The Toronto Maple Leafs finally broke the curse today, officially attracting a major free agent. The haunting media was not enough to scare away their prize this time, and the club will be hoping that this sets a trend going forward.
It wasn’t a player that the Toronto Maple Leafs attracted on this historic day, but a coach, Mike Babcock of Detroit Red Wings and Team Canada fame. But it doesn’t mean this is any less of a victory for Toronto: where a good leader goes great men will follow.
This is what Mike Babcock is hoping to instill in Toronto, where earlier this year the earth was scorched of anything that was not worth of “Canada’s team”. Now Babcock is going to be leading a heavily publicized campaign to rebuild the once great hockey team brick by brick.
He will be doing so at a very steep price: $6.5 million per year for the next 8 years. Until the end of this deal, and possibly beyond, it is going to be one of the league’s most talked about stories.
All of these details set the stage for an intriguing press conference today. As Babcock met today for the first time with the Toronto media that is supposed to constitute his biggest enemy, he said all of the right things.
The biggest of which was the obvious one, avoiding the easy yet crippling “we are going to win the cup” statement. Instead the press conference was all about the build ahead for the cup, and doing this the right away instead of giving it the quick fix that others tried and failed to do successfully.
There was a lot of talk about pain, something that will undoubtedly lie ahead for Leafs fans. Pain is something Toronto hockey fans are not foreign to, but Babcock is talking about a different pain: the kind of pain you get when you work yourself really hard in the gym. The good kind of pain that makes you better.
It sounded a lot the “pain” that was being talked about when it became clear the Buffalo Sabres were investing in a similar rebuild a couple of years ago. Maybe Babcock would have been a better fit there, they seem to be on the same page.
They aren’t on the same page, however, as anyone in Buffalo will be quick to tell you. The team feels snubbed by Babock, who reportedly gave them confidence that he would be their new coach before shaking hands with the devil, which in this case was the Maple Leafs.
Brendan Shanahan described it best, however, outlining that the second place team in something like this was always going to be hurt. In this case it was just another chance for Buffalo to further their reputation as whiners.
The Toronto-Buffalo situation felt a lot like what then highly prized coach Don Cherry went through when choosing between these very same Maple Leafs and the Colorado Rockies in 1979. Cherry, even the honourable man, chose Colorado over the money and the Maple Leafs because he had already agreed to the deal in principle.
It sounds like Babcock had done something similar with Buffalo, but made the right choice in dodging them for the Maple Leafs. Just ask Cherry whether or not he made the right decision in going to Colorado over his beloved Toronto.
Babcock is a better fit with a rebuilding Toronto because they are actually doing things the right way: not sacrificing a winning mentality in favour of a rebuild. Buffalo spent last season trying their hardest to be the NHL’s biggest loser, that sort of tactic would surely drive Babcock nuts.
The goal and mentality of a hockey team should always be to win at all costs, even if they aren’t. Look at what has happened to Edmonton for years, mired in a mediocrity that they put themselves in to try and become better. The eye should always be on the prize, even if it is a couple of years away.
Whether he wins or not in his first season as the coach of the Maple Leafs, Babcock will bring a winning mentality to the organization. That is itself makes him the kind of acquisition valuable to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
There is no question that Babcock to Toronto is going to be overhyped to the nth degree. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason for the hype. Toronto has the right man in place, now it’s time to build around him, as painful as that may be.