NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. – There are very few pressing questions for NHL players during the long, relaxing off-season.
Unless you’re a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs trying to determine when it’s acceptable to let a call from Mike Babcock ring through to voicemail.
“We were trying to move because we had just bought a place,” said defenceman Connor Carrick, citing one such instance from earlier this summer. “We had a lot to do, it was getting late, I was getting hungry – you know how that goes. Moving sucks.
“So I’m like ‘I just don’t have a second right now.’”
He phoned back the next day.
For Babcock, the work doesn’t stop when the ice is removed from Air Canada Centre. He spends the summer months amassing a considerable phone bill with semi-regular calls to each of his players.
“He loves keeping in touch,” defenceman Morgan Rielly said Saturday. “It’s not always what you think it is. It’s not always him grinding on you or anything, it’s pretty friendly. One day I was on the golf course, he called me, and it’s easy – it’s not like you’re talking to the principal.
“You tell him you’re on the course, he tells you, ‘Hit them straight,’ and he hangs up the phone. That’s all.”
Babcock makes a point of keeping the conversations light for the first half of the summer. No talk about systems or linemates. Not even any questions about summer workouts.
His Leafs managed to pack a bunch of personal milestones into the 144 days between when they were eliminated by the Washington Capitals in April and when they reported for training camp earlier this week.
The coach keeps abreast of them all. He phoned Carrick after his engagement to partner Lexi at the Chicago restaurant where they met. Jake Gardiner got a congratulatory call after marrying his girlfriend Lucy back home in Minnesota. And Leo Komarov heard from him after becoming a first-time father.
“I just catch up and see how they’re doing,” said Babcock. “I’ve got young people in my house and they leave and they like when people talk to them. People like to be talked to and people like to know you care about them.
“I like our guys, I care about them, I want them to do well and so I like to touch base and find out what’s going on.”
Whether by design or not, those conversations tend to remind players about what’s to come. Nazem Kadri noticed that he’d often hear from Babcock before lunchtime.
“I think he’s an early bird,” said Kadri. “He usually calls in the morning around when you’re in the gym or just when you’re getting out of the gym.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Babcock opened training camp by applauding the slimmed-down Kadri for having the best summer of his career.
As the season draws closer, the coach tends to take a more business-like approach to his calls. In July, he dialled up Rielly to tell him that he’d be partnered with free-agent signing Ron Hainsey once camp opened.
“It was a pretty short conversation,” said Rielly. Did he explain why that might work? “Not really. It’s kind of up to you to fill in the blanks.”
“He’s really good, he cares about your family and how you’re doing and stuff like that,” added Rielly. “Nine times out of 10 that’s all it is and then there’s always that one.”
Gardiner acknowledges that he was a little intimidated when Babcock arrived in Toronto as the NHL’s highest-paid coach two years ago, but he’s grown more comfortable with their conversations. In the age of texting and FaceTime, he knows it’s either Babcock or his dad when the phone actually rings.
“Babs is really hands-on and he likes to understand where everyone’s coming from,” said Kadri. “I’ve got a pretty solid relationship with him. He knows that our personalities are the same in terms of we don’t really beat around the bush too much. We tell it how it is. I think we appreciate that (in each other).”
By keeping the lines of communication open, it should be a little easier to jump back into working together now. The Leafs players will spend almost every day during the next seven months listening to Babcock – at minimum – and have arrived for training camp at Gale Centre with his voice already ringing in their ears.
For Carrick, the calls from the coach helped him find some focus at a time when he was playing loose shinny hockey that looked nothing like the structured stuff in the NHL.
“It’s pretty easy to get caught,” he said. “I think it was Brent Burns who had a tweet, you know: ‘Summer hockey, king of the toe drag and the long shift.’ All right, that’s not for real.”
Babcock has a knack for keeping his players on task. Even when it’s sunny outside and the season is a long ways off, very few let him reach their voicemail.
“I usually answer when that name pops up,” said Carrick. “If I’m on the phone with Mom I’ll tell Mom: ‘Hey, hold on a second.’