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Krupa: To keep Babcock, Red Wings need to win

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit – The Red Wings were in Toronto last weekend, and not much was said about the status of their free-agent coach, whom many fans of the Maple Leafs, without a Stanley Cup since 1967, would dearly love to coach their team.

In a media scrum around Mike Babcock before the Red Wings lost to the Leafs, not a question was asked about it, not a word was said.

On CBC's "Coach's Corner" segment, Ron MacLean turned to Don Cherry and said, "Hey, is Babcock coming to Toronto next year?"

"No," boomed Cherry. "He's not coming to Toronto, he's staying right there. He's trying to get as much money out of (Ken) Holland as he can, holding it right for the end.

"He's not leaving there. He's got a good thing going."

Setting aside for the moment the fact that the Ilitches likely will make the decision, there is no salary cap on coaches in the NHL, and Babcock has said repeatedly it is not about the money, I agree with Cherry.

And when Babcock addressed the issue at length last week after a report out of Toronto said he had been offered a five-year extension for big money, those parsing his words may well have reached the same conclusion.

This is all about the coaching. And if Babcock sees even the smallest advantage in something, he will use it to win.

Ask yourself, after the report surfaced, why did Babcock simply not fall back on previous assertions, by both himself and Holland, that they would no longer address the issue?

That bit of prevention seemed to work wonders with that media scrum a few days later in Toronto.

Instead, two days earlier in Detroit, Babcock seemed keen to address it.


Motivating tool

He was coaching, by using several of his answers to provide a mindset to motivate players and underline his intent: It is all about winning.

Eager to shoot down the report, Babcock also knew he could make good use of the opportunity.

"This should be good," Babcock said as he approached the media.

He said eight months ago he is interested only in a one-year deal. Regardless, his phone had "blown up" with many people asking about the reported five-year offer, he said.

While shooting it down, he accomplished far more. He used the concern about his status to articulate the agenda and his purpose, and to motivate players and staff.

See for yourself.

After saying he and Holland agreed "not to do this" during the season, he did it — he discussed his contract. But the very next thing he said was, "Our team's going good. Our team's playing good. I like the way they're playing. ...

"I'm happy here. I like the general manager. They treat me good. I don't know what else I can tell you."

Those were his words. His intention?

To make clear that if the team keeps playing well and if they can get a couple of other key pieces while guys like Tomas Jurco and Anthony Mantha mature, why would he go anywhere?

He is satisfied and enjoying the gig, he said. The implication, heavy in the air, is that when he is not, he might be gone.

Then he explained succinctly what satisfies him.

"Listen, besides my family, the thing maybe I like most is winning. So, that's the process, here. That's what we're trying to do, here.

"And if you think I'm working harder, here, because I'm in my last year of my contract, it makes no difference.

"I grind. That's what I do. I'm a professional grinder. I love winning. So, you know, we'll see what happens — we've got a game, tomorrow."

Those were his words. His intention? In my mind, to make clear the duration of his tenure, now at 10 seasons, will be determined by the success of the players.

In other words, just win.

'100 percent comfortable'

And if concern about him staying gives the team a smidgen of advantage — motivation for the players, more power when discussing the free agents and trades — then Babcock is perfectly willing to be a cause for concern.

But the concern is for others. Babcock knows exactly what he is doing, and he sought to make his intentions clear.

"I'm 100 percent comfortable," he said. "I'm going to do the best I can, OK?

"And I think things are going to work out, I really do. I'm a big believer in that."

To paraphrase, in the context of his remarks: If we all make our best effort, we will win and I will be here for that.

Then, a question came that got so close to the heart of the matter that Babcock deftly demurred.

If he is happy, why not sign a deal now and put it all to rest?

My sense of the real answer is he believes the uncertainty gives the team some edge.

"We'll work her out," he said. "We play Florida tomorrow."

In other words, he is confident his developing roster will win, and he is likely to stay. Meanwhile, the task begins anew with the next game.

His friend and a mentor, Scotty Bowman, liked the year-by-year approach. But the king of the one-year deals was the late Dodgers manager Walter Alston, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, with 23 consecutive.

"It never bothered me," Alston said. "Because all it ever meant to me was that I could quit if I was dissatisfied and that the Dodgers could fire me if they were dissatisfied."

The more Babcock talks about it, the more his intentions are clear — and the more he uses the repeated restatement of them to coach.