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JONES: Feelings vary as Mike Babcock returns to coaching

Coach Mike Babcock holds press conference. Toronto Maple Leafs open training camp at the MasterCard Centre in Toronto on Thursday September 13, 2018.
Coach Mike Babcock holds press conference. Toronto Maple Leafs open training camp at the MasterCard Centre in Toronto on Thursday September 13, 2018.

To many, it is a feel good story.

To many others, it is a feel suspicious story.

It was announced Saturday that Mike Babcock will become the new head coach of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.

I mean think about it. Who could ever have imagined, three years ago that the man who who coached Canada to Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014 and the Detroit Red Wings to their most recent Stanley Cup, would become the head coach of a USports team? For free!

Babcock signed on for the next two years to be the volunteer head coach of the Huskies.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, of course, fired Babcock back in November of 2019. He’s receiving $5.875 million U.S. a year through 2023 from that contract. So effectively it will be the Leafs paying him to coach the Huskies.

The suspicion comes with reports of verbal and emotional abuse connected to his dismissal in Toronto that this is a move motivated by Babcock perhaps having an image problem he needs to improve if he’s to return as an NHL coach at the end of that contract.

Babcock will officially take over the Huskies position in May when current head coach Dave Adolph retires after 27 years with the team.

Raised in Saskatoon, Babcock played one season with the Huskies under head coach Dave King.

“I’m excited to work back in my hometown at the university where I had the opportunity to play under legendary coach Dave King,” said Babcock in a statement.

“This is a special place for me and I look forward to having the chance to help develop these young men. Saskatchewan has provided me many opportunities in my life and my career and I am truly excited about the opportunity to give back.”

There’s no lack of Alberta connections involved here.

In 1988 Babcock began a three-year run as head coach at Red Deer College winning the provincial title in 1989.

After a season with Moose Jaw in the WHL, he returned to the province as head coach at the U of Lethbridge Pronghorns where he coached them into the playoffs for the first time and ended up winning the national title.

Two of the people connected to the greatest moments of Babcock’s coaching career are Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland who won a Stanley Cup with him and had him behind the bench for 10 years with the Red Wings and Oilers President Bob Nicholson who as head of Hockey Canada won a World Junior, an IIHF World Championship and gold medals at the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Winter Games with him.

“I worked with him for a decade. I know he has a ton of passion. He loved coaching. He loved the sport,” said Holland when I reached him for comment Saturday.

“My first thought is that he loved being behind the bench. He’s a Western Canadian kid from Saskatoon and he’ll be going back to his roots to do it,” said Holland.

“When he was in Detroit my wife and his wife were good friends. We’d go out for dinners together. Obviously I spent a lot of time with Mike at the office and on the road.

“My reaction hearing this news is that he loves to coach, he’s a Western Canadian kid from Saskatchewan and he’s going back to his roots.”

Holland doesn’t know what happened in Toronto but didn’t keep Babcock behind the bench for 10 years believing he’d crossed any lines.

“He pushed his players hard. He’d take ice time away. He’d sit them out. I’ve been general manager for a long time. I know that lots of times there are players who are unhappy with their coaches for a variety of reasons and I think that will go on. They take ice time away. They don’t dress you. They healthy scratch you. So no.”

Nicholson, head of Hockey Canada during the Babcock years, when I contacted him, said his first reaction is that he’s happy for Babcock to be able to do this.

“Mike is a person who really wants to coach and I’m sure he’s been really missing it,” said Nicholson.

“One of Mike’s first coaching jobs was at the U of Lethbridge and now Mike is back where he played. And going back to the University of Saskatchewan will fill a void that he’s is currently missing.

“I know one thing. He’ll put 100 per cent into it.”

And for the record, Nicholson said Babcock operated as a head coach exactly as Hockey Canada expects a head coach to handle himself.

“Coaching and winning two gold medals at the Olympics for Canada Mike was well-prepared with clear, direct communication to all the players and staff. He was always 100 per cent focused on the task at hand — winning every shift and every period.

“Mike is a person that coached to win but I never heard of any abuse when I was President of Hockey Canada.”

This move may result in further examination of what happened in Toronto. But it will also put a spotlight on USport at a time coming out of the coronavirus pandemic when they’re going to need it.

And when is next year’s schedule expected to come out, anyway?

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