A second chance doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. In many ways, it is the more difficult thing. Because a second chance means that you have to try harder, you must rise to the challenge without the blind optimism of ignorance.
If you follow U SPORTS, in any capacity, it is near impossible that you did not see the news that sent a shockwave through the hockey community, both at the U SPORTS level and far beyond it. On Saturday, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey program announced that they had hired former NHL coach Mike Babcock as their volunteer Head Coach, replacing Dave Adolph, who was there for 27 years.
Since being fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2019, Babcock spent the first half of 2020 mostly out of the public eye. That is until July, when he was named a volunteer assistant for the University of Vermont Men’s Hockey team and last month when NBC Sports signed him to serve as an occasional in-game analyst.
The hiring has created a wave of controversy surrounding the U of S and has reminded us once again of the problem known as hockey culture. A culture that seemingly could look at all of the allegations, all of the controversy and vitriol surrounding Mike Babcock, and still feel comfortable entrusting him with the bench of one of the best U SPORTS teams in Canada in 2020.
You cannot speak on Mike Babcock without talking about his history, the good and the bad. The 1994 CIS title with Lethbridge, the 2008 Stanley Cup and the Olympic victories in 2010 and 2014 sit on his resume. Simultaneously, do the stories of alleged mental and verbal abuse told over the last 18 months about the 57-year-old by many players who have passed through his dressing rooms.
The story of Babcock taking then 19-year-old Mitch Marner and having him rank his teammates’ work ethics before the said list was exposed to Maple Leafs members serves as perhaps the highest-profile example, but the cuts go much more profound.
Johan Franzen, a stalwart of the Detroit Red Wings lineup between 2005 and 2015 who played 600 NHL games under Babcock, has been clear about the damage the experience of working with Babcock has left on him.
“He’s a terrible person, the worst I have ever met. He’s a bully who was attacking people. It could be a cleaner at the arena in Detroit or anybody. He would lay into people without any reason,” – is what Franzen told the Swedish newspaper Expressen in December of 2019
His feelings were backed up by former Wings great Chris Chelios. He told Spittin Chiclets an account of a playoff game between the Red Wings and Predators in which Babcock, in Chelios’ words, “verbally assaulted” Franzen.
“Some of the things [Babcock said to Franzen] on the bench, I don’t know what he said to him behind closed doors one-on-one, but he blatantly verbally assaulted him during the game on the bench,” – Chris Chelios on Spittin Chiclets
Babcock for his part has met most of these allegations with a discouraging level of dismissiveness. When he broke his year and a half long media blackout on Jan. 19th in an exclusive with Pierre Lebrun of The Athletic, he was asked about Franzen’s accusations and had this to say,
“When a player that you’ve coached says that about you, it stings you big time. But not only does it sting for that, if you’ve been involved with mental health like I have …’”
It is the hand-waving away to try to ignore real problems brought forth about his coaching style and himself as a person that has left so many frustrated that Babcock has stepped back into the sport, and angry at those who seemingly have opened the door back up.
What does this mean for the Huskies?
On the hockey side, the Huskies are in an interesting position heading into the 2021-2022 season. The team that won the 2020 Canada West Championship is not the same team that will take the ice when Mike Babcock eventually steps behind the bench. With the graduations of Levi Cable, Logan McVeigh, and Carson Stadnyk up front, and goaltender Taran Kozun signing a deal in the ECHL, the Huskies might not enter 2021 as even a favourite to win the Canada West title again.
Is this right?
This is the big question, is it not? Is Mike Babcock joining the Huskies, openly admitting the job is a steppingstone ostensibly toward returning to the NHL the right thing to happen for U of S, and for hockey in general? Is hockey culture in a sense going to let Babcock off the hook, let him get back behind the bench? The reality is U SPORTS is not Babcock’s endgame; he has openly said that he will stay in the position for two seasons while grooming a replacement. Babcock said as much on the Rod Pedersen Show on Tuesday, that “I’m the transfer coach, I’m not being here 27 years.”
So answering whether he should coach at U of S is difficult because the real question might be, would (or should) Babcock be allowed to attempt to find a coaching job in the NHL again? Should he want to?
To those hungry for a change in hockey and its culture, they might say Babcock should be finished and that this hiring is nothing more than a continuation of rehabilitating his image that began with his interview with Pierre Lebrun back in January. They might say that it is time for this idea that the ethos of hockey culture that so many in power like to brag is growing finally take shape and see someone like Babcock brought to account.
Perhaps the best articulation of an answer I have seen, is through the eyes of someone who has seen incredible highs in their 2008 Stanley Cup but disgusting lows with Babcock, Johan Franzen.
As Franzen told Expressen in December 2019:
“He creates teams that are very hard to beat; you can’t take that away from him. But he makes his players very anxious; they are scared to death of making mistakes.”
So it turns out this may be the question that U of S has already made their choice on, but as the years go on, will have to decide if it was the right one. There is no more room for blind optimism, no more room for ignorance, no more hiding the reality that’s been set in front of them.
It is said there is value in second chances. Babcock might bring you wins, he might get you a trophy, but in doing that, are you willing to wash your hands, not only of the baggage he brings with him to Saskatoon but the baggage he may yet create?
So far, it appears U of S has made their decision. We will have to see, perhaps years down the road, if it was the right one.