Mike Babcock is gone, well and truly, except for his line item on MLSE’s salary expenses. And, uh, he hasn’t been much lamented.
Source: ~90% of the Leafs were relieved to see Mike Babcock go.— James Mirtle (@mirtle) November 21, 2019
The GM obviously was ready for it, too. Now the heat is on them with their season on the line.
On the end, why it happened and what comes next @TheAthleticTO https://t.co/mcWBmPwFyG
There have been quotes from Tyson Barrie, Auston Matthews and others that could best be described as shade. Kyle Dubas has acknowledged, in his apologetic, diplomatic way, that he and Mike Babcock were not “simpatico” on a number of issues. To judge by my Twitter feed, Babcock’s popularity among that part of the fanbase by the time he got canned was slightly below anthrax.
I will own: I liked Mike Babcock personally, as a fan of the team. After years under Randy Carlyle, who I absolutely loathed, Babcock put a team in front of me that usually won more than it lost. The Leafs were, at least for three years, a lot of fun to watch again. I always thought, and still think, he was a smart man and a talented coach. He was a bit of a hardass, but he always struck me as a fundamentally decent man who cared about his players personally. I’ve never forgotten that in a town, with a media, that was determined to write off Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, he supported them both and made them better players. For two players I liked that went a long way. (And Nazem’s perspective on Babcock is a little different from the current trend of quotes.)
I was slow to get on the Fire Babcock train. As recently as a month ago I thought he was still likely to get the rest of the season unless the team totally imploded. But implode they began to do, and after the Pittsburgh game even I had to admit it looked like the air was out of the balloon.
A sizeable part of the fanbase wanted Mike Babcock gone as of last April (and some of them earlier). With hindsight, they were obviously right. If we were going to get here we would have been better off getting here in the offseason and not November. I did not expect this team to suddenly get as bad as it did; more than that, I didn’t think their offence would dry up, considering that was their greatest and most consistent strength for three years under Babcock. I don’t know if anyone saw that coming. And it’s losses, more than anything, that made this decision happen. If the Leafs are playing at the same point pace as the last couple of years, Mike Babcock is still employed.
But a lot of people read the signs. Babcock pissed off the room and he disagreed with his boss, and the evidence spilling out since his firing confirms it. How much does that matter?
Scotty Bowman, as a coach, was by most accounts a real prick. Ken Dryden has described how he handled certain players, and at times it verged on cruel. Scotty Bowman is also the subject of one of the most memorable quotes about a hockey coach.
"We all hated Scotty [Bowman] 364 days a year. On the 365th day, we collected our Stanley Cup rings." - #Habs Steve Shutt.— Jen (@NHLhistorygirl) November 27, 2013
Bowman is the consensus greatest coach in the history of the sport, although as has often been noted, he had some preposterously talented teams to work with. Still, he won at such an absurd rate he has Gretzky-esque records for coaching: numbers that no one else is ever likely to match. (Not Gretzky’s coaching records. Player records.) What he did seemed to work.
There are about a million books on leadership and how to get the best out of people under your direction, whether in school, business, or war. It’s one of the oldest studies in civilization. It’s constantly evolving and changing, and what works in one situation probably won’t in another. But it’s never easy.
I think a lot of the younger, more progressive, and more anti-authority crowd doesn’t like the idea of the hardass coach. Mike Babcock seemed like an old sour son-of-a-bitch with pursed lips and an oaken face who kept telling the nice young men they couldn’t have any fun. The reality is that any coach, including and especially Sheldon Keefe, is going to have to impose some discipline on his team. The idea of the smiling coach who just turns loose the talented and brilliant players at his disposal and wins in bunches is going to run into a wall the first time someone half-asses a backcheck and gives the other team a tap-in. To paraphrase Mo Green in The Godfather, Keefe has a business to run and sometimes he’s gotta kick asses to make it run right.
It’s a balance, though. If you’re hard on your players, if you’re not offering them validation and encouragement and praise very often, you have to be offering them victories. People will endure a lot of hardship and high demands if you lead them to victories, and that was the obvious but essential key for Scotty Bowman. The 365th day of the year made it worth it. When you’re too hard, demanding, and even inflexible, you are running out your account. You are setting victory as the sole standard and you will have nothing to draw on when you lose. Especially after a few years, when your speeches have all been said at a dozen intermissions and you’ve already said all you can say about defensive positioning. If they don’t like you, they’d sure as hell better believe in you. Mike Babcock got a very long way believing in himself. You can only go so long before you stop convincing other people, though.
That, I think, is what it comes down to. Darryl Sutter was, by most accounts, deeply loathed by his Los Angeles Kings teams, but for a while they were the most dominant possession team since (heh) the champion Detroit Red Wings. As long as that worked, the Kings worked and Sutter was secure. When his team lost faith in his abilities to get them to victory, they barricaded him out of the dressing room so they wouldn’t have to hear another rant.
Being liked by your players gets you a bit more string, a little more buy-in. Being a new leader after an old leader does that too; if Keefe were to come in and impose exactly the same system in a different voice, I think he would be more effective at it just by virtue of that. But none of this will long substitute for real, big-picture success. Mike Babcock has had a long career in which many players did not like him and that didn’t really matter as long as he won. Sheldon Keefe may be liked much better, but the bottom line is the same. He will last as long as he can get the team to believe in that success, and not very much longer.