Holland talks about coach's departure for Toronto and possible replacements.
The grass is usually greener. Mike Babcock knew that. The Red Wings' now-former head coach even said it a few weeks ago, as another abbreviated playoff run ended and the seemingly endless debate over his coaching future began — continued, really — in earnest.
"The grass is always greener," Babcock said, "unless you fertilize the water at home."
But no matter how much fertilizer was spread here at home, and there at the world championships in Prague as Babcock tilled the NHL landscape, this was always the most likely outcome.
Maybe not Toronto, though the self-proclaimed center of the hockey universe always seemed like a pretty good fit for Babcock, who seems to enjoy the spotlight nearly as much as he does a good challenge.
But certainly somewhere else, whether it was Buffalo — the third man in this hockey fight, as it turned out — or St. Louis or any number of other teams that ultimately decided not to drop the gloves once the Sabres and Maple Leafs had upped the ante.
Brendan Shanahan, the team president entrusted with cleaning up a toxic mess in Toronto, was a man on a mission here. He was determined to make a major splash in a major market — a mecca, some insist — that has hosted three playoff games since 2004 and hasn't hoisted a Stanley Cup since 1967.
And once the final numbers emerged Wednesday afternoon it was clear he'd done exactly that, luring Babcock with a massive contract: a reported eight-year, $50 million deal.
"We have a great president, and he proved it today," said Tim Leiweke, the Maple Leafs' outgoing CEO. "I think Mike Babcock is a phenomenal coach. And I think we're really lucky to get him. As everyone knows, we weren't the only ones bidding for his services. So I'm proud of Shanny, I'm proud that he dreamt big, I'm proud he wasn't afraid to go out there and fight. And he got the big whale, God bless him."
Possibility, to reality
Meanwhile, back in Detroit, there really wasn't much sense in telling fish stories.
"Well, what can we say?" general manager Ken Holland shrugged. "We gave Mike the green light to explore the market. And when you give somebody the green light to explore the market when they're in the prime of their career, this is a real possibility."
Really, though, it's a possibility that has been hanging over the team's head since last summer, when Babcock balked at the Red Wings' initial offer of a contract extension. He passed on another back in January. And by season's end, the exit strategy seemed clear to most, despite Babcock's claims to the contrary.
"People think they know what's going to happen, but they don't," Babcock insisted the day the team officially granted him permission to interview with other teams. "Nobody knows."
No, but everybody had a pretty good idea this is where we might end up, with the 52-year-old Babcock at the center of a bidding war the Red Wings knew they couldn't — or wouldn't — win financially.
When a high-profile player hits free agency, he usually gets blown away by an offer elsewhere. And in the case of a high-profile coach, well, they rarely find themselves in the position Babcock carved out for himself, with a sparkling resume and no recent firing to explain away.
Make no mistake, this is the position Babcock smartly sought. And this is the salary he sought, too, a huge sum that finally raises the bar for an NHL coaching fraternity that has lagged well behind NBA peers in terms of compensation.
But for the Wings, whose last offer (five years, $20 million) felt a bit like the Lions' feeble farewell to Ndamukong Suh, this was an untenable position, in term and total dollars. And both sides knew it.
"I told Mike, and Mike understood, I couldn't justify going past five years," Holland said. "Mike had been here for 10 years and I can tell you about what a great (run we've had.) But we've only won one playoff round in the last four years. We've got bigger goals than to make the playoffs. So to wake up 2-3 years from now, and if we're not able to take this thing to the next level, then everybody starts looking at options."
Options? Babcock knew he'd have at least a few. And while his comments the night of that Game 7 loss in Tampa — referencing aging stars and slow-developing young talent — didn't sit well with some in the organization, he still had Holland in his corner.
'All good things ...'
The GM and coach, despite their occasional clashes over personnel decisions and the roster over the years, have a unique relationship. Holland even talked Wednesday about Babcock and his wife, Maureen, making plans to be at his daughter's wedding this summer.
And in their many hours of conversations over the last few weeks, they'd talked about everything. They talked about the "program" they'd built over the last decade, the development system that's starting to bear fruit again, and the playoff streak they'd managed to keep intact.
"Up until 11 o'clock this morning," Holland said, "there was always the possibility that I picked up the phone or Mike came and said, 'I'm gonna stay.' "
But they also talked about the ones that got away — the Cup finale in 2009, and the Game 7s in Chicago in 2011 and Tampa this spring.
"We wish we'd have won more playoff series," Holland said, almost wistfully. "But at the end of the day, all good things come to an end."
And so it is with Babcock's 10-year run here, a good thing that ended exactly the way he wanted it to. In fact, I can recall a conversation we had in his office way back in 2008, talking about his Hall of Fame predecessor, Scotty Bowman, a few months before the Wings won the Cup and Babcock signed his second contract in Detroit.
At the time, Babcock was under strict orders from his eldest daughter to see that contract through.
But beyond that? Well, he was sure of only one thing, he told me.
"I want to be able to do what Scotty did — leave on my own terms," he told me. "Not a lot of coaches get to do that."
Consider it done.