By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (May 21) — For reasons that aren’t difficult to comprehend, the Toronto Maple Leafs and skepticism have long–been intertwined. When you hold the existing record for lengthiest championship drought in a professional league, distrust and apprehension are unavoidable by–products. But, let’s pause for a moment and recognize what the Maple Leafs accomplished on Wednesday by landing Mike Babcock as coach.
During the term of free agency in the National Hockey League — which effectively began after the 103–day owners’ lockout between September 1994 and January 1995 — only once, before Wednesday, had the Leafs hooked the biggest fish in the pond. That was in July 1998, when Curtis Joseph spurned a terrific offer from the Philadelphia Flyers to become Toronto’s No. 1 goaltender. Not coincidentally, the Leafs made the playoffs in all four of Cujo’s seasons here; attained, then surpassed, 100 points in the standings for the first time, and twice qualified for the Stanley Cup semifinals. It has taken nearly 17 years for the hockey club to land another indisputable first prize on the open market. And though the relative prosperity achieved under Joseph and Pat Quinn won’t happen as quickly with Babcock behind the bench, his acquisition ranks among the Maple Leafs’ biggest accomplishments in the post–1967 era.
This is a triumph shared among all parties — including, and most of all, the warring factions of Bell Canada Enterprises and Rogers Communications, which co–own 75 percent of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and had to sign off on the most lucrative coaching contract in the history of the NHL. It is a triumph for outgoing Chief Executive Officer Tim Leiweke and, particularly, for Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who can no longer be accused of impressive chatter. Shanahan, by luring Babcock to Toronto, has walked the walk. It is also — by large extension — our city’s triumph. Yes, $50 million over eight years ($16 million of it front–loaded) achieved sway with Babcock; let’s not fool ourselves. But, Toronto’s long–heeled reputation as relatively safe; relatively clean, and thoroughly metropolitan, weighed into his decision as well. So long as Babcock learns to tolerate the traffic horror that awaits him, he’ll be content as a Maple Leaf.
BRENDAN SHANAHAN (ARMS FOLDED) AND MIKE BABCOCK (NAVY SUIT) ARE NO LONGER ON OPPOSITE SIDES OF THE NORTHEAST DIVISION FENCE IN THE NHL.
Unlike the Joseph signing, which evolved largely by accident, Babcock had been the Leafs’ target from the moment Shanahan stepped aboard more than 13 months ago. Perhaps even beforehand, if you factor in Leiweke, who hired Shanahan. For those unaware, the courting of Joseph began well into free agency in the summer of 1998 — and after Leafs general manager Mike Smith glumly announced the team “could not afford” any of the big–ticket items. Had Leafs president Ken Dryden and Cujo’s agent Don Meehan not encountered one another in a convenience store on Davenport Rd. — each seeking ice cream to endure a swealtering night — Joseph would have signed with Philadelphia. As it were, Meehan convinced Dryden (rather ironically, given Dryden’s prominence among all–time NHL goalies) that the Maple Leafs could not move forward with incumbent Felix Potvin. Only then did contract negotiation begin — and quickly end, July 13, with agreement.
Neither oppressive humidity nor a hot–fudge sundae factored into the Babcock chase. Even a remarkable and honorable proposal from Buffalo Sabres’ owner Terry Pegula — which appeared, for several hours on Tuesday, to be a tipping point — served as dissuasion for Shanahan and the MLSE front–men. Not for a moment would Babcock have regretted joining the Sabres. Buffalo, for all of its weather misery and economic unrest, is a splendid community with a resilient, unassailable hockey following. Two years from now — when Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Evander Kane and Tyler Ennis are cutting a swath through the NHL — Babcock may wonder why he didn’t accept Pegula’s offer. It speaks only to the persistence of the Toronto hierarchy; of how Shanahan and MLSE weren’t going to accept “no” from Babcock. This wasn’t nearly as much Buffalo’s loss as it was the Leafs’ gain; the Sabres and Pegula went to the wall for Babcock and have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
ONLY ONCE, PRIOR TO WEDNESDAY, HAD THE LEAFS HOOKED THE BIGGEST FISH ON THE NHL MARKET — IN JULY 1998, WHEN THEY SIGNED CURTIS JOSEPH (AT RIGHT, ABOVE, HAMMING IT UP WITH MATS SUNDIN PRIOR TO THE 2000 ALL–STAR GAME AT AIR CANADA CENTRE).
Babcock’s hiring, on its own, will not accelerate the process of winning here in Toronto. Even the most dyed–in–the–wool Leafs follower understands the additions — and subtractions — that must be made. To the latter point, it’s my view that Babcock and Phil Kessel cannot co–exist. You won’t hear that from the coach during his introductory news gathering, but it’s an oil–and–water concoction. Babcock is nobody’s Mr. Nice Guy. He kicks ass more deliberately than any coach in the business and will not tolerate a player that pouts. Or, one that views himself differently than Babcock does. Hall–of–Fame defenseman Chris Chelios — in his typically candid memoir, OVERTIME — writes about playing for Babcock during the latter part of his career with the Detroit Red Wings:
“While I never felt like he had any animosity toward me on a personal level, the only frustration I had in my days in Detroit was my inability to convince Mike Babcock that I could do more than he believed I could. From the first day he came to the Red Wings in 2005, he started to chip away at my opportunities. I did everything I could to earn more playing time, but he only wanted me to fill the role that he had in mind for me, and offered me no chance to expand that role… We had several meetings but there was no changing his mind.”
If Babcock dealt this way with arguably the greatest American–born player of all time — and one of the biggest heels that ever took the ice — imagine how he’ll respond to a soft, under–achieving forward that just mailed in more than half–a–season to the Leafs. One that gobbles up $8 million of cap room each year and talks shamelessly about his lack of off–season conditioning. Kessel has never responded to a kick in the posterior and Babcock isn’t one to administer a shoulder massage. Nor will he habitually reward a lazy performer with ice time, as did Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek. This is an unholy alliance and it must somehow be annulled before training camp begins in September.
PHIL KESSEL AND MIKE BABCOCK: HARD TO IMAGINE IT WORKING.
According to all credible reports, Babcock will not be named general manager of the Leafs. But, make no mistake: This is now his team. He brings cache to the Blue and White and has put his reputation squarely on the line. No amount of money would have lured him to Toronto in the absence of meaningful roster jurisdiction. From this day forward — no matter who holds the title of GM — the Maple Leafs will be molded in Babcock’s image. And, heaven help anyone that stands in his way.
The Leafs have just spent $50 million on a winner.
For that, they deserve full and unconditional credit.
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