CHICAGO — It was a different era, a time with no salary cap and a lot less zeroes on his contract. But Scotty Bowman was Mike Babcock once, sought after by the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs before choosing to leave a dynasty in Montreal for the fledgling Buffalo Sabres.
“I went to Buffalo (in 1978) because after the third Cup (in Montreal), Sam Pollock, brilliant man, left the hockey (side). We won the next year with the same team, but I didn’t feel as a coach that the future was that great,” he recalled, in that wonderfully roundabout way that Bowman has trademarked in the hockey world. “And then, Buffalo offered me twice as much. I was getting $90,000 in Montreal. Buffalo offered me coach and GM.”
Twice as much salary for twice as much work. In 1978 you’d have done three or four jobs for the princely sum of $180,000 US, which the web site MeasuringWorth.com tells equates to about $653,000 in today’s dollars.
Bowman, now a senior advisor to hockey operations with the Chicago Blackhawks, jumped in and out of the head coaching job in Buffalo over the next nine seasons but never took the Sabres to a Stanley Cup. Babcock joins a team in Toronto that is a million miles from a parade, but the good news is he is being paid $50 million over the next eight years to figure it all out.
“I thought I was doing OK when I went to Detroit,” Bowman said. “They offered me double what I was getting in Pittsburgh, so I said, ‘Hell I might as well go’.
“The best I ever did, I was the first coach that ever made a million. In Detroit, they paid me after we won the two Cups. That’s 20 years ago now, nearly.”
It is a travesty that the head coach of a National Hockey League team has traditionally been paid third — or fourth-line money, while the David Clarksons and Scott Gomez’s of the world out earn them by miles while contributing so much less to the overall program. Coaches are to blame for not learning what Major League Baseball taught in the ‘70s about the power of salary disclosure, though we are aware that through the fatherly ex-NHL coach George Kingston, NHL coaches are kept aware of what each other makes within their inner circle.
Todd McLellan was, for a period of about 48 hours, the highest paid NHL coach when he signed his $15 million, three-year deal with Edmonton. That is chump change compared to the Babcock deal, as both Toronto and Edmonton continue its re-, re-, re-builds anew — stunning really, when you think back to 2009 when the two franchises began parallel runs at getting things right once and for all.
Remember when Brian Burke was the new GM in Toronto? The man who would finally bring some credibility to the Leafs, and show everyone how to build a winner in that town?
Meanwhile in Edmonton, its rebuild was cemented with the Taylor Hall draft in 2010? How many column inches have been spent comparing the progress of the two, as Edmonton stayed the rebuild course while Burke sped things up by trading for Phil Kessel?
As it turned out, neither one worked worth a damn, and this summer they’re both starting over, Edmonton with more assets on hand, but more by fluke than design. From afar, the Babcock welcoming in Toronto really does feel like Burke 2.0.
“They’ve got to find players,” Bowman said of the Leafs. “There are so many good teams now that have young players. Columbus, Ottawa, Edmonton, Colorado… There’s a lot of competition now.
“That’ll be the key in Toronto, the people who come in to work with him. One man can’t do it. If he’s going to coach, he’s not going to be able to go out and get players.”
You could tell by Babcock’s Thursday press conference that he is under no illusions as to how much “pain” lies ahead. Any team in the cap system is built upon the foundation of the draft. Ask Edmonton — even when you pick No. 1 overall that player doesn’t help much for four or five years. And there has to be lots of other drafted players around him to help.
“I was looking the other night at this series,” Bowman said, standing at event level of the United Center, hours before Chicago hosted Anaheim in Game 3 of the Western Conference final. “Eleven players from each team were drafted by that team. That shows you: (the Leafs) have got to have the drafts.
“The problem is if you get a little bit better, you don’t get the top picks.”
We all thought Burke was the man, and he was not. Now, Babcock.
“It’s a rebuild of everything,” Bowman said.