Detroit — Even if it's time to go, and your head and heart say it's time to go, and your career clock says it's time to go, that doesn't make it any easier.
The ending was written in words and tears Friday, as Mike Babcock returned to say his goodbyes. Several times while speaking with the media, he dropped his head to compose himself. It was as respectful a parting as you'll ever see, as Babcock profusely thanked everyone connected with the Red Wings, from owner Mike Ilitch and his wife Marian to GM Ken Holland to the players to the fans to the arena workers.
It was rare, a departing coach coming back to say how difficult it was to leave. And it was real, as Babcock clutched pieces of memorabilia dug out of his office, tattered reminders of a decade spent in the same place. He also took out full-page ads in the newspapers to express his gratitude.
"I went back and forth a hundred times," Babcock, his voice quivering. "I probably wore Kenny out being a pain in the butt; I know I wore my family out. It was gut-wrenching. As emotional as it is for me right here, right now, (in Toronto) it was like I was 25. I was jacked up and scared to death."
Babcock didn't have to leave, in the literal sense. He didn't want to leave, in the emotional sense. But renowned for pushing others, he knew it was right to push himself.
The money from the Maple Leafs is staggering, $50 million over eight years. The city and Canadian hockey lore are great. The challenge is immense. And 10 years coaching the same team is unusual in any sport, and the Wings are in the midst of a youthful transition. With all that, especially the historic contract, it would seem an easy jump to make, until Babcock actually made it.
He held up a photo of himself with Steve Yzerman and Gordie Howe. He unfolded a newspaper clipping from the day he was hired. As he cleaned out his office in Joe Louis Arena, Babcock was purging keepsakes, and a lot more than that.
Admiration for players
Watching his stoicism slip and his eyes fill with tears again and again, you were struck by the raw connection, and reminded how seldom you see it in professional sports. Coaches get fired or retire, or a new regime brings in its own guy. Babcock was the longest-tenured NHL coach, working for the same owner and the same GM in the same system, making the playoffs every year, winning one Stanley Cup and narrowly missing another.
How long did it last? Well, consider the longest-tenured coach or manager today in Detroit is Brad Ausmus, in his second season with the Tigers. Lions coach Jim Caldwell and Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy just completed their first seasons.
Leaders like Babcock, or Scotty Bowman, or Jim Leyland, don't come along very often, and sometimes aren't appreciated enough until they leave. It takes a strong organization, as Ilitch has built with the Wings and Tigers, and a special competitor to endure. Babcock was wildly driven, and chafed a few players over the years. I actually think that was one of his motives for speaking Friday, to express his admiration for veterans Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall. His comment after the playoff loss to Tampa Bay that the Wings were aging at the top was honest, but not as respectful as he'd intended.
"I love those guys, and I'm gonna be friends with those guys forever," Babcock said. "The best 10 years of my life here. It's way easier just to get fired. You get fired and find the next opportunity and you don't think about it. When you're leaving unbelievable people, 10 years together, having beers and enjoying each other, it's hard."
It's also hard to push players year after year and still be heard. It's why Babcock allowed his contract to lapse, to see what was out there. It's why his friend and adviser, Holland, understood the process and patiently helped Babcock through it.
'Chasing the dream'
There's still a big challenge in Detroit, with the expected replacement, Jeff Blashill, entrusted with a roster of potential. Holland has more promising youngsters such as Dylan Larkin on the way, but extending the 24-year playoff streak has been difficult and won't get easier for a while.
Just getting into the playoffs with the Maple Leafs — who have missed nine of the past 10 postseasons — will be a major test for Babcock, 52. But it's a unique test, one that instantly made him feel younger.
"I've spent a lot of time in my life just chasing the dream and thinking you can make it happen, and it's worked out thus far," said Babcock, adding he'll keep his house here. "Don't get me wrong, I love it here. But I also think it was time for me. This is a way different challenge."
The Wings contended consistently for 10 years, and would have won back-to-back Cups if not for a Game 7 loss to the Penguins in the 2009 Finals. The last five years were tougher, with three early-round Game 7 losses, but Babcock wasn't interested in discussing regrets.
Both sides might be invigorated by this, although assuming the Wings won't miss one of the best in hockey is a tad optimistic. It's a situation we've never seen around here, a coach leaving in his prime, and each side genuinely appreciative of the other. The Wings know what they're losing. And as he picked through his office one final time, Babcock was reminded what he'll be missing.