Leafs banking on $50M investment in Babcock

Larry Lage
Associated Press

Toronto — Mike Babcock slid a yellow legal pad to the right side of the desk in his modest, windowless office, put his head down and wrote down a phrase he had just heard without saying a word.

The Toronto Maple Leafs coach, who is as much of a teacher as he is a student of leadership, later scrolled through a series of notes on his cellphone, a blurring look at his cache of catchphrases, thoughts and reminders.

"Once I write it down or type it, it's locked in and I don't forget it," Babcock told the Associated Press.

Babcock left his cottage in Saskatchewan earlier than he ever had last summer, putting water skis away and packing his bags because he faces the toughest task of his NHL coaching career. And the Toronto Maple Leafs are paying him well to get to work.

The Original Six franchise, seeking its first Stanley Cup in nearly a half-century and its second playoff appearance since 2004, lured Babcock away from Detroit with a $50 million, eight-year deal.

Toronto Maple Leafs' new head coach Mike Babcock, second left, yells behind the bench while playing against the Ottawa Senators.

Babcock's average compensation over the term of the contract more than doubles what any other coach in the league will make this season.

"Clubs can do whatever they think is in their own self-interest," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in Toronto at the league's office, which is just steps away from the Maple Leafs' home arena.

After seeing the cost of coveted coaches go from about $3 million up to as much as $6-plus million per season, how did other NHL owners react?

"It raised some eyebrows," Bettman acknowledged. "But I'm not sure it rose to a grumble."

Krupa: Franzen, back from injury, fires up

Babcock began raising his voice when he started leading the Maple Leafs during training camp and can be heard barking instructions behind the bench in preseason games.

"I don't think he has been hard on the guys," Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf said. "But he is stern."

He was the same way in Detroit, where he screamed at players to skate faster during some of their first morning skates with him. His demanding style helped the Red Wings win the 2008 Stanley Cup and come a victory short of repeating.

Babcock broke into the league in 2002 after paying his dues, leading teams such as the Moose Jaw Warriors and the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks.

As a rookie NHL coach, he helped Anaheim come within a win of hoisting the Cup in 2003. When he became available, the Red Wings jumped at the chance to hire him. And after becoming the storied franchise's all-time winningest coach was a free agent, a desperate team with a ton of money gave him an offer he couldn't refuse.

"I was already making a fortune and now I'm making more. I don't know what I'm going to do with it," Babcock said. "To say money doesn't matter isn't true. It does. There are points in your life when a raise really affects your life, but c'mon. It doesn't matter that much for me anymore. I'm still driving a Ford F-150."

It's easy to understand why the Maple Leafs were driven to beat out Detroit, the Buffalo Sabres and other suitors to land Babcock.

The 52-year-old Canadian is the only coach who has won a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold — two, in fact — and a world championship.

"He was the most sought-after coach because his record speaks for itself and we were lucky to get him," Phaneuf said. "Now that he's here, the most impressive thing is the energy he has a daily basis. He really brings it every day."

Babcock has been trying to burn off some of his energy more than ever. None of his three children are living with him for the first time since he became a father because his youngest kid graduated from high school last spring in suburban Detroit. Instead of going to his relatively empty house in Toronto after a workout recently, he joined his coaching staff for a second workout because he wasn't in a rush to leave the rink.

He has a commanding presence in any space whether it's on the ice, in the dressing room or an international news conference. He has piercing eyes that don't appear to ever blink and a crystal-clear message whenever he speaks, and people pay attention to what he says.

In Detroit, Babcock's players didn't stop listening, but he was ready to move on.

"Would it have been safer to stay? Sure," he said leaning out of his chair, elbows on desk and clasped hands under chin. "But this was exciting. There's something about the appeal of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the opportunity to fix it."

The Maple Leafs were among the NHL's worst teams last year — again. Since coach Pat Quinn led Toronto to the playoffs for the sixth straight year in 2004, the only year it has made it back to the postseason was two years ago. The last time the Maple Leafs hoisted the Cup in 1967, Babcock was 4.

"The Maple Leafs are an Original Six franchise that don't hold their rightful place," he said. "It's our job to get it back."