Mike Babcock brought the pain in his introduction press conference as Toronto Maple Leafs head coach.
Like the pain of building a championship team from the ground up in Toronto, a process whose length and complexity are symbolized by the eight-year contract given to him by MLSE president Brendan Shanahan and the board.
“If you think there's no pain coming, there's pain coming,” said Babcock.
“The path we're taking has to be different. There’s no chance for a quick fixer here. You build a program. It’s going to take a long time. They committed to me for a long time. I committed to Toronto for a long time.”
Like the pain being felt in Buffalo, as the Sabres and their media proxies believed Babcock had agreed to a deal to coach that franchise.
Babcock denied he ever agreed to a contract with owner Terry Pegula and the Sabres, and bristled at the accusation that he flat-out lied to them, leveraging the Sabres’ offer to enrich the one coming from Toronto.
“That 'lying' word’s an interesting word for me,” he said, while admitting he and the Sabres worked on a contract framework.
“I’ve been real straight forward and honest in the process with all the teams I talked to. I worked for six years in Spokane and 10 years in Detroit. As a head coach, you don’t work in places for a long time unless you have good relationships and treat people with respect.”
He said reports that he and Buffalo GM Tim Murray had any friction are “wrong.” He said "if [the Sabres] don't like what happened in the process, I feel bad about that."
Later, when asked about the process again, Shanahan … well, basically sub-tweeted the Buffalo Sabres:
“Teams that get pushed out early on don't get their feelings hurt as bad. The teams that Mike liked the most are probably the ones with the most hurt feelings."
The Sabres weren’t the only ones with hurt feelings – Babcock said he had to get the Kleenex out when discussing his departure from the Detroit Red Wings with friend and general manager Ken Holland. But one franchise’s loss is another’s gain, and it was clear what the Toronto Maple Leafs had gained in Mike Babcock: the focal point of a long-term plan to build a Stanley Cup champion.
Well, OK, the latest focal point for the Leafs to build a champion. Please recall Nov. 2008, when Brian Burke had an introductory press conference filled with hope and change and truculence and pugnacity. When he said things like:
“Does that mean we’re going to tear everything down right away? No. We’re going to have to evaluate the team first and see. I do think a team should either be ascending rapidly or descending rapidly. I don’t believe being ‘good’ is not the solution. This is about having the parade.”
But there are clear differences between Burke and Babcock in their approaches. The first is obvious: Burke was tasked with building a winner; Babcock is tasked with helping to build a winner within a brain trust of Shanahan, assistant general managers Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas, and whoever else joins the war cabinet. Burke was the GM who hired the coach; Babcock is the coach who may not even have a GM.
“I won’t rule anything out at this point,” said Shanahan on going sans-general manager in the near future. “The key is to finding the right fit.”
And while Burke flirted with contention, Babcock flat out said “this is not about the playoffs.”
It’s about “the process,” a word Babcock used over and over again. It’s the vision he laid out to the MLSE board, brutally. It the only path he sees for the Leafs.
"We wanted Mike to be a coach and a builder," said Shanahan.
It’s a process that involves evaluating the present roster – Babcock put over Dion Phaneuf as a player he admires. It’s a process that involves getting players for the future, using the drafting expertise of Hunter and Dubas – Babcock said the only way to get players is to get draft picks. It's a process that makes Toronto an appealing place for players to play, considering the toxic relationship between the teams and media and fans recently – Babcock said he wanted to make the franchise "safe" for players, and “when you win every day, it becomes safe for the players.”
And it’s a process that’ll play out for eight years, during which Babcock will earn an NHL record salary for a coach, reported to be over $50 million.
How exactly do the Maple Leafs justify that kind of contract?
Babcock jumped into to answer that question. “To me it’s real simple. The contract is simply a commitment to the Maple Leafs to success. They made a long-term commitment to me so I understand they’re committed to the process,” he said.
At the end of the day, Babcock said he’s still a guy who drives a Ford pickup truck.
(No word if it now has solid gold hubcaps.)
So besides the ridiculous salary, which was matched elsewhere, why choose the Leafs?
“I wanted to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
And there it was. The legacy. The challenge. The chance to win the first Stanley Cup since 1967 for this championship starved city and fan base.
“What I enjoy about today is that it’s obvious people care. This fan base here really cares about the Leafs and want us to be good. And they understand we’re going to be in a long process here,” he said.
“I believe this is Canada’s team. And we have to put Canada’s team back on the map.”
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