Putting the Maple Leafs firing Mike Babcock into historical context

During Hockey Central at Noon, Brian Burke talked about how the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to move forward with the Mike Babcock firing because they already had Sheldon Keefe waiting to be appointed.

When a coach gets fired, it’s never said but always true: It’s for the good of his health.

The bigger and more prestigious the organization, the more it rings true.

That’s the thought I had Wednesday with the firing of Mike Babcock.

The only thing that could have been worse for him in the long run would have been to linger around for a few weeks more in the short run. Worse for the team, maybe. Worse for the coach, definitely. There’s a lot of conjecture about the supposedly strained relationship between Babcock and his now-former GM, but give Kyle Dubas credit: In situations like this, speed is mercy.

The Leafs made Babcock the highest paid coach in the NHL, the highest paid in history, and he has six championships to show for his time in the hockey elite. The Leafs’ issue is plain: None of these big wins were tinged in blue; all were tinted red. They are, in chronological order, a world junior title in 1997, a world championship in 2004, a Stanley Cup in 2008, Olympic golds in 2010 and 2014, and a World Cup in 2016. He has done his best work with national teams and Detroit. I guess he’d be a natural fit for the Maroons.

Many if not a majority of Leafs fans believed the team had scooped the best coach in hockey back in 2015, back when Babcock swiped right on MLSE and ghosted the Buffalo Sabres. At best, arguable. As one long-time exec noted: “He won one Stanley Cup in Detroit and then lost in the Final the next year with a better team.” That’s not a knock, just perspective.

The Leafs team he leaves behind is a more promising one than he took charge of four years ago, although that has everything to do with the talent on hand and nothing at all with results over the past 11 months or so. He took over a lottery team and, as standings would show at this very moment, is leaving one behind.

And since Christmas or so, you didn’t really need to look at the stats to know things were going sideways; you could just read the mood or study Babcock’s expression in post-game press conferences, where he thought every well-meaning question impugned him. How did the Leafs come out so flat when they had a chance at home to knock out the Bruins in Game 6 last spring? Could he have played Auston Matthews more in Game 7? He couldn’t have been more dismissive — he was the highest paid coach in the game, so who wants to know and who are you to ask?

I’ve seen this play out before. We all have. Coaches earn their money not when they win, but when it all comes apart; when their jobs are threatened, when results have joined in a vast conspiracy against them.

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I go back to a previous era, carrying a notepad in the semi-glorious ’90s, when Pat Burns was coaching the Leafs to consecutive conference finals — that would be four more playoff-series wins than Babcock had to show for his tenure in Toronto. Burns was made of tough stuff and hadn’t forgotten how to coach, but as a season unravelled, as his team fell far short of expectations, he was shaken. To say that he was paranoid might make light of a clinical condition. Or it might understate his state of mind.

One day after practice, I sensed he was at the breaking point when he told a small quorum of reporters that he was banning newspapers in the dressing room. NHL dressing rooms back in the day looked nothing like today — nothing like the subway during rush hour; that is, no one was sitting in front of his stall and flipping through the sports section. I suppose the equivalent today would be banning Instagram, perhaps no matter — it wasn’t a matter of Burns losing the room, but rather his bearings.

Judge the hockey media harshly if you will, but none of us really takes any pleasure in seeing a coach suffer. I worried about Burns’s well-being in those worst of times. I had the same feeling when then GM Cliff Fletcher reached those dread-filled final days. The stress-filled toll is best measured in years-lost in life expectancy.

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The worst case I ever saw up close was in Montreal, though: Jacques Demers, who had as many Stanley Cups as Babcock though not so long removed at the time. I talked to him after a loss that eliminated the Canadiens from a spot in the post-season for the first time in a generation. He looked somewhere between ashen and waxy. I asked him a question about how it went off the rails that spring or what next season would look like. I can’t remember exactly but the most timely question was plain: “Should I call you an ambulance?”

Babcock had clearly reached his breaking point this week when he offered up a defining last line: “I always bet on Mike Babcock.” Not the Leafs, but Mike Babcock. His last game behind the Leafs’ bench was in Las Vegas ,so make of the irony what you will. That he managed to talk of himself in the first and third persons in one short sentence says a lot about his state of mind. His job was so imminently threatened that his only relief was something like an out-of-body experience.

To Babcock Kyle Dubas gave an “OK, Boomer” send-off. And now he hands off the job to Sheldon Keefe, who was hired by Dubas first in the Soo and then with Marlies and now for his first job behind an NHL bench. In the near future, the pressure doesn’t fall on Keefe’s shoulders so much as Dubas’s. The lustre is off his image as the young, forward-thinking, data-driven executive of tomorrow, not because of his firing of Babcock but rather the state of this under-performing, cap-strangulated team.

If the outlook doesn’t brighten, it will not just threaten his job but prove hazardous to his health.

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