By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (May 16) — It pales in comparison to an interview Darren Dreger could be conducting one year from now if Steven Stamkos hasn’t inked a contract extension with Tampa Bay. For the moment, however, there is no bigger media grab in hockey than Mike Babcock — until May 25, free agent coach of the Detroit Red Wings. Dreger actually hooked a daily–double after his impromptu journey to the Czech Republic (site of the World Hockey Championships) — corralling Babcock and Detroit GM Ken Holland for a hotel sit–down. Yet another global exclusive for TSN.
That’s a pretty good haul for last–minute airfare between Toronto and Prague — British Airways offering the best on–line price of $1,516 for a one–way ticket (providing, of course, Bell Canada Enterprises didn’t splurge and dispatch Dreger on Air Canada in Executive Class, via Zurich, for a mere $6,498.67). During a two–part gabfest shown on the Friday supper–hour edition of SportsCentre, Babcock spoke genuinely, openly and candidly… while saying next to nothing. That’s what the media masters do. He continued to speculate, right along with us, about family; the importance of his relationship with Detroit and his possible need for an invigorating, new challenge. All of which he has spoken about at length. There were, however, a couple of enticing tidbits — and one that essentially ruled out defection to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
MIKE BABCOCK DURING HIS PRAGUE SIT–DOWN WITH TSN.
“I’m a big–picture guy, but I’m an immediate–gratification guy, too, because I like winning,” Babcock told Dreger. At which point, fans of the Blue and White began checking off Nos. 1 and 2 on their wish–lists (the prime fallback, Todd McLellan, is poised to become coach of the Edmonton Oilers once his Team Canada commitment at the World tournament ends). Babcock made lots of verbal love to Holland during the TSN interview and confirmed he has a standing offer to stay put with the Red Wings. He spoke about his apparent distaste for the coaching ego–trip of all time in the National Hockey League, saying “I’ve done a lot of thinking and it’s time to make a decision here.” When Dreger offered a reminder that his “window of opportunity” to negotiate with rival NHL clubs ends on May 25, Babcock stoutly implied he would come to a conclusion “by May 20th.” Which happens to be next Wednesday.
Of course, there is no telling what Babcock will decide. Even he may still be hedging among the couple or three offers that have come his way the past week. Nor is it plausible to rule out destinations not among the most hotly speculated (Toronto, Buffalo, San Jose and Philadelphia have coaching vacancies; New Jersey likely as well). It’s difficult to imagine any of the Stanley Cup semi–finalists (New York Rangers, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Chicago) making room for Babcock. Washington (Barry Trotz), Nashville (Peter Laviolette), Los Angeles (Darryl Sutter) and Calgary (Bob Hartley) appear set behind the bench. It would be surprising if Colorado moved out local legend Patrick Roy. Arizona (Dave Tippett), Columbus (Todd Richards), Dallas (Lindy Ruff) and Ottawa (Dave Cameron) will probably also stand pat. Otherwise, all bets are off.
If Babcock is adamant about an urgency to win, I wouldn’t preclude any of Montreal, Pittsburgh, Boston or St. Louis from the equation. All have strong teams and could easily roll out the welcome mat. Jurisdiction beyond coaching may also be a factor. As I’ve speculated here, if the Leafs, for example, are willing to provide Babcock control of their hockey operation, perhaps a six–year contract and $30 million would compensate for immediate results. The grunt–work could be handled by Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter and Brandon Pridham, allowing Babcock to focus on bench duty. Buffalo may provide a more enticing opportunity.
BABCOCK COACHED THE CANADIAN MEN’S HOCKEY TEAM TO GOLD MEDALS AT THE WINTER OLYMPIC GAMES IN 2010 AT VANCOUVER AND 2014 AT SOCHI.
Whatever the case, the Babcock World Tour is certain to be over by this time next week. Then the other dominoes will quickly begin to fall.
“FORGET ABOUT IT!” You never know who you’re liable to run into at your favorite burger joint. I took my offspring (Shane and Lauren) for supper on Thursday evening to Golden Star — a culinary hot spot of the past half–century in Thornhill, north of Toronto. And, sitting near the front window, with his son Matthew, was my multi–millionaire ex–colleague from the earliest days of The FAN–590… none other than Dan Shulman. Dan is a bit more famous now than he was back then, though it took him about a week, as I recall, to zoom past the incumbents (myself included) at Canada’s first all–sports radio station.
Today, Dan, at 48, is best known as the TV voice of Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN (shown on TSN here in Canada) and is also the American network’s lead college basketball announcer. I enjoy listening to him belt out his signature home run call: “For–get about it!” In 2011, he became the first Canadian to be honored as National Sportscaster–of–the–Year in the United States. Dan burst into prominence north of the border in 1995 when named TV voice of the Toronto Blue Jays on TSN. He worked alongside Buck Martinez — the Blue Jays current TV announcer — in a role he held for seven years before moving to ESPN.
I still laugh when remembering the raw, star–struck youngster that came to CJCL AM–1430 after studying actuarial sciences at the University of Western Ontario. Sometime in late–1991, I was working on a taped segment for Prime Time Sports in one of our production studios. Program director Larry Green burst through the door all excited about this kid doing part–time work for CKBB in Barrie. “He’s great, I’m putting him on sportscasts later this week,” Green told me. “Cool,” I replied.
HOWARD AND DAN AT GOLDEN STAR THURSDAY NIGHT.
But, when I first heard our new phenom, I came close to passing out. Dan’s voice was rattled with nerves; he had no cadence; no inflection, and trouble stringing together a proper sentence. I walked into Larry’s office and said “are you out of your mind?” My boss laughed. “Just wait, Howie… he’s going to be better than all of us. I promise.”
And it didn’t take long.
I remember going with the Leafs on a road trip to California in March 1992. The San Jose Sharks were in their first NHL season and playing at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. We still had Leaf broadcast rights and I worked that Sunday afternoon with Joe Bowen and Gord Stellick — handling the pre–game; the intermissions and a post–game call–in show from the arena. Having acquired Doug Gilmour from Calgary two months earlier, the Leafs were making a late playoff push that went off the rails with an ugly, 4–1 loss to the expansion Sharks. After taking calls from irate fans for nearly 90 minutes, I packed up and drove with my wife, Susan, to San Francisco Airport for the quick flight down to Los Angeles.
DAN SHULMAN AND THE ESPN SUNDAY NIGHT BASEBALL CREW. LEFT–TO–RIGHT: REPORTER BUSTER OLNEY, FORMER L.A. DOGDERS PITCHING ACE OREL HERSHISER, DAN, AND EX–SAN DIEGO AND PHILADELPHIA OUTFIELDER JOHN KRUK, WHOM DAN AND I COVERED FOR THE FAN–590 DURING THE 1993 WORLD SERIES BETWEEN THE BLUE JAYS AND PHILLIES. YOU CAN SEE THE BOYS THIS SUNDAY ON TSN AT 8 P.M. EDT FROM BUSCH STADIUM IN ST. LOUIS AS THE CARDINALS HOST THE DETROIT TIGERS IN INTER–LEAGUE PLAY.
Prior to boarding, I was asked to call into the radio station from a payphone to update one of our sportscasts. It was already night–time on the coast so it must have been after 11 p.m. back home. I had dialed in a few minutes early and when put on hold, I could hear Dan as host of our evening show. Whatever jitters he brought to the job were long gone — replaced by a thoroughly knowledgeable and professional broadcaster. I was blown away. For whatever reason, our head of network sports, Allan Davis, was in the station late that night and he got on the phone to ask how my hockey trip was going. All I remember saying is: “Allan, we’ll be lucky to have Shulman for six months.” I don’t think Al disagreed.
As it were, Dan stuck around until 1995 — replacing Bob McCown for two years as host of Prime Time Sports; working alongside the late Jim (Shakey) Hunt. At the same time, he was flying to Bristol, Connecticut on weekends to work for ESPN Radio. We could see the writing on the wall and were thrilled for Dan when he landed the TSN Blue Jays gig. His story is among the most triumphant in Canadian broadcasting history.
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [HUMBER COLLEGE]
LINKEDIN: HOWARD BERGER [BROADCAST MEDIA]