The Mike Babcock era with the Columbus Blue Jackets ended before it ever really began and his signing can officially be declared a failed endeavour from top to bottom.
“We went through a process earlier this summer prior to hiring Mike Babcock as our head coach, but we got it wrong and that’s on us,” Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson said at a press conference Monday afternoon less than 24 hours after the team and Babcock parted ways on the cusp of the 2023-24 NHL season.
Babcock resigned as the team’s head coach Sunday, less than three months after being hired and mere days after allegations surfaced that he had been asking to see photos on players’ smartphones while getting to know them, which resulted in some players reportedly feeling uncomfortable.
Although multiple Blue Jackets players such as captain Boone Jenner and star forward Johnny Gaudreau made public comments downplaying how Babcock’s get-to-know-you methods were being portrayed publicly, the allegations led to an NHLPA review of Babcock’s conduct, which was troubling from an optics standpoint considering allegations that some of Babcock’s interpersonal communication style contributed to a toxic work environment surfaced after the coach was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2019.
Davidson and Blue Jackets brass met with Babcock, talked it over and ultimately decided there was no going back and that it would be best for the two sides to split.
“I can promise you we will learn from this moving forward,” Davidson added. “I also understand the criticism that we are getting. It is deserved but all we can do is learn from it and do everything we can to help our coaches and players get ready for the season.”
Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told reporters he met with his team’s leadership group Sunday and then the entire team Monday morning to apologize for any inconvenience or awkwardness the entire situation has caused.
“We understood the dynamics of hiring Mike before we did so and understand the criticism now that it didn’t work out the way we had planned. Mike was hired based on personal relationships we had with him, the feedback we received from numerous people in the game we know and respect, and had extensive conversations with Mike,” Kekalainen said. “It’s obviously fair to question our due diligence but I can assure you it was done thoroughly. At the end of the day, I believed Mike Babcock deserved another opportunity to coach. Obviously that was a mistake and that responsibility is mine.”
Kekalainen explained Babcock had introduced and interacted with him in a similar manner when getting to know each other this off-season and that he didn’t have any issues with it. Still, some players were uncomfortable and that’s ultimately what mattered most.
“I do not believe there were any ill intentions on Mike’s part in the way he conducted interviews with our players to get to know them, however, whether there was intent or not, some of our players weren’t comfortable with his methods and that was concerning,” Kekalainen said. “As we gathered information and had numerous discussions both internally and externally it became very clear that the distractions caused by this were too great and were having a negative impact on our players.”
Davidson, who like Kekalainen is a former NHL player, was vague on certain details but did add: “What’s fair to say is (Babcock) made players feel very uncomfortable” and that “we have to understand our players and it just wasn’t going to work with our players.”
The Blue Jackets ownership group released a statement earlier on Monday which expressed they are “deeply frustrated and disappointed by the events of the past week” but no changes to hockey operations would be coming in the immediate aftermath.
The team also introduced associate-turned-head coach Pascal Vincent for the first time on Monday.
Vincent, the franchise’s fourth different head coach since 2021, explained he and Babcock had met all throughout the summer to go over scenarios, team mindset and systems, and they had generally been on the same page as they headed into training camp.
“My interactions with Mike were great but I can only talk to you about my personal experience,” Vincent said of Babcock, echoing what both Davidson and Kekalainen said.
Columbus has missed the post-season and finished below .500 in each of the past three seasons and that fan base had envisioned the 2023-24 campaign beginning on a more optimistic note.