It’s been almost half a century since the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. And, over the past decade, the team has made the NHL playoffs just once—losing in seven games to the Boston Bruins in the spring of 2014, in the most soul-destroying way possible. After a 27th-place finish last season, the club embarked on a complete rebuild, cleaning out management, and trading away established players for picks and prospects. New head coach Mike Babcock has an eight-year, US$50-million deal—making him the highest-paid bench boss the league has ever known—and a mission to finally lead Leafs Nation to the promised land.
Q: You’re a guy who likes to win; a guy who’s used to winning. But for this team, that’s a long-term goal rather than a short-term expectation. How are you preparing yourself to lose?
A: I’m not. I don’t think like that at all. We’re going to do everything we can to build a program. We’re going to figure out the best players to play on this team, and we’re going to go ahead. When I come to the rink each day, in my heart and my mind, I’m going to expect to win, because that’s the way I think. It’s going to be way different than it has in the past for me, in some ways, coming here. But our focus is very clear. We’re going to regain the rightful place for this franchise. It might take us a little time; I don’t know how much time it’s going to take, but we’re going to do good things each and every day.
Q: You’ve talked about the need to make Toronto a “safe place” for players. What do you mean, and how do you do that?
A: I felt, last year, from the outside looking in, that the players took a lot of hits—deservedly so, in some ways. But to me, you have to look after those guys. You have to build a product that’s good enough that they can win enough, that they feel good about themselves. I don’t care what you do in your life; if you have no confidence, it’s hard to feel good about who you are. That could be in the workplace, or the home. Any time there’s no trust, it makes it hard. We’re going to make it safer that way. We’re going to look after them the best we can. And we’re going to build a structure here so that they can be safe on the ice, and play well on the ice.
Q: At the same time, you’ve stressed a need for more accountability—to teammates, management, the fans and media. How do those two concepts go together?
A: I call it “sharing the love.” You know when your wife’s having a good go at you? I always say to the guys, “Hey, she’s just sharing the love. If she didn’t love you, she wouldn’t talk to you like that.” To me, it’s kitchen-table accountability. When you sit around your kitchen table with people you love, if you say something stupid, they call you on it right away—because they’re honest with you and they’re making you better. That’s what we’re going to have here. We’re going to have an honest respect for one another, to make everyone maximize the potential they have. I expect the players to listen to me, and I’m going to listen to them. We’ve got to make each other better here, and it’s another way to create safety, because the players know you’ve got their backs. When you tell a player what you want, he will try to please you.
Q: Doesn’t all that “honest dialogue” create friction?
A: I think it’s 100 per cent the opposite. I think being honest with one another creates an environment that’s comfortable. You want to know where you stand, whether you’re doing a good job. The players know what’s going on before you do. They’re trying to see if you’re going to do something about it. And when it’s not like that, everybody is pissed off, because they know that people can get away with stuff and that nobody is keeping them in line. That’s not a team to me.
Q: But are some guys just unreachable? Uncoachable?
A: I don’t buy that. I just think there are 23 guys on your team and you have to coach them 23 different ways. Some guys don’t fit in to what you’re going to do, but they want to do well, they’re trying. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes you don’t have a role for them, or you can’t provide them with what they want and they get disgruntled. My kids are both NCAA Division 1 athletes who want to play, and what I always say to them is: “You’re not going to let anybody take your enthusiasm away, and you’re not going to let any coach be mentally tougher than you. Coaches aren’t out to get you. They want to help you. They want to maximize your potential.” Sometimes that message gets confused. If a coach is on you? He ain’t on anybody he doesn’t like or care about. What a waste of time that would be!
Q: Last year, the Leafs never seemed to be able to find a balance between offence and defence. How will you fix that?
A: I’m a big believer that you don’t want to play defence. Having the puck is way more fun, playing in the offensive zone is way more fun. So let’s build a structure and habits so that we can do that. If you don’t work, if you don’t execute quick in the [defensive] zone, if you don’t slow people down through the neutral zone, you can’t be on offence. I call our end the work zone, neutral ice, the speed zone, and their end the fun zone. Let’s figure out a way to get in it.
Q: You’re renowned for your attention to detail. But when you’re behind the bench, is there one thing you worry about the most?
A: Losing. I mean, I’m process-orientated, for sure, and people say that about the details. But I love the players. My No. 1 job is to make them better men. My No. 2 job is to make them better at hockey, and I never confuse that. The best people I’ve ever been around in my life never let me get away with anything—ever. When I think of my dad, I think about how he made me do it right. With my mom, it’s about how she taught me how to talk to people. You can have all the details in the world, but if you can’t communicate with people and find a way to help them help themselves, you have no chance in this league. To me, that’s what the profession is about: getting guys to believe in themselves and each other.
Q: Your dad died last spring. I read that you used to call him before every day and go over your game plan.
A: It’s going to be different, but I can tell you: I still talk to my mom every day and she passed away when I was 28. And I still talk to my dad. The reality is that they’re with you forever; the bond continues and they’re there to help you and guide you. The best coaches I ever had, the best teachers, my parents, they all made it safe for me, not by being warm and fuzzy all the time, but by loving me so much, they were willing to make me better.
Q: The furthest you ever got in your own hockey career was a training camp with the Vancouver Canucks. What would coach Mike Babcock say to Mike Babcock the player?
A: I got one exhibition game in the National Hockey League in 1985. I didn’t know I was feed, I didn’t know I was just filling up the camp. I didn’t know so many things, like details of the game that would have made me a better player. I just wasn’t good enough. I believe that to be really good at what you do, you have to absolutely love it. And you have to have such a passion that it’s not a job. That way, you can put in all the hours without it being work. People always say to my wife, “Oh, your husband works so much!” And her response is, “No, he doesn’t. He’s out screwing around. It’s what he loves to do.” She’s 100 per cent right.
Q: You mention all the stuff you didn’t know. In 2003, your first year as an NHL coach, you took the Anaheim Ducks to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. So were you good or lucky?
A: Good. My first year as a coach was in 1988. You know those instant, overnight successes? Like the country musician who gets a hit after playing in Nashville bars for 15 years? That was me. I coached Division 2 college, Major Junior, Canadian Division 1 college, Major Junior again, the World Juniors, the American Hockey League. By the time I got to the National Hockey League, I was ready. But it took me way longer. Why? Because I wasn’t a player and no one knew who I was. You can’t blame them, but I think that long track I took helped me. It wasn’t hard.
Q: You’re a big believer in dressing-room credos. Have you got one for the Leafs?
A: No. I like mantras, messages that you can see and feel where you are going. Right now, ours is: Make every day matter. But I didn’t know the players. I didn’t have a feel for this, so I haven’t done much. Every place you go is a little different. When I first arrived in Detroit, I had a team: [Steve] Yzerman, and [Nicklas] Lidström and [Brendan] Shanahan and [Chris] Chelios. I didn’t change any signs. I’m still trying to figure out this group.
Q: Lou Lamoriello, the new Leafs GM, demands that players are clean-cut and well-dressed. Do you have your own rules for the dressing room?
A: Not much. Do things right, and do it every day. Bring energy. Be in your spots. Know where to stand. Know how to play. I guess I’ve got tons of them, but I don’t know what they are. It’s just part of being a Leaf, and we’re going to figure out what that means.
Q: You’ve been very honest about your ambition to be the best coach of your generation. You’ve got a World Junior Championship, a Stanley Cup, and two Olympic golds . . .
A: Don’t overlook the Canadian University Championship. I also won an overage championship in San Jerónimo, Mexico, but I never get any credit for that!
Q: Noted. But with all that on your resumé, do you really need a Stanley Cup in Toronto to meet your goal?
A: That’s the rightful place for this franchise. I went through a long, gut-wrenching process to come here. I’m 52, I’m not dead. I thought this was the biggest challenge: a franchise that needs to be restored. I love the city. I love the fans. I love the sweater. Now, we’ve got to turn it into something to be proud of. I’m excited, and a little scared, too. But that’s great. It gets you up in the morning.
Q: When Tim Leiweke took over as president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in 2013, one of the first things he did was plan the Stanley Cup parade route. Have you checked it out?
A: I don’t think like that. What I do is create a program and try to build on it every day. We’re going to be a work in progress, but we’re going to make the people proud.