Sports

Mike Babcock pushes back on coaching controversies, says ‘smell test doesn’t add up’

It has been a little over 15 months since Mike Babcock last stepped behind an NHL bench. The Maple Leafs fired him on Nov. 20, 2019, following a six-game skid and a little more than four seasons with the club.

Not long after his dismissal, it was revealed that in 2017, Babcock asked Leafs forward Mitch Marner to rank how he viewed his teammates’ work ethic. Babcock revealed the list to the team. He told Sportnet’s Elliotte Friedman in 2019 that he apologized at the time for doing so.

But then more came out.

Mike Commodore and Mark Fraser went on social media to comment on their issues with his coaching tactics and treatment of players. Then, Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios disclosed on “Spittin’ Chiclets” that Babcock verbally assaulted former Johan Franzen. The former forward told a Swedish publication that Babcock is “the worst person I’ve ever met. A bully.”

Babcock has returned to the spotlight in the past few months after time away. He worked with the University of Vermont men’s hockey team. He joined NBC part time as a studio analyst. He spoke to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun about a number of topics. Most recently, he was hired as head coach of the University of Saskatchewan’s men’s hockey team.

On Wednesday, before the Flames played Babcock’s last team, the Maple Leafs, Sportsnet aired a sit-down interview conducted by Christine Simpson. While Babcock might have been looking to clear the air, he instead came off as defensive and at times didn’t really put the onus on himself for what transpired.

“What happened, I was in a tree stand, hunting on my farm in Ohio, and I get this thing, and I said, ‘Yeah, I apologize for that.’ But I didn’t know the story wasn’t right,” Babcock said when asked about the Marner incident. “Mitch was at a time that it wasn’t going quite as good. He was in my office and I said: ’Rank yourself on the work ethic list.’ And he did. And there was nothing wrong with our conversation. Mitch Marner played great for Mike Babcock. I can’t complain one bit, it was unbelievable.

“So then what happened, though, is I brought in, and I think it was Bozy [Tyler Bozak], but I left the Mitch Marner thing on the table. And then I referred to it and as soon as I did it, I knew I’d done the wrong thing.

“I walked out after talking to Bozy and I said to Mitch: ’This is what I’ve done. I’ve screwed ya. There was no intent on my part. Do you want me to deal with it in front of the team right there?’ And I shouldn’t have asked him that, I should have just done it.

“Was it wrong? Yes. Was it my fault? One hundred percent. Do I own that? Yeah, but if you think it’s a tactic to haze a guy or something, that’s the craziest thing ever. We try to make these players the best we could. Our intention is always good. Do we do things wrong sometimes? One hundred percent.”

Simpson then pressed him on what Franzen said.

“I thought we had a really good relationship,” Babcock responded. “Now, did things not go as good at times? Absolutely. Did I ever, in my mind, try to bully anybody? That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of.

“Now, I also though, didn’t even know what mental health was,” he said, which is an interesting thing for someone who took sports psychology classes at McGill University post-graduation after earning an education degree. “Anytime someone, whether they work for you, whether you’re in a relationship with, feels that — you’re wrong. You never want to cross the line and when you do you want to own it. And if you do, you should own it. But if you didn’t, you shouldn’t own that either.”

Babcock said he did reach out to Franzen but the now-former NHLer did not get back to him.

“I’ve coached 34 years. Let’s go 20 guys. Let’s do the math. Lots of players,” he said. ”I’ve coached Olympic teams. I’ve changed goalies. I’ve coached veteran teams in the Stanley Cup Final and scratched guys. You’ve made people mad. That’s reality. You know, I’ve coached a lot of teams and had a lot of success, and good people have hired me.

“I didn’t have a Zoom meeting with Brian Murray before I went to Anaheim. I went to Detroit. Jimmy Nill was my GM at the ’04 world championship. They hired me. Steve Yzerman played for me and worked with me for four years, and he hired me for two Olympics. Brendan Shanahan hired me after playing for me. Some of this, the smell test doesn’t add up.”

He then went after Sportsnet in the interview when asked if he disputes the stories.

“Oh, yes, but I also, let’s get this clear because you know how you guys can edit this stuff. I’ve tried my very best to treat people right. I still do. You can’t have a family I have, and the opportunities I’ve had without treating people good. Have I crossed the line ever? Absolutely. In saying that, when you get into mental health, that’s a way different program. No one ever should be in that situation. So when you crossed the line you have to own that.”

It isn’t sounding like Babcock is owning it.

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