Mike Babcock has his work cut out for him in Toronto, but fans are ready to believe he can perform a miracle
Give them credit for restraint. They didn’t bring him out on a sedan chair or scatter rose petals in his path.
But even minus the pomp and ceremony, you got the message. Mike Babcock is the man who will finally restore the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise to its rightful place in the hockey universe, who will honour the tradition, restore the pride, inevitably bring a winner and return the Stanley Cup to its natural home for the first time since 1967.
“Believe it or not, this is Canada’s team,” Babcock said, perfectly delivering the money quote. “And I want to put Canada’s team back on the map.”
And if you say, hey, wasn’t Brian Burke supposed to do that? And Cliff Fletcher and Pat Burns? Maybe even Randy Carlyle? Wasn’t Ken Dryden the guy who was going to change the culture and import all of that Jean Béliveau class and winning voodoo from the Montreal Canadiens? It’s lost in the mists of history now, but when a hotshot arrived from Quebec City to rescue a last-place team that hadn’t won a championship in eight years, didn’t they turn on the primitive hype machines of the day? (Er, one small difference: George “Punch” Imlach actually delivered…)
But to go there is to surrender to cynicism. And the beauty of sport, unlike all other surviving belief systems in our culture, is that it beats back cynicism, every time, even here, even with an organization that has so thoroughly earned it.
Give fans hope, and they will run with it. Give them a chance to believe, and they will believe. Do anything short of laughing in their face while lighting a cigar with a $100 bill, and they will continue to buy tickets, continue to watch on television, continue to operate on trust.
One might argue that the Leafs were testing that principle last season, what with the sweaters raining down from the not-at-all-cheap seats and the suspicion that a few of the private boxes might actually have gone unused for a Tuesday-night game against Columbus.
If so, there’s no need to worry now, and for at least the first half of Babcock’s eight-year term. That opening press conference alone was worth his 2015 salary.
With his square jaw, as though hewn from hockey’s Mount Rushmore, he certainly looks the part. His resumé, with a Stanley Cup, a couple of Olympic gold medals, a World Championship and a World Junior Championship, plus all those consecutive playoff seasons in Detroit, is unimpeachable.
He is a guy from Saskatoon who shoots bears and drives a pickup and brooks no dissent from his players (which makes it easier to forgive him for speaking about himself in the third person every once in a while). For every Leafs fan, the image that immediately came to mind was of Phil Kessel, quivering in his skates at the prospect of a boss who won’t allow him to coast. “We’re going to be men,” Babcock said. “We’re going to stand up and be honest.” It’s impossible to imagine any future Leafs team rolling over and quitting the way they did on poor Peter Horacek in the second half of this season.
Of course, reality crept into some of the learned analysis that followed the news of Babcock’s hiring. A coach is only as good as his players—and though this Leafs team may not be as bereft of talent as it looked by the end of the season, it is blessed with few sure things. The Detroit organization in which Babcock thrived was a model of smarts and consistency and skilled folks fully understanding their roles. In Toronto, Brendan Shanahan is trying to build something similar, but it is a work in progress, and he has already put himself in the challenging position of having to wedge a general manager between a superstar coach and his own far-reaching authority as team president.
A full rebuild through the draft is by definition long, anything but fail-safe and nearly always frustrating. As much as the fans and ownership might endorse it in theory, what they’d really prefer is a relatively quick fix and return to the playoffs—the kind of thing Burke tried to pull off when he dealt for Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.
But none of that cold rationalism will shake the fan base right now. And they can rightly feel pleased with the fact that the richest team in hockey, restricted by a player salary cap that enhances profitability but kills any competitive advantage, has spent a fortune where it can. That’s something on which to hang your maple leaf hat.
“I have a burning desire to win,” Babcock said.
He and a few million other folks who have lived and mostly died with this team. They’ll happily follow Babcock now, they’ll happily keep the faith, because it feels so much better than the alternative.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.