TORONTO – The daily rumors that started when Mike Babcock suddenly showed up at HarborCenter for a Mother’s Day tour with Terry and Kim Pegula and Tim Murray really boiled down to this Thursday: He wanted to be in the self-proclaimed Center of the Hockey Universe and so did his family. No offense, Buffalo or Detroit. Or San Jose or St. Louis or anyone else.
You’re not Toronto. Babcock could have gotten his $50 million at First Niagara Center, too. But he wanted the chance to rescue a desperate Original Six franchise.
Babcock’s introductory news conference Thursday was a nationally televised lovefest. Helicopters followed his landing at the airport and his motorcade into downtown. A giant video board on the side of Air Canada Centre facing Maple Leaf Square projected Babcock’s picture and a message of “Welcome to Toronto, Mike.” Employees cheered and applauded in the back of the arena atrium behind reporters, and others hung over a second-story balcony watching the proceedings.
A couple of Toronto television news reporters embarrassingly referred to him as “Mr. Babcock” while asking questions. In these parts, maybe the hockey-coach-as-savior might be akin to the prime minister. It was quite the spectacle.
“Remember, it’s ‘Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment,’ not ‘Maple Leaf Sports and Championships,” cracked one veteran of the Toronto media scene, referring to the team’s ownership group.
And aside from his bucketful of new loonies, that little issue of no Stanley Cups here since 1967 has Babcock thinking he’ll easily be more popular than the PM if he can ever get that done.
“I had a lot of opportunity to coach Canada’s teams and enjoyed that immensely,” Babcock said, referring to the World Junior Championships and the Olympics. “And whether you believe it or not, this is Canada’s team and we need to put Canada’s team back on the map.”
Of course, the Sabres thought Babcock was going to give Pegula Sports and Entertainment an immense daily double of coaching with Rex Ryan. It nearly happened, as there’s plenty of feeling around the Sabres that Babcock played a sort of shell game with them, that he had an agreement in principle to coach the team – as late as Monday – and then circled back to the Leafs.
Toronto president Brendan Shanahan first tried to defuse that here Thursday by saying the offer was made to Babcock back on May 9. But then he actually added fuel to the fire when he said, “Teams that get pushed out early on don’t get their feelings hurt as bad. The teams that Mike liked the most are probably the ones with the most hurt feelings.”
The Sabres have not made general manager Tim Murray available to the media, but he did speak on WGR Radio Thursday afternoon and called any accusations of nefarious behavior by Babcock “ludicrous.”
“It makes no sense to me. I don’t know where it comes from,” Murray said. “People are looking for a smoking gun that doesn’t exist, and that’s kind of been my experience here. Maybe I shouldn’t say that, but in hockey nine times out of 10, what you see at face value is what it is. I guess I’m not the speculative type. I’m not the conspiracy theory-type person. I take people most of the time for what they say, and I take the situation for basically what it is.”
A source familiar with the Leafs’ negotiations said another key factor was that the Leafs front-loaded Babcock a bucket of money in the first two years of the deal, believed to be $8 million per season. The Sabres were not doing that as part of a long-term deal.
It was noticeable that Babcock’s wife was not with him when he visited Buffalo. Undoubtedly, the Sabres were hopeful Kim Pegula could work Maureen Babcock, much as the team convinced Robyn Regher’s wife about the city four years ago. Babcock said his relationship with Murray is strong, dating to their days in Anaheim, and a source familiar with the negotiations agreed, saying Babcock’s issue was far more with the layers of people in the front office and around Terry Pegula.
A lot of the chatter is about Joe Battista, the team’s vice president of hockey-related business. He continues to be talked about in NHL circles as a growing player of influence within the hockey operation when he should be concentrating solely on HarborCenter activities. Battista, remember, has no prior NHL experience and came on board as a close confidante of Pegula in 2013 after a 26-year run at Penn State.
For his part, Babcock danced around questions posed by the Buffalo media about an agreement until I finally fired one from the slot and said to him, “Did you have a deal with them or not?”
Said Babcock: “No. Did we work on financial stuff and term? Absolutely.”
Fair enough. It’s also pertinent to point out that Babcock said he loved his talks with the Sabres.
“If you don’t think Terry Pegula is a star, you’re mistaken,” he said. “If you think Tim Murray and I didn’t have a great relationship, that’s wrong too. In the end, I wanted to coach the Maple Leafs. This was the best fit for my family. When you put the two together, that’s what happens.”
Babcock was also impressed with HarborCenter and the team’s palatial setup in First Niagara Center.
“I loved it. I thought it was great,” he said. “Mr. Pegula and his story himself, borrowing $7,500 from his family and turning it into what he’s done, the way he treats people, his wife, all of it. I’ve known Tim Murray since when I coached junior hockey. He’s one of the best scouts. He’s a hard worker.”
Babcock said he completely understood how the Sabres felt, noting that “If they don’t like what happened in the process, I feel bad about that.”
“Are they allowed to be disappointed? Babcock said. “Yep. When the sun got up today, they’ll get on with it, that’s the nature of Mr. Pegula.
“They’ve got lots of great things. In the end, I couldn’t make it go for my family and I wanted to be the coach of the Maple Leafs. That’s it. Buffalo is going to hire a good coach and they’re going to do well.”