Krupa: Mike Babcock needed a new thrill

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Walking into Joe Louis Arena on a warm spring day, with the Red Wings three weeks out of the playoffs, felt odd.

Usually, these days are reserved for the big retirements: Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Kris Draper and Tomas Holmstrom. They announced the ends of their playing careers in the arena where they played, as if they still had the big winged wheel emblazoned on their chests.

Instead, standing in front of assembled television cameras and scribes was the new coach of the Maple Leafs.

Oh, sure, it was Mike Babcock, in his accustomed position in the dressing room, saying a formal good-bye and thank you after 10 seasons as coach of the Red Wings, including one Stanley Cup and a near-miss.

But, especially given the state of the franchise, the sight was unsettling.

No one would deny a great coach of long service to a premier sports franchise the opportunity to express his gratefulness and bid us all adieu.

But it also served to underline the peril of the moment.

A roster three seasons in transition lost its way three-quarters through this year, and never quite recovered. A storied franchise is mystified by its own inability to attract the key free agents in each of the last few offseasons.

The core, as Babcock reminded all as he coached his last game for the Wings, is getting old.

Some players let go have far exceeded the performance of some players who have arrived.

The Red Wings are a team several accomplished coaches and general managers are "from," not where they toil now in pursuit of the 12th Stanley Cup. Once upon a time, as Babcock reminded us, Scotty Bowman, Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Jim Nill and Todd McLellan were all with him on the Wings bus — together.

All are gone.

'A different challenge'

There he was, a familiar face, certainly.

But this time, for the first time in a decade, the best coach in the NHL provided no comfort for the restless desire that always will swirl around the franchise in Detroit, absent the Stanley Cup.

He was sad, emotional, grateful, sincere, wise, brimming with advice about life, savvy about hockey, teaching and just the sort of guy you want coaching your team.

But now, Babcock coaches their team, the ancient rivals in blue and white for whom a lot of folks across the river cheer.

And the reason he gave for it only encouraged discomfort.

He got tired of trying to help push the same train up the same hill. He was interested in a new train and a new hill.

"In the end, when I weighed all the options and went through them — you know I spent a lot of time with Kenny (Holland) on this, too," Babcock said, with overwhelming emotions and some tears.

"I just felt, for me to invigorate me, what was I going to do with the next 10 years of my life?

"It's a career decision.

"No matter how much I talked to Kenny — and we went back and forth and he was great to me — I wanted a different challenge."

He knows himself well enough to know another season coaching the Red Wings in the post-Yzerman and post-Lidstrom era was not for him. He needed the new thrill.

Oh, sure, he said, he appreciated the money, too.

But the exhilaration is the thing, and it was no longer as pure or intoxicating with the Red Wings.

"As much as I'm emotional, here, today, talking to you, I said yesterday it was like I was 25," he said, of the excitement he felt in Toronto. "I was jacked up."

I watched him coach in Sochi 15 months ago, working his Xs and Os into the magic of preparation. It helped impose blanketing defense on the large international ice surface and secured a consecutive Olympic gold medal in hockey for Canada.

I wrote then that not re-signing Babcock would be the harshest blow to the Red Wings since "The Dead Things Era" and "Darkness with Harkness."

Time will gauge whether it was exaggeration.

'His preparation is unmatched'

But I know what Justin Abdelkader knows, and the other players, too.

And yes, yes, yes, of course, they all likely think Babcock could be an enormous pain in the butt. Many coaches are.

Far fewer are as successful.

Regardless, Babcock's preparation made winning a lot easier. The measurement of how much easier is likely to be a recurring theme next season and for more to come.

Especially when the Maple Leafs are in town.

"His preparation is unmatched," Abdelkader once said. "Whether it's video, or he gives cheat-sheets before the game with our forechecks or our breakouts.

"We know everything on the ice.

"It's so ingrained in you that you have no choice. You're going to be in that spot. It's where you're going to go."

So, there he was, standing before the assembled media: The Great Preparer.

And the coach of the Maple Leafs.