Mike Babcock is back in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets, confident he has evolved as a coach in his nearly four years out of a pro job.
The 2008 Stanley Cup-winning coach with Detroit finally took over Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, introduced as the person the organization’s brass believes is the right fit for a team looking to win again. Now 3 1/2 years removed from being fired by Toronto and word emerging about some of his polarizing old-school tactics, Babcock sounded like someone who has learned from his time in the college ranks and is ready to adjust to modern players.
“Change in all of us takes time,” Babcock said at a news conference streamed on Zoom. “I think what this has done is given me a chance to get outside my body and have a look and see what I’m doing and understand you needed to change, you needed to grow.”
Babcock returns to the NHL following the end of his lengthy contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who fired him early in his fifth season with them in 2019.
Columbus decided early last month to hire Babcock but had to wait until July to make it official because of the significant money still owed to him on the $50 million, eight-year deal he signed with Toronto in 2015. This is just a two-year contract, Babcock and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen confirmed.
President of hockey operations John Davidson said he spoke to recently elected Hall of Fame coach Ken Hitchcock about the Blue Jackets’ vacancy.
“He said, ‘There’s only one guy to hire,’” Davidson recalled and Hitchcock confirmed by text Saturday. “I said, ‘Who are you thinking?’ He says, ‘Mike Babcock.’”
Babcock, who also made trips to the Cup Final with Anaheim in 2003 and Detroit in 2009 and guided Canada to Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014, gives the Blue Jackets an accomplished veteran behind the bench to oversee their attempt to become a contender again in the Eastern Conference.
“We’re convinced that we got the best coach for the job,” Kekalainen said. “His coaching achievements talk for themselves. Everybody knows that. But I’m also convinced that he’s the right person, the right man for the job.”
Columbus missed the playoffs the past three seasons after making it four years in a row under now-Philadelphia coach John Tortorella. The Blue Jackets finished tied for the second-fewest points in the league this past season, selected Adam Fantilli with the third pick in the draft and signed him Saturday to his entry-level contract.
They fired coach Brad Larsen in April after two seasons in that role, the second of which was derailed by injuries all over the roster after Columbus had signed top free agent Johnny Gaudreau last summer and looked poised to take a step forward. That’s now up to Babcock.
“We’re going to be better,” Davidson said. “This the most excited that I’ve been in a very long time with the Blue Jackets.
Once considered the best hockey coach in the world — and paid accordingly by the Leafs — Babcock saw his reputation take a hit a few years ago when stories emerged about some of his techniques.
Longtime Detroit forward Johan Franzen in 2019 called Babcock the “worst person” he has ever met, and former teammate Chris Chelios said Babcock berated Franzen in 2012 to the point of a nervous breakdown. Maple Leafs All-Star center Mitch Marner said during his rookie year that Babcock made him rank his teammates from hardest- to least-hardest working and shared that with a couple of the teammates near the bottom.
Babcock said his daughter told him, “It’s not what you say, it’s your tone,” and he has tried to transfer that lesson over to coaching hockey.
“The message sent and the message received often isn’t the same,” Babcock said, referencing past dealings with players he thought were good before realizing they didn’t feel the same way. “The ability to communicate and send the right message that you want to send and do it in a way that’s totally respectful to me is what the last 3 1/2 years has been about.”
Babcock credits that to a “growth opportunity” spending time as senior adviser for the University of Vermont’s men’s hockey team before returning home to his native Western Canadian province to coach the University of Saskatchewan in 2021-22. The opportunity allowed him to get accustomed to coaching younger players.
“We are going to have a relationship with all 23 players, one that is a give and take,” he said. “Communication is so important. I have to find out what they think works best for them in communication, and they have to know if I’ve crossed a line with them they are allowed to say, ‘Babs you are out of line.’ It’s two ways.”
Now 60, Babcock will be in his fourth NHL job after stints in Anaheim, Detroit and Toronto.