Mike Babcock choked up several times as he made one last appearance in the locker room of the Detroit Red Wings, a place he called his home for a decade.
He held a farewell news conference there this morning, exactly 24 hours after he had an introductory one as the new head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was an emotional half-hour.
Babcock began by thanking everyone from team owners Mike and Marian Ilitch to general manager Ken Holland to zamboni driver Al Sobotka to “you people, the media, for the great coverage, to the city, to all the people that have helped over the years.” He included Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom, before the first pause came as he held back tears.
“It’s been real special, to say the least,” Babcock said. “The Ilitches afforded my family to grow up here. To let my kids finish high school here. I’m emotionally involved with the franchise and the city and the people. It gives me great pride for what we were able to accomplish in my 10 years here.
“My decision to leave was my decision – my wife wanted me to make that clear, it’s not on her. It’s my decision totally. And it was about a new opportunity and a new challenge.”
Babcock last met with Holland on Wednesday morning, when Babcock came over to Holland’s house around 8 a.m. and stayed for a half-hour. “His wife gave me a big hug and said she was going to church to pray for me. That’s just the kind of people they are. His daughter is getting married July 10; I’m going to be there.”
The Leafs, true to their nature as the rare billion-dollar NHL franchise and self-perceived center of the hockey universe, secured Babcock’s services for the next eight years with a contract worth $50 million. That’s an unprecedented sum that will make Babcock the highest-paid coach in the league by more than double.
To his credit, Babcock didn’t say it wasn’t about money.
“Money, to a certain level, is an important thing,” he said. “I worked real hard going into this negotiation period — I looked at every NBA coach, every NFL coach, I did all this work; didn’t use any of it. I didn’t. The Ilitches were fantastic to me. It’s not like I was going to be on food stamps to live here. Give me a break. They looked after me, big-time. They made it hard, and I respected everything. Is it about money? Sure, it’s about money. But there was enough money in every place, it didn’t have a factor in the decision.
“Don’t get me wrong. I love it here. But I also think it was time for me, I wanted a different challenge. When I got it in my head: I’m coaching an Original Six franchise, the model of the NHL, if I’m going to leave, I have to go to an Original Six franchise. I just have to. I went back and forth 100 times and probably wore Kenny out, being a pain in the butt. I know I wore my family out.”
Babcock showed off a newspaper clipping dating to when he was hired by the Wings in the summer of 2005, and a picture of Howe, Yzerman and himself. Babcock also revealed that he is keeping his house in the metro area because his kids want to come back here for summers.
It has been an emotional week for Babcock. Last Sunday, he flew home from Prague. Over the next two days, he was in heavy negotiations with the Buffalo Sabres and talked to the San Jose Sharks. The Sabres, Sharks and Maple Leafs were the three teams that signed the compensation letter required by the Wings to gain permission to talk to Babcock before the June 30 expiration of his contract. The St. Louis Blues did so, too, sans signing the letter, but with the knowledge that signing Babcock would require compensation.
Babcock spent a lot of time with Holland, too, from a Tuesday meeting in his office at Joe Louis Arena that required a box of Kleenex as the two reminisced about their 10 years together, to a Wednesday morning meeting at Holland’s house. By midday Wednesday, Babcock had put Detroit in his past and the Leafs in his future.