A great interview with the Leafs’ new General, Mike Babcock, on Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown and Arash Madani. Transcript below.
If Shanahan wasn’t here, would you have come? What’s it like answering to a former player who once answered to you?
I don’t know if Shanny ever answered to me. They were veteran players. Shanny got 40 in 40 that year for me and I still remember being under the Windsor bridge when I got the phone call saying he was going to New York. His time was done in Detroit because Stevie was leaving, he thought it was the next chapter. He went to New York. I remember that conversation. What I like about Shanny’s story is that Shanny, during that one lockout there, was probably hanging around the couch too much driving his wife crazy and then he went to work at the NHL and sat in a little booth wondering if that was the end of his life. Then he spent the next five years going to meetings, getting involved, and he created a life for himself. The first time he got interviewed for a GM’s job he wasn’t ready. He’s worked his way to get here. He obviously likes it and has a plan. His plan, when he talked to me, when I talked to Mark Hunter – I’m a huge Mark Hunter fan, he’s a hockey man, he gets players – when I talked to those guys it was great. When I went to see Larry at his home that night and we went for dinner, when I left that night and he made me a big offer right that night, when I got home I said to my wife, “that was impressive.” I didn’t expect to tell her that. I didn’t expect that at all, but I was impressed. And then we went from there.
On balancing the micro-level game management with the long-term vision:
I’m going to do what I’ve always done. Ken Holland and I have sat in that office for ten years, we talked every single day, and we do everything we can, long term thinking, and I do everything I can to win. That’s what I do. I’m going to do the same thing here. But if you think the player decisions, the personnel decisions, are going to get in the way of our goal; our goal is not getting in the playoffs, our goal is to be a Cup team that bangs on the door, bangs on the door, bangs on the door, and then one day they open the door for us. That’s what our goal is. That’s going to take a serious build here. It’s going to take serious people doing what they have to be doing and sticking to the plan for a long period of time. The only way you win is by having great people. The more great people you surround yourself with the greater chance you have to really dig in when it matters. It’s hard. There’s 29 other teams trying to do the same thing as you. I came in here with my eyes wide open. There’s other teams ahead of us as far as their pursuit in their rebuild. But, Mark Hunter I believe is a very good scout. Our job is to get him as many picks as we can so that we can load it up and build a real program here that we can all be proud of.
How does the approach change now that you’re not contending?
My approach, I believe, changes every single year. You’ve got 23 players, you’ve got to figure out 23 different ways to coach. They’re all different. But where I am with you is, if I work for you, I want to know what you want because I’m going to please you. You tell me what you want and I’ll please you. There’s nothing worse than playing for a coach that can’t tell you what he wants. As a player you’re trying to read his mind. There’s nothing worse than working for a general manager or a President that doesn’t tell you want he wants. You’re trying to read his mind. Just tell the guys, give them a plan, and have them execute. I don’t tiptoe around people and I don’t expect them to tiptoe around me. What I mean by that – If I cross the line, just tell me. If you don’t like the way I spoke to you, say, “Babs, don’t talk to me like that.” I expect you to bring it every day. Every single day. I expect you to be a man when you don’t and own your own stuff, period. I believe that the game is honest. If you’re an everydayer and you’re honest about your approach with the way you eat, the way you train, the way you live away from the rink, that shows when you come to the rink and the fans appreciate who you are. If you don’t want to be like that, if you don’t want to be part of the Maple Leafs, that’s fine too. What you do is you go see Shanny. If you’ve got a problem with me, you just walk across the hallway and see me. Simple. I’m going to be very direct, but I also think I really like players. I’ve been around them. You don’t get to stay ten years in one spot, six years in another spot; you must do something right. I’m going to push these guys hard, but I’m going to get to know them in a hurry. We need to make it safe here to play for these players. Safe, so they can feel good about who they are. In order to do that, we’ve got to build our program so we’ve got a better program.
It’s not always easy to get a player who isn’t buying in out the door with the business of the modern game. How do you manage with that?
We just make a decision over time. This is what I can tell you and I’m going to say it again. Good people are going to play for this team. What I like about the process here with Shanny and the board, and when I talk to those guys, I asked them, “three years out, when we’re getting ridiculed, your family is getting abused and it isn’t going well, are you still going to have my back? Do you understand how long this is going to take? Are you in for the ride?” The fans are. It’s not the fans, it’s the people running it get discouraged, get worried, get weak. We’re not doing that. We’re going to commit to the process. Is it going to be hard at times? Absolutely. But the board said they’re going to have my back, Shanny said they’re going to have my back. I’m going to have their back. They made a huge commitment to me in years. I made the same commitment back. At one point in the contract negotiation I asked for an out and they said no chance. I was pumped when they said no chance. We’re in it together, let’s do it. The way I look at it is, it’s an unbelievable city with a franchise that is an unbelievable business. We have to have the on ice product to be deserving of the sweater and this community. What we have a chance to do; I’m not sure I’ve ever been more excited. It’s a great day.
Anything about the Leaf players that helped influence you?
No. I don’t want to come off the wrong way there. This opportunity was afforded to me by the board, Shanny, the great fans of this team and this city. That’s why I’m here. Now, do I think we have some players, absolutely. Do I think we have more players than we know? We’re going to find out because we’re going to watch them and we’re going to figure it out, and then we’re going to build a real program. There’s no hurry, at least not from me. I’ve got a burn to win that’s ridiculous. I love winning. We’re going to win, it’s just going to take more time than I would like.
Is there a certain style you’re trying to implement from your time in Detroit, or was it always changing?
It just changed over time, it changed every year. I had to get better, life long learning, embrace what’s new, find new ideas, try to be cutting edge. One of the things I’m most proud of in our run in Detroit in the last ten years since the salary cap – the only team to make the playoffs every year for ten years, we had a 106.4 points a year and I only know that because one of these teams I interviewed with showed me, we had 23 playoff rounds, the most at that time – what we did is we developed people. Steve Yzerman and Pat Verbeek in Tampa. Jimmy Nill is in Dallas. Todd McLellan is in Edmonton. Paul McLean was in Ottawa. Bill Peters in Carolina. Blashill is going to be the next coach for the Wings. I’m missing somebody in that process. These people came to Detroit and they got better and the players got better and we developed talent and we made better men. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall packed me around on their backs for ten years. You need good players. In saying all that though, that’s what we’re going to do here but you do that by building something. I’m a school teacher, that’s what I am; we’re going to build something here that people and other franchises are going to be attracted to it and then they’re going to take our people. When other franchises start taking your people, you know you’re doing something good.
Did the history of the franchise make you think twice about this?
A hundred times I went back and forth. It’s interesting; Randy Carlyle — Norris Trophy winner, a thousand games, Stanley Cup winner — he coached here. Lots of good men have coached here. Pat Quinn I thought succeeded here. What I would tell you though is that you can only coach what you’re given, but when you get the people to buy in to the plan – the board is in, Shanny is in, the fans are in – who is in the way? I believe that the people who get paid to cover this great game, you get paid because there’s fans watching. The more fans we have, the better off we are. There must be a big deal going on here, I’ve talked to more media people today than I’ve talked to since the Olympics. In saying that, most of you guys are fans of the Leafs too, you want them to do well too. You get paid to hack all over us, I understand that totally, but just think as a player when you go to a press conference or you go talk to the media after you win. You get used to doing that. If you win all the time, the media is not so bad, are they? They’re actually saying good things about you. When you work real hard and bring it every day and they say good things about you, it’s not that bad. The years I had to turn the standings upside down in Detroit when things weren’t going very good or we lost a bunch in a row, I stopped listening to the media. I listen to country music and I don’t listen to the talk radio. You know why? I can beat myself up. I don’t need any help. My point is this – if we create an environment – not if – when we create an environment that allows these players to be safe, it’s going to be way better. How many people from Ontario play in the NHL? Once we make it safe, they’re coming home.
You really think people will want to play in Toronto?
You got it. They don’t right now. It’s really hard. Mark my words: They’ll be coming.
What is your philosophy on analytics?
I love it. What I love about it is I love information. What I’ve tried to do is surround myself with as many young, smarter people than me, more learned in that area than me, and they give you information. Sometimes, the information they give you, you don’t think it’s very good, but lots of times it’s great ideas. I hired a kid last year; I phoned out to the University of Michigan, I said I need a math guy, a real smart guy, just graduated, real good social skills, loves hockey. Can you find me that guy? Couple days later, it just so happened my kids knew who he was. We put him in our office next to our video coach, I said, “I don’t know what your job is, figure it out.” My point is pretty soon that guy was making a huge impact. He had found things that we could use, reoccurring situations in the game, that led to success. Staying on offense, or getting out of the defensive situation fast, it was a great little thing he gave me. The next thing you know he’s evaluating my pregame talks. I come in after and say, “what did I say?” He’d tell me. There’s a 24 year old kid making you better. There’s so many great ways to use information that’s great, you just have to make sure it makes sense; you can’t cloud your vision of what’s going on. That to me is what analytics is.