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Losing Babcock to Toronto definitely hurts

Over the last year or so, Sabres fans have become experts at putting a positive spin on losing. So I imagine they’ll quickly find a way to see the bright side of losing out in the Mike Babcock coaching derby.

It was a stunning development, you must admit. The hockey world had Babcock virtually signed, sealed and delivered to Buffalo late Tuesday night. All that remained was for Babcock to wake up Wednesday and tell the world he was doing what was best for his family. He was going to work for Terry Pegula.

Then came the shocking reversal. Babcock, the only coach to win a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal and a World Championship, chose the center of the hockey universe over Hockey Heaven.

Just when you thought Pegula was going to win another fight with Toronto, Babcock jumped over the border. He picked a major metropolis over a city where people get excited when there are two or three cranes rising over the downtown landscape.

Reports from Canada said Babcock had signed an eight-year, $50 million contract, a little more than the Sabres were rumored to be offering and more than twice the salary of any other coach in NHL history.

But I’m sure Babcock will say it wasn’t about the money. Whether it’s a free-agent player or a coach, they’ll always insist it wasn’t about the money. I’m guessing the folks at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment had to at least match what Pegula was offering.

Hey, for all we know Jon Bon Jovi had a hand in this. In the end, though, was it so surprising that Babcock would go to Toronto, or that a team with the Maple Leafs’ seemingly bottomless financial resources would be able to win a financial staredown with Pegula?

Sabres fans can always look at the bright side. They didn’t tank for a great coach, after all, but for a great player. They’ll still get Jack Eichel with the second pick in the draft (although at this point, we should be wary of assuming anything.) They still have a bounty of hot prospects in the system.

Really, if Babcock is so wonderful, how come the Red Wings haven’t advanced to a conference final the last six seasons? In his last 30 playoff games, he’s 11-19. He had great talent and depth in Detroit. He had Hall of Famers. He won one Stanley Cup. And you didn’t have to be Scotty Bowman to win two Olympic golds with that Canadian squad.

So if Sabres fans are looking for a soft landing, they can wrap themselves in all those skeptical notions about Babcock. Let’s not forget, we live in a time when losing can be viewed as success in Buffalo, a long-term strategy.

But don’t kid yourself. You can’t puff out your chest every time Pegula’s money brings some star player or coach to Buffalo, then pretend you didn’t want the guy after all when the local team gets rejected. They weren’t offering to double Babcock’s salary because he was just another candidate.

This was a crushing blow for Pegula and Co. I’m not going to be phony about it. I was prepared with a column that said Babcock would be huge get for the Sabres and the city, further evidence that Pegula was making Western New York a destination for free agents.

Coming on the heels of the Rex Ryan hire, landing Babcock would have given Pegula the top two coaching free agents in the NFL and NHL. You could have argued that little Buffalo possessed the most dynamic head coaching tandem of any American professional sports city.

This shows that Pegula’s money can’t buy everything (including a quarterback). Maybe the Sabres had a competitive offer on the table. But it certainly looks as though Babcock didn’t find the Sabres’ situation quite so enticing as Buffalo fans had assumed.

Reports had Babcock turning away from the Maple Leafs as recently as Tuesday. The prevailing wisdom said they were too far away from being a true Stanley Cup contender. They didn’t have enough promising young players in the pipeline. They don’t even have a general manager in place.

Some felt Babcock would be committing career suicide by going to Toronto, where he would join the long list of coaches and executives who couldn’t turn the Maple Leafs around and wound up getting skewered by the Canadian media.

The Sabres weren’t ready to win, either, but prevailing wisdom said they were relatively close, and that Babcock could preside over a rapid rise in the standings and look good bringing along all that young talent. That and Pegula’s deep pockets seemed like an irresistible lure for the 52-year-old Babcock.

Well, maybe this says Babcock didn’t believe the Sabres were really that close. Might people have overestimated the attraction of all that young talent for a coach with so many options? Or on the contrary, perhaps Babcock felt there would be even more expectations and pressure in Buffalo because they had so many gifted young players.

Sabres apologists don’t want to hear this, but it’s also possible that Babcock didn’t respect Pegula enough. Pro hockey is a very tight fraternity. Babcock might not have had the most glowing view of the Sabres after watching them fumble their way to the bottom of the NHL and then lose on purpose to fix it.

Babcock had to know about Pat LaFontaine coming aboard as president and promising a new, collaborative leadership, then leaving shortly after some mysterious falling-out with the team’s top brass.

Oh, and Babcock made it clear that he wanted to raise the financial bar for his fellow coaches. Do you suppose he might have been turned off by the team’s shabby treatment of Ted Nolan, the man who was five minutes from shocking his Canadian Olympic team with the Latvians last year?

Hockey experts badly underestimated Babcock’s love of a challenge, along with his desire to live in Toronto, a great city with a proud hockey tradition. The Leafs’ owners believed all along that the challenge of restoring the luster to an iconic, Original Six franchise would be a powerful lure for Babcock. It was.

This time, Toronto got the better of Pegula. In the end, the best coach in hockey was more he and the Sabres deserved.


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