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Crossing the Line

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Photo credit:Kyle Robertson-USA TODAY NETWORK
Robin Brownlee
7 months ago
I’m trying to imagine Edmonton Oilers’ coach Jay Woodcroft telling captain Connor McDavid to hand over his phone. I can’t. What about you, Leon? Show me what you’ve got in there . . . No chance. No way.
Here we are on the eve of the 2023-24 NHL season, and we’ve just seen yet another example of how old ways often don’t work in these new days with news Sunday that Mike Babcock’s tenure with the Columbus Blue Jackets is over before it really even got started. The headlines and Babcock’s history we know.
As somebody who has been around – I’m five years older than Babcock – I’ve seen his way of dealing with players and handling situations first-hand. And while there remains a segment of hockey people hanging on to the nostalgic notion his way of doing things is old school, no sale here. The lack of respect Babcock showed his players in Columbus, as we’ve seen elsewhere, isn’t the way to treat people. Not way back when and not now.
There are plenty of bench bosses from the hard-ass school of coaching who have enjoyed success in the NHL – Babcock won a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008 and sits 12th in career wins with 700 – and I know or have dealt with several of them on the job.
I understand that there’s more than a few my-way-or-the-highway guys in the top 20 for career wins. Duly noted. The thing is, if you coach that way you walk a fine line. If you step over it, then you get what we have here. Babcock is out and Pascal Vincent is in.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

“Upon reflection, it has become clear that continuing as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets was going to be too much of a distraction,” Babcock said in a no-apology statement released by the team.
“While I’m disappointed to not have had the opportunity to continue the work we’ve begun, I know it’s in the best interest of the organization for me to step away at this time. I wish everyone in the organization well in the upcoming season.”
Reports of Babcock bullying Johan Franzen during his time with the Red Wings came out via Chris Chelios years ago on the Spittin’ Chiclets Podcast. The SCP crew was all over the latest situation in Columbus that brought Babcock down. This wasn’t, as some said, simply a case of Babcock checking phones as a way of getting to know his players.
From Elliott Friedman of HNIC: “According to multiple sources, one of the most serious concerns was a meeting that occurred away from team facilities that included “several minutes” of looking through a phone. That was beyond the scope of what was initially understood to have occurred.”
Stanely Cup ring and 700 wins or not, there’s no benefit of the doubt to be had if the NHL is serious about dragging itself into the here and now. The time for sweeping changes is decades overdue and not nearly complete.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Like it or not, players today have a greater voice and more of a say about what happens to them within the team dynamic and inside the walls of the dressing room than ever before. The old days of the “you’ll do it because I said so” approach by coaches from the hard-ass school are long over. That’s a good thing. 
What has just played out with Babcock isn’t about anybody being woke or cancel culture. That’s a cop-out. It’s not about players today being soft or entitled. It’s not about expecting coaches to buddy-up or ask “pretty please.” If you think that’s the storyline, you haven’t been paying attention – or you refuse to accept the old way of doing things doesn’t work now. This is about Babcock being unwilling or unable to evolve. So here we are.
By happenstance, today is Scotty Bowman’s 90th birthday. His legacy includes nine Stanley Cups behind the bench and 1,244 career wins. Bowman is the winningest coach in NHL history, and he accomplished that because of a commitment to excellence, not because he felt the need to keep his players under his thumb.

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