TORONTO – After the Maple Leafs’ morning skate, Mike Babcock headed to the media room. He was clearly hurting.
Toronto’s coach spent 10 years working in Detroit, and Friday’s death of Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch hit Babcock hard.
“He made you want to be a better man," Babcock said Saturday before facing the Buffalo Sabres. “He was committed to doing things right, and what he touched in business turned to gold. But he had that presence about him that he made you want to be better.”
Few teams have been better than the Red Wings. They’ve made the playoffs for 25 straight seasons under Ilitch, with Babcock leading them to the Stanley Cup in 2008.
“We all work for someone," Babcock said in Air Canada Centre. “Some people make you come in earlier. They don't say nothing, but they just show up every day and they grind, and they make you want to grind.
“That, to me, was what he was all about. Ken Holland as general manager and Mike Ilitch, they set a standard for all the people that worked there that made you want to please them and made you disappointed in yourself, not mad at them, disappointed in yourself, when you didn't live up to what you should.”
Tributes to Ilitch have poured in from the sports world. The 87-year-old also owned baseball’s Detroit Tigers, who count Michigan native Dan Bylsma as a fan.
“I’ve always viewed the Ilitches as one of the great owners,” the Sabres coach said. “I know the guy wanted to win a World Series here in the last couple years, and it’s a bit of disappointment not getting to achieve that.”
Ryan Miller is returning to KeyBank Center, but he isn’t expected to play.
The Sabres will host the Vancouver Canucks at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with both teams finishing a back-to-back. Miller made 26 saves Saturday in a 4-3 loss to the Boston Bruins. Canucks coach Willie Desjardins said Miller and Jacob Markstrom would split the crease this weekend, which puts Markstrom in line to face the Sabres.
Markstrom is 9-10-3 with a .913 save percentage. Miller is 15-15-3 with a .917 save percentage.
Miller’s has 355 career victories, including a franchise-record 284 with Buffalo, and his next win will move him past Rogie Vachon for 19th place on the NHL's all-time list.
The Canucks are 1-5 in their last six games, falling to 24-25-6. They are just 7-17-3 away from home.
Buffalo is 13-9-4 at home and 4-4-1 on the second night of back-to-backs.
Sabres defenseman Cody Franson, who blocked a shot off his foot Thursday, is expected back right around the NHL trade deadline.
“We’re looking at bone bruise at this point in time, two to three weeks, maybe two weeks,” Bylsma said.
Franson is a pending unrestricted free agent who was expected to attract interest prior to the March 1 deadline. The defenseman has three goals, 16 points and a minus-1 rating in 51 games.
Jack Eichel’s friendship with the Leafs’ Auston Matthews is well-documented, but that’s not Eichel’s only connection to Toronto. The Sabres center played on the Boston Jr. Bruins with the Leafs’ William Nylander when he was 9 years old.
“That’s where I got the toe-drag from, William Nylander,” Eichel said with a grin. “It’s pretty crazy that it goes back that far. … It’s always nice to play your buddies in the NHL.”
— Junior Bruins Hockey (@juniorbruins) April 1, 2016
Buffalo is home to the Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League. Its rival, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, held its All-Star Game in Air Canada Centre between the Sabres’ morning skate and the Buffalo-Toronto game.
“I know they’ve got one going in the U.S., too, and it’s important that they have an opportunity to play and continue to grow the game,” Babcock said. “The Canadian women’s program and the U.S. women’s program are very dominant on the world stage, and that’s because they have places to play.”