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Spokane Chiefs

‘No one is spared’: Tracing former Spokane Chiefs coach Mike Babcock’s imperious NHL career

Mike Babcock coached the Spokane Chiefs for six seasons.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Robson and Katie Strang The Athletic

After the Boston Bruins eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs from the Stanley Cup playoffs a few weeks ago, Bruins coach Jim Montgomery, addressing reporters in the postgame news conference, credited an unexpected figure.

“I had a real good discussion with Mike Babcock before Game 6 about owning the moment and how to push your team through,” the Bruins coach said after his team’s Game 7 overtime win.

Babcock, 61, coached parts of 18 seasons in the NHL and led three teams to the Stanley Cup Final, winning in 2008 with the Detroit Red Wings. But the former Spokane Chiefs coach has spent most of the past four years in a hockey exile following allegations of bullying and mistreating players. Babcock briefly returned to the NHL last July, hired as the head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, but he resigned in September before coaching a single game after reportedly pressuring players to share private photos during one-on-one meetings.

For years, Babcock’s behavior was notorious in NHL locker rooms, and some players attempted to draw attention to it. But he has long been well-connected and respected among the game’s power brokers, and his winning reputation shielded him from serious scrutiny.

“He got away with a lot of stuff in an era where nobody really brought light to any of the stuff that he did,” said a former player under Babcock in Detroit.

Now, eight months following his exit from Columbus, more of Babcock’s former players and staffers spoke to The Athletic about their experiences with him to provide a fuller accounting of his tenure, its impact and what led to one of the sport’s most spectacular reputational collapses. Montgomery also said out loud what people around hockey quietly admit: Babcock may be officially out of the game, but many NHL coaches and executives still respect and consult him, and he maintains a hold within the league’s establishment.

“The issue is he’s a powerful guy still,” said one of Babcock’s former players, who like some others asked not to be named because he still fears reprisal from within the NHL. “And he’s connected with a lot of influential people.”

Babcock was branded a wunderkind in the 1990s while coaching Canadian university, major junior and minor pro hockey. In six seasons (1994-2000) leading the Spokane Chiefs, the team went 224-172-29 and he twice won Western Hockey League West Division coach of the year.

His rising reputation earned him a coveted position as Canada’s head coach at the 1997 IIHF World Junior Championship, where his team won a gold medal.

Despite having no NHL experience as a player or coach, Babcock believed he deserved an NHL coaching job. After two seasons in Cincinnati coaching the Anaheim Ducks’ AHL affiliate, Babcock was one of 19 candidates for the Ducks job after Bryan Murray vacated the position to become general manager in 2002.

Murray narrowed his list to three finalists, then interviewed the 39-year-old Babcock. He immediately canceled his meetings with the other candidates. Babcock would then take a Ducks team that finished 13th in the Western Conference the previous season to the Stanley Cup Final as a rookie coach.

Babcock was a cerebral tactician, but his leadership style was demanding and autocratic.

In his first NHL training camp, Babcock sidelined three well-liked veterans: Jason York, Denny Lambert and German Titov. Lambert and York said they arrived at the Ducks training camp to find their names had been removed from their stalls and gear cleared out. Babcock told them they could not be around the team at all, they said. The players practiced alone on empty ice in the afternoon.

At the time, Lambert’s 2-year-old son was in the hospital with a broken femur; he said he wouldn’t have left his family in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, if the Ducks had told him he was unwanted. Lambert said he asked Babcock why he’d been removed. Was it his performance on the ice? An issue in the locker room? Babcock told Lambert there was nothing he could do to change his mind.

“There was no respect at all,” Lambert said. “I would never treat anyone like that.”

When York confronted Babcock, he was told it was just an attempt to inject some leadership with the AHL group, York said. After several days, the players were banished from the rink. Even when Lambert later hitched a ride on the team plane so he could return to his family, he sat away from the other players, feeling he was no longer welcome.

“It’s not just you that you’re playing for. You’re playing for your family, you’re playing for your kids, right?” said York. “He took my livelihood like it was nothing.”

Babcock spoke in a folksy manner that underscored his Saskatchewan backcountry upbringing. He talked about hard work and accountability, values he learned from his father, a mining engineer. Babcock also presented himself as a Renaissance man. He studied sports psychology at McGill University and prided himself on pulling the right mental strings to get the most out of his players.

But Babcock swiftly earned a reputation for singling out players and making an example of them, sometimes to the point of humiliation.

Tony Martensson, a young center who played in the Ducks organization with Cincinnati before being called up to the NHL in 2003, told Swedish newspaper Expressen in February 2021 that Babcock derided him for being too small and weak. Before one game during the 2003-04 season, Martensson was part of the pregame warmup, but when he came off the ice and into the locker room, Babcock told him that he wasn’t playing. Martensson started changing, but Babcock then said in front of the team: “What the hell are you doing?” He told Martensson to change away from the team in the shower.

“In essence, he’s a bully,” Martensson told Expressen.

In 2005, after the NHL lockout, Babcock left Anaheim to coach the Red Wings. In the media, his coaching style was described as tough but effective and his blue-collar roots played well in Detroit.

Babcock arrived in Johan Franzen’s rookie season. (The Swedish winger played 11 seasons with the Red Wings before retiring in 2016.) Franzen told Expressen that during a playoff game against Nashville in April 2012, Babcock verbally assaulted him.

“I get the shivers when I think about it,” he said. “But that was just one out of a hundred things he did. The tip of the iceberg.”

Franzen described Babcock as meticulous and well-prepared, adept at putting a team together and getting buy-in from players. “But then, he’s a terrible person, the worst I have ever met. He’s a bully who was attacking people,” Franzen told the newspaper. “It could be a cleaner at the arena in Detroit or anybody. He would lay into people without any reason.”

Franzen said that starting in 2011, he became terrified of being at the rink as “verbal attacks” on him and others continued. Chris Chelios, a Hall of Fame defenseman who played for Babcock in Detroit, was appalled by how Babcock treated Franzen.

“Literally, he was calling him into his office once a week to call him a fat pig and say that your teammates hate you and why don’t you just quit,” Chelios told the “Spittin’ Chiclets” podcast, which also first revealed the photo-sharing allegations in Columbus.

In January 2021, Babcock told The Athletic that he was surprised by Franzen’s allegations, especially because he’d been an advocate for mental health initiatives.

“I sure wish I would have known about that then. And I could have done something about that,” Babcock said. “Besides apologize, there’s not much I can do about that now. But does it sting? Does it hurt? Absolutely.”

Franzen was not the only Detroit player Babcock singled out, according to members of that organization. Certain players would be belittled, often in front of their teammates and in ways that felt too personal, such as references to players’ families.

With four games left in the 2010 season, Babcock infamously scratched Mike Modano before a game as the veteran center sought to reach the 1,500-game milestone to finish his career. “He knew,” Modano told The Athletic in 2023. “The assistants had said something and he was well aware of it and made it clear that he didn’t bring me there to play 1,500 games. He brought me there to win a Cup. When he told me that, I couldn’t believe it.”

Chelios called the move “incredibly disrespectful” and said that Babcock made personnel decisions just “to show that he’s the boss.”

Babcock’s success earned him one of the most prominent gigs in hockey as head coach of Team Canada. He won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and 2014 Sochi Olympics. His international experience further bolstered his resume, and the Leafs signed him to an eight-year, $50 million deal in May 2015. It positioned Babcock at the premier job in one of hockey’s biggest fish bowls, and his deal was also heralded as an important benchmark in the fight to improve coaching salaries. At $6.25 million per season, Babcock reportedly made more than double any other NHL head coach at the time, and more than all but one Leafs player.

A little more than a month after signing with the Leafs, Babcock tried to influence who the team would take with its first pick in the 2015 NHL draft, according to multiple team sources. Mark Hunter, the Leafs assistant general manager, lobbied for Mitchell Marner of the OHL’s London Knights, which Hunter co-owns. Babcock made it clear to others in the team’s hockey operations that he wanted a different player. Despite Babcock’s objections, the Leafs selected Marner fourth overall.

After the first period of Marner’s first preseason game, Babcock approached him in the tunnel and abruptly told him he was being sent back to junior – rather than sharing the news in a private meeting. Babcock’s approach, relaying the disappointing news after a single period, was viewed by some in the organization as unprofessional and callous.

Later that fall, in October 2015, Frankie Corrado was picked up off waivers by the Leafs from Vancouver. Corrado was excited to play for Babcock, knowing he had a reputation for helping players reach their potential.

“I have no idea who you are,” Corrado remembers Babcock telling him when they first met. He told Corrado to meet him at his office at the Leafs training facility the next day at 8 a.m. Corrado arrived early and knocked on Babcock’s door, but the coach told him he didn’t have time to see him. Corrado waited for an hour and a half, but Babcock never made time for him.

Corrado saw little ice time with the Leafs over the next few weeks, spending most games as a healthy scratch. But during practices, Babcock would quietly instruct him to go first in drills, so he’d have to push past star players in line – breaking hockey decorum – while awkwardly trying to explain that he was doing so per the coach’s instruction. Corrado felt Babcock was attempting to “sewer” him with his teammates.

Corrado said he later experienced panic attacks and threw up regularly before games because of anxiety, which he never experienced before playing for Babcock.

“It was cruel. It went on way too long and it did way too much damage to me,” he said. “I think he loves (messing) with people’s heads. I really do.”

Early in the 2016-17 season center Peter Holland lost his position to minor league call-up Byron Froese. Hoping to discuss the demotion, Holland went to Leafs practice early. He found Babcock eating his breakfast, and the coach told him he’d find him as soon as he was done. Nearly an hour later Babcock called him into his office.

“You’re here to remind me that you’re still on the team. But you’ve lost your job, and all you can do right now is show up in practice,” Holland recalls Babcock saying. “Now tell me what you came here to tell me, so you can go home and tell your family and your agent that you said what you wanted to say.”

Before a Western Canada road trip that November, Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello told Holland he’d be staying back while the team worked out a trade for him to a market where he could get more playing time. At a news conference in Edmonton the next day, Babcock gave reporters the impression it was Holland’s decision for him to not travel with the team.

“(Holland) met with Lou, had his agent on the phone and decided he wasn’t coming on the trip,” Babcock said.

Holland said Lamoriello treated him professionally, but Babcock did not. “I’ve played for hard-ass coaches who I really like and respect – because they still treat you like a person. My experience with Babs was that he doesn’t treat you like a human being,” Holland said.

Early in Babcock’s tenure with the Leafs, after team trainers completed player evaluations, ranking work ethic on a three-level scale – red, yellow and green – he called a meeting with players and the team’s training staff and projected the red reviews on a wall for all to see. Training staffers said they had been led to believe their evaluations would be confidential.

A similar incident involved Marner once he returned to the Leafs during the 2016 season. While the team was in New Jersey, Babcock made Marner rank his teammates from hardest to least-hardest working. Marner did, believing it was a confidential discussion. He placed himself at the bottom of the list. Babcock then took the list to several of the other players who were also at the bottom of Marner’s list. Afterward, two veteran players – Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak – confronted Babcock about the incident; they took particular issue with the coach treating a rookie that way. Babcock later apologized to Marner.

In the Leafs office, Babcock was known to chastise support staff workers if his routine was derailed or the environment didn’t meet his standards, former players and employees said. He often focused on one person in the office each day and hounded them repeatedly.

“When you work for Babs everyone is on their toes. No one is spared,” said one former staffer.

After he was fired by the Leafs in November 2019 – with four years remaining on that eight-year contract – he advised the University of Vermont hockey program and was reportedly a finalist to be head coach with the Washington Capitals in 2020. NBC hired him as an on-air analyst, a decision that drew criticism. In February 2021, Babcock was named head coach of the University of Saskatchewan men’s hockey program, working alongside his son, Mike Babcock III, an assistant coach.

While coaching there, Babcock pushed back on reports that his leadership style was unsuited for the modern game. He blamed social media for unfair criticism and called the characterization of the incident with Marner “a complete farce.” He justified the ranking exercise by noting how well Marner played for the Leafs, telling Sportsnet: “Mitch Marner played great for Mike Babcock.”

“Anything in my life that I’ve done that I should be feeling bad about and I should apologize for, I’m good with that,” Babcock said. “I have to own it and I should do that. But some of the math doesn’t add up. It just doesn’t.”

In spring 2023, Babcock emerged as a candidate for coaching jobs with the New York Rangers and the Columbus Blue Jackets. That July, the 60-year-old signed a two-year deal to coach the Blue Jackets, who had just finished last in the Eastern Conference with only 25 wins – the third consecutive season the team missed the playoffs.

Jarmo Kekäläinen, then the team’s general manager, told reporters that Babcock’s coaching achievements spoke for themselves. John Davidson, the Blue Jackets president of hockey operations, said he reached out to former Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock for advice on who the team should hire. Hitchcock told him that Babcock, his close friend, was the only person for the job.

At a news conference announcing his hiring, Babcock said he had evolved as a coach: “Change in all of us takes time. I think what this has done is given me a chance to get outside my body and have a look and see what I’m doing and understand you needed to change, you needed to grow.”

Two months later, allegations surfaced that during individual meetings Babcock pressured players to share with him private photos from their phones.

At first, the Blue Jackets and Babcock denied anything improper had occurred. But after an NHLPA investigation, Babcock’s conduct was deemed a breach of player privacy, and Columbus and Babcock mutually agreed on his resignation.

The Athletic spoke with four individuals who worked with Babcock prior to Columbus who said he had used the sharing of private photos as a sort of team-building tactic with them as well.

“He thought he could still do a lot of the things that made it successful in the past. And you can’t do that in today’s age,” said one former Red Wing. “You just can’t. You won’t get away with it.”

To some, Babcock’s ouster in Columbus represented the last breath of a certain coaching archetype. But some front office officials, the men who make or have input in hiring decisions, believe that Babcock got a raw deal in Columbus.

As for Babcock, last week he was traveling in Ireland with his wife. In a brief phone conversation, he said of his talk with Montgomery: “I just talk to the guys who call me. That’s it.” Asked if he wanted to return to coaching, he said “no” and added: “I’ve got a great life going. I have things I love to do. I’m busy as heck and I’m enjoying it.”

Asked if he’d been approached recently about working with any NHL clubs, Babcock declined to answer.