Chelios: Babcock’s treatment of veteran players ‘coming back to haunt him’

It's the first time the former Detroit Red Wings defenseman will coach at the world juniors. (Paul Sancya/AP)

In the wake of Mike Babcock’s dismissal as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a few stories have emerged involving players questioning some of the longtime bench boss’s decisions — particularly when it comes to his treatment of veterans.

Former Detroit Red Wings defenceman Chris Chelios has spoken up before, calling Babcock “a tough guy to play for if you’re a veteran,” and shed more light on his experiences playing under Babcock during an appearance on a recent episode of the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast.

At the time of Babcock’s arrival in Detroit, Chelios was already 21 years into his NHL career and was in his sixth season with the Red Wings. During his Spittin’ Chiclets appearance, he described a number of interactions with Babcock — including a particularly memorable early-season meeting.

“He goes, ‘You’re not here to score goals. You’re here to play defence and babysit Brett Lebda,’” Chelios said, describing the interaction. “And I said, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been plus all training camp’ and he interrupted me right away and says, ‘If you don’t like it, you can go see Kenny Holland — I’m sure he’ll trade you.’”

“So that’s when I became the mentor,” Chelios said. “You know, I didn’t want to leave the team. I loved playing in Detroit, I figured I’d last there as long as I could … by just shutting my mouth and doing what I’m told.”

Chelios said his relationship with Babcock, which spanned four seasons at the end of Chelios’ playing career and included a Stanley Cup victory in 2008, was “cordial” despite the challenging interactions.

“What’s come up here in Toronto … it’s coming out to haunt Babcock for not so much his coaching as the way he treated people,” Chelios said, also citing a few of Babcock’s other well-known — and harshly-criticized — decisions when it comes to playing veterans.

“What he did to [Mike] Modano was incredibly disrespectful. What he did to, just recently, [Jason] Spezza in Toronto — those were the things that are so unnecessary,” he explained.

Babcock made Modano a healthy scratch late in 2011 — the final season of his NHL career and his only campaign with the Red Wings, leaving the now-Hall of Famer stuck at 1,499 career games played. Earlier this season, Babcock’s decision to scratch Spezza in the Maple Leafs’ season-opener against his old club, the Ottawa Senators, was also widely criticized.

“He tried to healthy scratch me in the outdoor game in Wrigley Field against Chicago because he knew it was my hometown — just things that were so unnecessary, to show he’s the boss, to show his general manager he’s the boss,” Chelios said. “That’s he’s on a power thing, his ego — that’s a big part of his personality.”

While Chelios ultimately wasn’t scratched for that 2009 Winter Classic, he’d finish the game — a 6-4 Red Wings victory — with a total ice time just shy of two minutes.

“Kenny Holland and Jim Nill, for three days, argued with him. So what Babs ended up doing was, he suited up seven D for the first time ever …. He played me the opening shift, and then didn’t play me another shift the rest of the game. That was his way of showing Kenny and Jim Nill he’s not going to be told what to do,” Chelios explained, later stating that he felt Babcock “had it out for me from the beginning.”

“It’s just stupid things like that, and now it’s obviously coming back to haunt him and we’ll see if someone’s crazy enough to hire him again.”

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