Ride or die for Maple Leafs, Babcock, Shanahan

New Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock joins Prime Time Sports to talk about the decision to leave Detroit and start a new chapter of his career in Toronto plus much more.

The seemingly annual or semi-annual fetes that MLSE hosts on the main floor of the Air Canada Centre or sometimes at their fancy sports bar next door have become a tradition, like a wedding.

Chairs are arranged in even rows. The MLSE staff gathers round in excitement. There are videographers.

The person of the moment — be it a hotshot new coach or executive or player — makes their public pledge to a bright future. The relevant member of the MLSE hierarchy pledges alike, and everyone goes away happy.

Until the honeymoon ends, the games start and losing sets in. Acrimony soon follows and the divorce not long after, starting the cycle again.

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The Toronto Maple Leafs’ unprecedented eight-year, $50-million agreement to have Mike Babcock coach their hockey team is an effort to break the cycle. No NHL team has ever made this kind of commitment — in cash or term — to a coach. And no coach has ever laid so much on the line to stand on a bench.

The Leafs, without a Stanley Cup win or even a Stanley Cup finals appearance in 48 years and having missed the playoffs for nine of the past ten seasons, have turned their efforts to finally win something up to 11.

The whole thing is truly frightening. If it fails everyone with the slightest emotional investment in the franchise can legitimately wonder if another half century of losing lies ahead. If this doesn’t work, then what?

So Babcock, the Leafs, Brendan Shanahan and Larry Tanenbaum — the longest running thread in the MLSE ownership structure — didn’t announce a marriage at the ACC Thursday. Even bad marriages can end amicably. The kids can emerge unscathed.

No, what happened here was a team, an ownership group, hall-of-fame player and a soon-to-be hall-of-fame coach shackling themselves to each other and setting off on an epic quest that has only two possible outcomes.

They will win a Stanley Cup for the Toronto Maple Leafs and become icons, creating memories for generations of fans that will be passed on like heirlooms.

Or they will die — and maybe not just metaphorically.

Hugely successful in business and a generous philanthropist, Tanenbaum will be known only for his failed decades owning the Leafs and MLSE having only whatever the opposite of what the Midas touch is.

A three-time Stanley Cup winner and 600-goal scorer, Shanahan will be known in Toronto as the newbie team president who bet a suitcase of other people’s money on a coach who — like any other coach — has only won with a roster stocked with hall-of-fame talent.

And Babcock will be remembered not for two gold medals, a Stanley Cup and years of winning teams in Detroit, but as the so-called genius that couldn’t fix the Leafs.

It’s long way to fall, even if there is a mattress full of cash as a cushion, and Babcock is understandably terrified.

“Fear is a great thing,” he said at the Leafs biggest and most anticipated press conference — it has to be mentioned — since they introduced Brian Burke as the last saviour and general manager in 2008. “In 1997 I was bear hunting and I got the call and they said you were going to coach the world junior team and right away I thought, ‘Oh my God, they just won four or five in a row, what am I getting myself into?’

“When Steve Yzerman had me in his office and said, ‘Mike you are coaching the 2010 Olympic team.’ When I got to my truck I was scared to death. What did I get myself into? Same thing in 2014 [at the Olympics again].”

He hasn’t seen anything yet. Those gigs may have come with the burden of high expectations but they also came with the benefit of having the best and deepest player pools to work from. Coaching Canada or even the Nicklas Lidstrom-era Red Wings came with the pressure to win, but also the tools to do the job.

The Leafs couldn’t be more different. Dion Phaneuf is not Lidstrom. Phil Kessel is not Pavel Datsyuk. This is a leap of faith and — for the moment — there is no guarantee anyone remembered to pack a parachute.

But Shanahan, who played for Babcock in Detroit toward the end of his career, believed that the Leafs previously fatal flaws — the fishbowl-like market, the traditional half-measures and lack of patience, and their status as a team that is close to the bottom but not yet bottomed out — could entice the right kind of thrill seeker.

He guessed correctly that Babcock was looking for just that kind of ride — the man does hunt bears, after all. Who knows, maybe he does it with a knife?

Still, when Shanahan laid out just how big the job was, it scared him to even say it. He wasn’t making a sales pitch, it was an SOS signal.

“When that conversation was coming out of my mouth, I said to my wife afterwards, ‘Oof, those are hard things to say,’” said Shanahan. “… But what I knew of the man, having worked with him, my hope was that the size of the mountain compared to some of the other opportunities that were out there, was what would ultimately attract him the most.

“There are certain people who are just challenge seekers, Mike alluded to it himself, lots of people get afraid. Then there are people who are not afraid of being afraid. That was my hope that he was the right fit for that reason.”

Babcock bought in, and after his own fears subsided he was quickly preaching like he’d seen the distant, flickering light at the end of a long, arduous tunnel. There is nothing like an eight-year contract – with no out clause – that empowers a coach to be truly honest about his team’s short-term prospects.

“I have a big picture in mind, so does Shanny, so does Larry, so do the people on our staff and that is where we are going,” said Babcock. “But if you think there is no pain coming, there is pain coming.”

But it’s the pleasure that he believes will follow that brought him here, for the biggest, boldest, most ambitious commitment ceremony the Leafs or anyone else in this seemingly cursed sports market will ever hold.

“We were talking long term, eight-to-10 years,” said Tanenbaum, whose share in the ownership of the Leafs dates back twenty years this upcoming season. A long time ago he would boldly predict Stanley Cups or NBA titles, depending on the season. Not any more. Now it’s about a process. Get that right and championships should follow — eventually.

“We wanted long term. … These are our guys.”

It was Babcock who whittled the Leafs offer down to eight years, presumably figuring that if a 52-year-old coach with a resume like his can’t get franchise a championship by the time he’s 60, well by then it might be time to move on.

But for now the Leafs, Babcock and Shanahan are locked at the hip. It’s ride or die.

Win a Stanley Cup here and everyone gets out alive. Fail and they are laughingstocks, exposed as hubristic schemers who believed their will, energy and money could be the difference in a sport that so often turns on a rolling puck, a rut in the ice or finding Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterburg in the sixth and seventh rounds of consecutive drafts.

It’s terrifying, really, which is why they’re here.

Till death do they part.

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