Mike Babcock joined the Dean Blundell & Co show to discuss his early takes on the Toronto market, expectations for the team and players headed into the new season, how he plans to manage his young players, and more.
It’s funny, you know, because, when you were announced as head coach, I thought I know he’ll probably understand that this place is hyper sensitive and a real magnifying glass for everything to do with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But I bet you never thought you’d see your house listing on sports media sites.
Babcock: You know, the classic thing about it is I didn’t even know. One of my neighbours called and told me about it. It was great; the market in Detroit was real good so our house was sold in two hours, which was really nice. The next day I guess they’re reporting that, [but] the house was now off the market and it’s already been sold. I phoned the people and said, “you mind getting all of that stuff down so we can get on with our life here?” You know, obviously selling our house was good. We maintain a property in Michigan, though; my kids want to summer there for the next three, four, five years, so we maintained a property there. My wife and I are happy to be living here.
You must be amazed though; I don’t know if you thought it’d be this scrutinized… the attention you’ve received so far.
Babcock: Obviously, I knew, being a Canadian myself – I think part of being Canadian is you believe that hockey is your game. The Toronto Maple Leafs are an original six franchise, which is a special, special thing, but right now we don’t hold, I don’t believe, our rightful place in the National Hockey League. We’ve got to get a better product on the ice on a year-to-year, day-to-day basis. That’s Shanny’s plan here and with Lou and myself that’s what we plan on getting done over time.
You mentioned, I was reading the Sun this weekend, a nice kind of expose unplugged with Mike Zeisberger. You talked about being scared to death. You’ve spoken a lot about your expectations and you holding yourself to those, and that’s who you’re accountable to – you. You’re not worried about other people. I guess I would ask you: Is it the new experience, or is it kind of everything involved with a new move, new team, new city, or is it the challenge of taking over this franchise and coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs that is a little intimidating?
Babcock: I don’t think intimidating is the right word at all. Scared, or fearful, is what I talked about. I remember in 1997, when they gave me the World Junior job and I got off the phone, I remember saying to myself, “oh my god, what am I getting myself into? They just won four in a row.” I probably said the same thing when I got the job in Anaheim. I know I did when I got the job in 2010 to coach Canada’s Olympic team. Same thing in 2014. Anything new is exhilarating. You believe you can disarm the bomb; that’s how you have to think. If you think you can, you can. And yet, it would’ve been way safer to stay in Detroit. You’re insulated with Ken Holland, you’ve got players that you’ve known for a long time; you know who they are. Right now, I have a face chart on my desk. I don’t even know who the players are. You know how they skate when you see them on the ice, you know who they are, but you don’t know what they look like. It’s a way different situation; you’re getting to know people. What I like about it, for me, is it’s energizing. Every day I get up, I’m pumped up; I’m ready to go. Is there going to be some tough times here? No question about it. Are we going to have a good time doing it? Absolutely. I’m very excited.
We’ve talked to a couple guys like Peter Holland, who says he’s had a conversation with you. You watch Nazem Kadri posting instagram pictures and twitter pictures of doing box jumps and working out; he says it’s the best he’s ever [trained]. Have you talked to the guys on the team last year. We know kind of about the debacle last year and how tough it’s been in the city. Have you made them aware of your expectations and what they are?
Babcock: Basically, what I’ve done was, on my initial call to every guy, I just said hello. I didn’t want to get into anything positive, anything negative; I just wanted to say hello and look forward to getting to know them. When I bumped into them here, or anyone I’ve met individually, we’ve had fairly good conversations. Most of them, until I’m around them for a period of time, through exhibition, I’m really not going to know who they are as a player. What I try to do is I never confuse the player and the person. I love coaching hockey; I love the guys. Absolutely love the guys, and yet, just because I think you’re a good man and you try hard, it doesn’t mean you get to play. It’s about what you do on the ice. I try not to confuse the two. I’m going to get to know them both as people and as players, and we’re going to have good people here who play hard and compete hard and the best players are getting to play. That’s the process we’re in right now. I had dinner with Lou and Jacques last night and we’re all talking about the fact that we don’t know who they are. So, until we spend some time with them, we’re not going to know. We’re going to get that figured out over the next chunk of time and it happens in a hurry now.
You know what you do? Like in house league, you take those little sticky notes, you put them over their helmets with their first name. It should be a lot easier.
Babcock: That’s exactly what I’d like to do, but they don’t like you to do that in the National Hockey League. We used to do that all the time at camp in Red Deer College. I’d put their name on the front of their helmet. I actually asked about doing that at Olympic camp. They didn’t think I should have “Sid” on the front of his helmet.
Did you get a sense of relief from some of the players that this is a new fresh start for everybody involved?
Babcock: I haven’t talked to any of them about the past. That, to me, has nothing to do with what we’re doing here. This is a new opportunity. I’ve been impressed with every guy I’ve talked to. I’ve been impressed when I’ve watched them skate. I’ve been impressed when I’ve seen guys work out. They’ve been good. Now, they should be good; in the short term, it’s easy to be on your best behavior. But who you are is what you do everyday and is what you do when no one is watching. That’s what I’m looking for; I’m looking for authentic people who bring it every single day. We’re going to end up with a good group with that. Is it going to take time? Sure it’s going to take time. Are we all going to learn from one another? Absolutely. But I think it’s an exciting time here. We’re in a process. I think the journey’s always the most fun anyway, and we’re embarking on one of those.
If a 19-year-old William Nylander, and let’s even say Mitch Marner, if they come into camp and show you they deserve to be there, will that opportunity be afforded to those guys? Will there be a spot for those guys should you deem that these guys have something to offer?
Babcock: The way I look at it is real simple for young guys. Tie goes to the veteran. A kid has to earn his way. No jobs are given here for free. Everything about it is, “can you help us?” Not, “can you get in the lineup?” Can you help us? The way the CBA works today is you have to pay these guys. If you play a kid when he isn’t ready to help the team, it’s one year off his contract. Would you rather have that guy playing when he can help your team? That’s another thing to consider. To me, I think the process we’re in is we have to get to know the guys here. I don’t know which kids are ready to play, which kids aren’t ready to play, which kids are physically, which kids are mentally ready to go. What you do at training camp each year – you get fired up about the kids, you’re all charged up, they’re fired up through exhibition, the regular season starts and ten games in the kid’s sitting with the General Manager. Let’s make sure they’re ready to play, and when they’re ready to play they’re going to be Leafs. If they’re not, they can play for the Marlies or play junior.
What is the expectation this season?
Babcock: The expectation is simple: Get better each and every day, and when you walk out of the rink hold your head high because you competed at the highest level.
Being aware of the abject disappointment this rabid fan base has had to endure over the past forty-odd years, last year’s debacle… you say you’re getting better every day, but what’s the best advice you can give to fans? You talk to Maple Leafs fans around the city and everybody is kind of sitting there with one eye open, one eye closed, thinking, “could this be the change or the turnaround this franchise has so desperately wanted for such a long time?” If you could get people to temper their expectations – I know you’ve talked about pain – what advice would you give a fan who has been through this for decades in the city of Toronto?
Babcock: I think it’s real simple. Just be patient. It’s going to happen. How’s that? There it is. It’s done.