Can Mike Babcock handle losing with Maple Leafs?

With Mike Babcock officially in coach mode for the Maple Leafs, it seems the team’s biggest star may not be on the ice at all.

For a guy with only a passing experience with losing in the NHL, Mike Babcock certainly sounds like an expert on the subject.

Maybe it’s one of those things that in order to really succeed at difficult things, you need to know your enemy.

Babcock made his legend in a dreamy idyll in, pointing to Pavel Datsyuk in times of need; relying on Nick Lidstrom or Nik Kronwall when things got tense. Or having Sidney Crosby help him win gold medals to go with his Stanley Cup ring.

And yet he sounds like he knows first-hand what it’s like to have his garbage strewn over his lawn and be a sports radio punch line. He sounds like he’s walked a mile in Dion Phaneuf’s Guccis.

“[Players] lose confidence. And they feel like they’re by themselves, and they feel like no one has their back. And they feel like they can’t go anywhere and do anything. And they’re not as proud as they should be,” said Babcock.

“The circle of success is real simple. Your kid walks out of the house and into the garage and there’s a soccer ball standing there. He kicks the ball against the wall, it rolls down the driveway and into the cul-de-sac and he goes back inside and goes back on the computer.

“His younger brother walks out and kicks it off the wall, it bounces back and he kicks it off the wall and he kicks it again and kicks again. Eighteen years later he scores the winning goal at the World Cup. He does what he’s good at. He feels good about himself.

“Can you imagine coming to the rink every day and never feeling good about yourself? I can’t even imagine.”

The whole thing rings true, except for the part about a kid living on a cul-de-sac winning the World Cup of soccer. But we get the point: Winning is about attitude.

The Leafs have invested $50-million in this kind of insight.

Perhaps the best part about Babcock coming to Toronto is it will represent one of the great physics experiments in all of sports: his legendary will against the Leafs generational intransigence.

He may not need to imagine what entrenched losing can do to a person. Chances are he’ll get a good dose of it, first hand. He’s done more predicting of pain than a dominatrix. But then he’s just preaching the choir when it comes to Leafs fans and their appetites.

And who knows, maybe it does take a highly regarded jet pilot to change the course of their wobbling, oil spewing, single-engine Cessna.

On Day 1 of training camp, Babcock was light on specifics about how he was going to add value to a franchise with all the money in the world, but nothing to show for it.

“I’ve been getting people asking me a whole bunch of questions I don’t know the answer to,” he said. “I’m going to go to camp and we’re going to establish work ethic and we’re going to establish a structure so the players get comfortable and understand where they’re supposed to be. We’re going to set some expectations. And then I’m going to get to know them and they’re going to get to know me.”

He’s been the coach of the team for a day and you already feel like you know the guy, thanks to the most flagrant use of a hometown dialect – Saskatoon-ese, we’ll call it – since Don Cherry created the impression that everyone from Kingston, Ont. spoke English sideways.

There were no references to his beloved F-150 and hunting never came up, but he did manage to make reference to time coaching the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns and at Red Deer College. He made countless references to process and structure and about getting better every day.

He shrugged off a question about being the biggest star on the team.

“I’m Mike Babcock from Saskatoon,” he said. “That’s who my kid knows, that’s who my wife knows. If my dad was alive he’d tell you remember where you’re from. I’m just going to come here and the rest of the stuff… Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud to be coach of the Leafs. Unbelievable logo. Unbelievable city. But let’s just get to work.”

Which is just the trick. No one really knows what he has to work with or what he’ll do with it. If Babcock can turn a bunch of star-crossed veterans and guys on training camp tryouts into something that resembles a playoff hockey team, he just might be the coach that everyone would like to believe he is.

The players all seem ready to be mobilized, gushing like school kids about how many times Babcock called them over the summer to make sure they were working out and how much he believes in them.

“It’s something that I definitely haven’t felt in the past few years,” said Nazem Kadri, just one of a long list of Leafs who could use whatever magic dust Babcock can sprinkle on them. “… We’ve had lots of conversations. Him basically telling me that I can be as good as I want to be and that the sky’s the limit.”

Of course maybe that’s because Babcock hasn’t seen them play all that much. Has he been poring over tape from last season, getting to know his players, his team?

“I haven’t done that,” he said. “And the reason I haven’t done that is because things went so poorly, why would I watch them be bad? It makes no sense to me. They’ve got a clean slate and I want to catch them be good.”

Maybe it’s because he deleted the Leafs most recent season from his PVR that he’s bullish on Jake Gardiner and bullish of Nazem Kadri and bullish on Dion Phaneuf. He’s bullish on the Leafs log and he’s even bullish on the media, the witch’s chorus in so many Leafs dramas over the years.

“Everyone keeps telling me [about the demands]. They paint you guys as something awful, just awful,” he said. “But I don’t believe that.”

Babcock believes in process and structure and getting a little better every day. It’s always worked for him before.

But he’s not the first to say those things in Toronto. He may think he knows what losing feels like, but we’re experts here and he’s just learning on the job.

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