17/06/2024

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Mike Babcock mess an embarrassment for Columbus Blue Jackets

5 min read
Mike Babcock mess an embarrassment for Columbus Blue Jackets

Mike Babcock, 60, could have taken the Blue Jackets to another level. He has the tools. He has a well-earned reputation for industriousness, preparedness and discipline. He has won 700 games, a Stanley Cup and an assortment of international gold medals. If he had reformed his ways, he might’ve been a good fit in Columbus.

Alas, Babcock remains a creature from a bygone era, ill-equipped to handle modern athletes. That he was hired in the first place makes one question the decision making of the Blue Jackets’ front office. That Babcock resigned Sunday is an embarrassment for John Davidson, the team’s president of hockey operations, and Jarmo Kekalainen, the general manager.

Jul 2, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Head coach Mike Babcock watches players during the Columbus Blue Jackets development camp at the OhioHealth Chiller North in Lewis Center.

Jul 2, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Head coach Mike Babcock watches players during the Columbus Blue Jackets development camp at the OhioHealth Chiller North in Lewis Center.

An NHL Players’ Association investigation – prompted by podcaster Paul Bissonnette’s allegations that Babcock was doing more than asking to see family photos when he looked through players’ phone galleries − led to the scrutiny and pressure that ultimately drew forth Babcock’s resignation.

Now, just days before the Blue Jackets are to open training camp, they have a new coach. The ridiculousness of the situation is only softened by the fact that Pascal Vincent, a respected assistant who seems ready for his first big job, has been handed the reins.

Why did they hire Babcock in the first place?

There’s so much baggage.

There’s Johan Franzen, clearly a victim of bullying, who called Babcock “the worst person I ever met.” There’s Chris Chelios, whom Babcock benched in a Winter Classic game in Chelios’ hometown of Chicago. There’s Jason Spezza, yet another well-respected veteran, who was scratched for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs debut after he bought scores of tickets for his family and friends. There are others.

Jul 1, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, United States; Columbus Blue Jackets introduce Mike Babcock as their new head coach during a press conference at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Robertson-The Columbus Dispatch

Jul 1, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, United States; Columbus Blue Jackets introduce Mike Babcock as their new head coach during a press conference at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Robertson-The Columbus Dispatch

There’s Mitch Marner who, as a rookie with the Leafs, was asked by Babcock to rate his teammates on a scale, from the most hard-working to the least. The list was shared with at least one of Marner’s teammates.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: There’s too much that is needless, and needlessly personal, about Babcock’s methods. There’s too much that has nothing to do with coaching or winning or earning respect and everything to do with indulging his ego.

Babcock has an unhealthy fixation on power, and how to apply it. It’s all about him.

Jul 1, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, United States; Columbus Blue Jackets introduce Mike Babcock as their new head coach during a press conference at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Robertson-The Columbus Dispatch

Jul 1, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, United States; Columbus Blue Jackets introduce Mike Babcock as their new head coach during a press conference at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Robertson-The Columbus Dispatch

Davidson and Kekalainen chose to hand their team – which includes a raft of young, talented players, Adam Fantilli being exhibit A – to this guy. They talked about the thoroughness of their vetting process over their monthslong coaching search. With whom did they speak? Did they not understand that even the slightest misstep would cause a leaguewide stir?

Babcock talked about how much he learned during his three years in the wilderness, which for him is a farm in Ohio, a lake house in Michigan, a place in Palm Springs, California, and ski vacations in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

The league’s website last week posted a three-part series about Babcock’s return. Part 2 is all about how Babcock has learned to treat players with kindness and respect.

Bah.

Bissonnette is an ex-player with a ribald hockey podcast and an analyst’s chair with Turner Sports. Spittin’ Chiclets is a self-proclaimed “podcast for the players” and Bissonnette and his co-host, Ryan Whitney, another ex-player, tend to use anatomical references to make their points. But they have their sources. They stood by the story, and they were right.

They had a “ton” of tipsters, Bissonnette said. Stories about Babcock checking phones are nothing new in the players’ community. Someone among the Jackets didn’t like it when a certain line was crossed – when the phone thing went beyond the realm of “family” photos – and they leaked the story, directly or indirectly.

The Jackets went on a public relations counterattack. Veterans (Boone Jenner, Johnny Gaudreau and Zach Werenski) said the phone thing was a fine way for everyone to get to know one another, completely innocent. It’s clear now that it was only intermittently innocent, probably for select players. It’s my guess that Babcock wanted to establish his control over some of the younger ones.

Kekalainen remained firm – there’s nothing to see here. Then the union officials came to town to see for themselves, and the players who obviously said nothing to management, maybe out of fear, were more effusive with an investigation that didn’t threaten their ice time, or their next contract negotiation.

What does this say about the culture of the organization? Nothing good.

If there is a shred of silver in this, it is the hope that the Jackets will go the way of the Colorado Avalanche.

It was in the second week of August 2016 when Patrick Roy abruptly resigned as coach. At the time, general manager Joe Sakic was on vacation. Sakic, with assistant GM Chris MacFarland at his side, went out and hired Jared Bednar. At the time, Bednar was fresh off an AHL Calder Cup championship with the Lake Erie (now Cleveland) Monsters. That Monsters team was managed by MacFarland when he was in the Jackets’ front office.

In 2015-16, the Avalanche were the worst team of the salary cap era. But they were young and talented and loaded with former first-round picks. Bednar was, and is, highly respected by players for his intelligence, straightforwardness and utter unflappability. The Avs won the Stanley Cup in 2022.

Davidson and Kekalainen now have the chance to fix their mistake and, fans must hope, fix it well.

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Arace: Mike Babcock mess an embarrassment for Columbus Blue Jackets

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