Big risk, big reward: Mike Babcock takes the money as Maple Leafs' boom-or-bust bench boss

FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2014, file photo, Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock watches the action against the New Jersey Devils in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit. The Toronto Maple Leafs have hired Mike Babcock as their new head coach, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

Now we find out how great Mike Babcock really is.

Now Mike Babcock finds out how great he really is.

He took the money: reportedly $50 million over eight years. He took on perhaps the biggest challenge in hockey: turning around the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even if he is the best coach in the NHL, is he worth more than twice as much as anyone else? Can he win with a roster full of holes? Can he remain patient through the rebuild? Can he put up with the BS in the Centre of the Hockey Universe? Can he get the job done?

This is boom or bust. If he succeeds and the Leafs win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967, ending the longest drought in the NHL in one of the most passionate hockey markets on the planet, he will be a legend. We’ll rave about his ability and belief in himself. If he fails, he will be the latest in a long line of big-money, big-name disappointments. Maybe we’ll say even Mike Babcock couldn’t win in Toronto, or maybe we’ll talk about his ego and hubris.

Babcock goes from relative stability in Detroit to the circus-like atmosphere in Toronto. (Getty)
Babcock goes from relative stability in Detroit to the circus-like atmosphere in Toronto. (Getty)

But this is what he’s all about.

“I’m not a gambler, but I love ‘going for it,’ ” Babcock wrote with friend Rick Larsen in his book ‘Leave No Doubt: A Credo For Chasing Your Dreams.’ “That’s true in everything I do. And there have been many times in my life when I came face-to-face with doubt, but ultimately I learned how to push past it. I’ve learned that putting yourself out there is a great way to learn and grow. The more you push yourself the more you grow.

“Whether I’m waterskiing at Emma Lake or hunting big game up in Alaska, I love pushing to the edge. I love risk. Not stupid risk, but calculated risk that makes you better. The kind of risk that gets you activated – functioning in a way that pushes you beyond the limits of where you are to the next level of where you want to be.”

Staying with the Detroit Red Wings would have been safe. Babcock spent a decade in Detroit, won a Stanley Cup and went to Game 7 in another Cup final. His family liked it there. He had a good relationship with general manager Ken Holland. He had a roster with good players with more prospects on the way. The Wings made him a fair offer a long time ago. They were willing to make him the highest-paid coach in the NHL. He could have accepted it and avoided a year of speculation about his future, but he didn’t.

Let’s be real: money mattered. The Wings were willing to pay only to a point on principle, because no man is bigger than their program. They knew they had won before Babcock, and they figured they could win after Babcock, especially with Jeff Blashill – AHL champion, AHL coach of the year – ready and waiting. Babcock knew he could make more elsewhere.

The situation mattered, too. The Wings had made the playoffs for 24 straight seasons, the longest active streak in the NHL by far. But they hadn’t advanced past the first round three times in four years and each of the last two, and their best players were aging. Babcock’s message hadn’t gone stale, and the roster had turned over. But the results had stagnated, and it was unclear if the Wings had enough elite talent coming to contend for the Cup again.

Going to the Buffalo Sabres would have made sense. They had a singular owner in Terry Pegula with deep pockets and deep desire to win, not unlike Wings owner Mike Ilitch. They had a general manager, Tim Murray, with whom Babcock had worked before in Anaheim. They had a terrible team but a bunch of young players and prospects, plus the No. 2 overall pick this year that could be used to draft Jack Eichel. By all accounts they made an aggressive push, but it didn’t work out.

Babcock takes over a team that has some good assets – but the Leafs have plenty of problems, too. (AP)
Babcock takes over a team that has some good assets – but the Leafs have plenty of problems, too. (AP)

Going to Toronto seems crazy. They have a corporate owner. They have no general manager. They have a terrible team – a few good assets, but lots of problems – and a circus-like media environment. But they do have president who played for Babcock in Detroit, Brendan Shanahan, and he has cleared out the front office, coaching staff and scouting staff. He has made smart hires, including Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter. He has the resources of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

Babcock has done a lot. What he hasn’t done is build a winner in the NHL. When he took Anaheim to the Cup final in his first season in 2002-03, goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere was so good he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player in a losing cause. The Ducks missed the playoffs the next season. Then came a season-long lockout. When he took over the Wings, they already had won the Cup in 1997, 1998 and 2002. They already had players like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom. The Olympics? It’s easier said than done coaching Team Canada. He deserves credit for gold medals in 2010 and 2014. Still, he guided stacked teams in two-week tournaments.

Don’t say the Leafs made Babcock an offer he couldn’t refuse. He absolutely could have refused it – the money, the challenge, the pressure, the hassle of TO – and still set a record for coaching salaries and had a better chance to win. He played the market and used all his leverage. He chose to accept the offer and everything that came with it. People will doubt him. He might have some doubt himself. But this is a chance to push to the edge. While we can argue whether it’s a stupid risk or a calculated one, it’s the kind that will activate him. His goal will be to push himself beyond the limits of where he is to the next level, to where he wants to be. And he wants to be the best.

Once upon a time, Babcock was not a hot-shot free agent. In 1993, he was fired by the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League. He and his wife had a three-month-old at home. They had no money and few prospects. They started looking for teaching jobs. Nothing came of it. He ended up accepting a business consulting job – and then got an offer to coach at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. The team had never made the playoffs and was in danger of folding. He took the coaching job and won a championship, and the rest is history.

“The consulting job offered a lot more money, greater stability and a clearer career path,” Babcock wrote in his book. “Ultimately, I chose to take a risk.”

The greater the risk, the greater the reward.

That’s why Babcock is where he is today.

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