clients for years: The dollars will be greater (perhaps exponentially greater) if you hit the market. And unlike a player, Babcock did not face a serious risk of injury, or accusations that his skills were declining. He could also see how the Wings’ young talent progressed.
Mostly, he could see what was out there for him. People will focus on the money from Toronto—reports are that his deal is worth an astounding $50 million over an equally astounding eight years, which blows away what any other NHL coach makes. People will also look at the Maple Leafs’ sketchy roster and recent history and conclude this was just a cash grab.
Well, it was partly a cash grab. And that’s O.K. But if you know Babcock at all, you know that the Toronto job surely appealed to him in ways that no other job could. In many ways, though not on the ice, the Maple Leafs are the premier franchise in the NHL. They generate the most media interest in their market. It seems like all of Canada follows every Leafs shift.
It means a great deal to Babcock to be loved and appreciated in Canada. When he coached the Wings, he seemed to perk up whenever a Canadian hockey writer entered the building. A lot of people thought that coaching Team Canada in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics was a no-win situation, because of the pressure and expectations for gold. Babcock openly coveted the job, got it, and won gold. He would have been a hero in Canada for the rest of his life for that. But he wanted to try it again, and he did, and he won gold again.
The Leafs are like some weird hockey version of the Cubs and the Yankees—as popular as the Yankees, but tortured like the Cubs. If Babcock delivers the Leafs’ first Stanley Cup since 1967, he will be a bigger hero in Canada than even he could have dreamed.
Babcock has that chance now, and he only has it because he treated his career like a player would. It was a smart call, and look for other elite coaches to do the same. The climate is changing. Teams fire winning coaches all the time, across sports, for various reasons: Mark Jackson, Vinny Del Negro, Tony Dungy (when Tampa fired him), Charlie Manuel, Jon Gruden, Scott Brooks, Grady Little. Teams are entitled to do so. But coaches are entitled to leave, too.
There was a time when coaches were seen as an extension of management, and there was a time when coaches grabbed any extension because they felt lucky to have any job at all. Babcock realized times have changed. Which elite coach will realize it next?