NHL Blog: What happened to BBQ, A Concert, and a Few Beers?

09/23/2023. What happened to the traditional team bonding and getting-to-know-each-other rituals in the National Hockey League? What a week it was in the NHL, just before the Training Camp medicals. Now, that the Columbus Blue Jackets/Mike Babcock situation is over, here are a few thoughts.

What did they expect?

There were two, maybe three ways of looking at the controversial hiring of coach Mike Babcock by the Columbus Blue Jackets a couple of months ago.

A new, very experienced coach could be expected to move the needle, bring immediate discipline, and structure, and hold players to a different standard. But was he going to be that good? Turn a team that finished 31st. overall last season, around?

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That experienced coach happened to be Mike Babcock. The only coach in the Triple Gold Club. Regarded as an old-school coach because of the way he has sometimes treated his players, but as for the hockey on the ice, always known to coach puck possession and skill hockey, over physical play, intimidation, and toughness.

Babcock’s teams, especially the Red Wings teams, were always some of the least penalized teams in the National Hockey League.

But bringing “Babs” in, after what happened in Detroit, and later in Toronto, was like bringing a circus to town. There was going to be a lot of attention. There was going to be no room for any scandals.

Thirdly, good people always believe in giving other good people second chances. Even if there is a risk.

Hindsight is 20/20

Looking back at it, a few days after Babcock’s resignation, we know the hire wasn’t worth the risk.

The old coach could not help himself. He turned a simple getting-to-know-the-players into a power trip. When the coach asks to get access to your phone to see everything in it, we are talking about a power move, to let the player know who is in charge, who holds your hockey present and your hockey future, in the palm of his hands.

It is easy to lay blame and say “I told you so” after the fact, but who really could have seen all this coming? From a Stanley Cup-winning coach?

All that transpired could have been prevented so easily. What would have been acceptable? If Mike Babcock had simply contacted all the players and all the coaches in advance and asked them to bring four pictures of their families, to get to know them better.

Pictures of their wives and kids, dogs, parents, last summer’s fishing trips. Pictures of their home towns, and home countries. All this would have been totally acceptable. Players would have chosen which pictures to bring. Other teams have done this. Nothing wrong with any of this.

What happened to the old BBQ, a Concert, and a few Beers?

The Questions

The question to ask now is, what does what happened in Columbus with Mike Babcock do to other coaches and other organizations around the National Hockey League?

How much does the General Manager have to be involved in any future coach hiring? How much does ownership want to be involved from now on, because no franchise wants to make a mistake, and have an embarrassment like this again?

After this, teams are going to dig a little deeper when hiring coaches, especially when giving people those so-called second chances. They will make sure the person has really changed.

It is the year 2023. Coaches have to be able to relate to today’s players. It may be really hard to relate, to find some common ground. The coach has to create a relationship, in which the player believes and more importantly, trusts his coach.

To get a player to understand his role, and to buy into a coach’s system, he has to trust his coach first. The days of coaching from a position of power from above, are gone.

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Big Risk

Columbus brass – GM Jarmo Kekäläinen and President John Davidson – knew that the season 2023-24 would be a big year for the Blue Jackets. They were willing to take the risk and hire a little harder coach. The team needed structure and discipline.

From a distance, and from talking to some of the players, Brad Larsen seemed like a players coach. Columbus needed a little different approach. We are not blaming the fact that 26 different players sustained injuries last season, and a franchise-record 563 man-games lost, on coach Larsen.

That would not be fair.

It is totally fair, however, to put this Mike Babcock debacle on the GM and the President.

Kekäläinen’s tenure in Columbus is the third longest of all active NHL GMs. Usually, every GM gets to hire maybe three coaches, sometimes two. The McConnell family, owners of the Columbus Blue Jackets, issued a note of confidence for their team management, for now.

If the season, this crucial and big season, doesn’t go well, we can expect to see changes. You can’t escape the feeling that the Blue Jackets’ time was back in 2019, right after they swept the Tampa Bay Lightning. What happened after that?

Is Babcock really that bad?

Everyone who followed this Mike Babcock saga this past week probably noticed that not many old players came out and defended him. Or went after the journalists who wanted more firings. A few, not many at all. Does this mean that Mike Babcock is a really bad man?

Babcock will never coach again. Second chances are good if people show they have changed. From what has been reported, Mike Babcock did not have the change required.

The fact is, not many hockey players really love their coaches in the first place. The coach’s company is not really, truly to be enjoyed. That doesn’t mean that players hate their old coaches, just that it is not meant to be a happy, enjoyable relationship in the first place.

When you are playing hockey at the very highest level, the best coaches have to ask their athletes to do uncomfortable things sometimes. Mike Babcock is not the only NHL coach, whose coaching style is or was very hard on the players.

“His style wore on the players, he was grinding on them and all over them each and every day. Sometimes his style was demeaning”, said former NHL defenceman Jason Strudwick about Mke Babcock’s coaching style on Edmonton’s Sports Talk. Strudwick never played for Babcock but made a good analysis of his style.

Even without the ugly incidents, who would feel like coming out to rescue a coach like this?

An interesting case is the most successful hockey coach of all time, Scotty Bowman, who just celebrated his 90th birthday. We all wish Mr. Bowman continued good health and longevity. But let’s be honest, how did he manage to rewrite his personal narrative?

Bowman is regarded as this good old teddy bear grandpa now. As Gare Joyce wrote recently, in his halcyon days, Bowman was an unlikeable bastard, a tyrant to his players, and an asshole to the media.

They used to say that Bowman’s cold shoulders carried his teams. He was reviled and hated even by players who benefitted from his winning ways. It was a different time, but still. Anyone who dared to criticize Bowman in Detroit didn’t last long. Dino Ciccarelli. Paul Coffey, Bob Errey.

The late Shawn Burr called Bowman “The most disrespectful person I ever met”. Sound familiar?

Even players of the good old days in Montreal, the dynasty years. Jacques Lemaire never could bring himself to say a printable word about his old coach, in English or French.

What about John Tortorella? His coaching style is similar to Babcock’s, yet his former players defend him. What is the difference between the demanding Tortorella and Mike Babcock?

The difference is, that John Tortorella can be hard on the men he coaches, but he is never despicable on a personal level. Tortorella does not play mind games, he doesn’t try to control players, and he doesn’t demean professional hockey players mentally.

Tortorella is honest. He tells the truth. It may not be what the player likes to hear.

What about the Room?

As for the players, they never even saw Mike Babcock on the ice with them. He never ran a practice. There were obviously a few meetings.

No reason to expect this whole drama to affect the players. No one really had an allegiance to this particular coach. No emotional attachments. No one knew Mike Babcock at all. There are no players on the present-day Blue Jackets who won the Stanley Cup or the Olympics with Babcock.

If anything, the players are now free of any distractions, at least behind the bench. One coach, or actually two coaches, if you count Brad Larsen, are gone. Next coach up. We can expect that the Jackets players had a meeting, just to assess the situation, clear the air, and move on to the task at hand.

All the players have to worry about now is the new coach, Pascal Vincent. How to get ice time from him, what to do to get into his good books.

One coach out, one coach in. The old coach is gone, time to focus on the new coach.

Jouni Nieminen, Edmonton

X:  @OnsideWithJouni
[email protected]

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