Been a long time since I’ve written about hockey on my web site. Just haven’t felt like I’ve had anything much to say. But, recently, I’ve done a few TV and radio hits about Don Cherry and Mike Babcock. Many of you have seen or heard them through Facebook, but for those who haven’t, I’ve posted links below.
The truth is, I’m not really sure why I was called on in these cases. Both events seemed more suited to modern analysis than historical perspective, but I’m hammy enough that even when I’ve wanted to say no, I haven’t turned them down. (For those who are curious, no, they do NOT pay me – which might be why they actually call!) It’s nice to know that they think I can handle myself, and I suppose it means they also believe I have something to contribute to the discussion. So here’s what I might have said about Babcock from an historical perspective if there had been more time…
One of the things that struck me most about firing Mike Babcock is how far the Leafs have strayed from their tradition. (And, yes, I know there’s been a long tradition of being terrible the last 50+ years, but that didn’t used to be the case!)
It’s been a long time, but when the Leafs were at their historical best – in the 1940s and the 1960s – they were defensively sound with star players who put the coach’s systems ahead of their own statistics. Of course, coaches ruled the roost in those days, but I still find this interesting. Traditionally, Montreal had bigger stars and played a more exciting style, but remember that prior to expansion, both Toronto and Montreal won the Stanley Cup 13 times in the NHL’s first 50 seasons. (The Canadiens also won in 1916, before the NHL was formed.) So despite their philosophical differences, there wasn’t much to choose results-wise between the NHL’s two greatest franchises
Yes, Toronto did have some star power over the years. Players such as Charlie Conacher, Busher Jackson and Syl Apps were once among the biggest names in the game. But guys like Dave Keon and Teeder Kennedy (who were ranked first and third among the team’s top 100 back in the 100th anniversary season – Apps was second) were “200-foot players” well before that was a term. Those two didn’t win a ton of individual honours, but they won the Stanley Cup plenty of times!
When I was putting together my book The Toronto Maple Leafs: The Complete Oral History, I was struck by how similar the coaching philosophy of Mike Babcock seemed to be to that of Hap Day. Day was named team captain in 1927-28 and later became the most successful coach in Leafs history in the 1940s before moving into upper management. Here’s how he explained his coaching philosophy to Jack Batten for his 1975 book The Leafs in Autumn:
“When I was a defenceman on Toronto, I saw all kinds of players in front of me, and I learned right then that it’s defence that wins hockey games…. When you think of defence, you think of the two men, the defencemen, isn’t that right? Wrong! Think of all six men doing the job on defence. I told my players if they worked as hard coming back as they did going down the ice, we’d be okay. Of course, you had to have the proper type of player to handle that approach – or make them into the proper type of player. A player’s got to learn to keep his mind on defence, apply himself.”
Now, I’m not saying the Leafs were wrong to fire Mike Babcock. If they truly believe they have the run-and-gun skill team Kyle Dubas wants, Babcock no longer looked like the right man for the job. As I said on TV and radio, he seemed determined to make the team fit his system (or die trying!) rather than adapt his system to fit the team he had. But Day didn’t adapt either, even with scoring stars like Apps and Max Bentley. He made them play defense. And he got results with Stanley Cup wins in 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948 and 1949 (plus another as GM in 1951) to point to.
I found this interesting too…
This is what Sheldon Keefe said in one of his early press conferences after being named Leafs coach: “I’m not focused on what this team isn’t. I’m focused on what this team is.”
It put me in mind of what new coach Billy Reay said back in 1957 when he was hired after Day was let go: “I try to capitalize on a player’s strong points, rather than in trying to build up his weak ones.”
Similar sentiments, I think!
But it didn’t work out so well for Reay. The Leafs went 21-38-11 in a 70-game season in 1957-58 and finished last in the overall standings for the only time in the six-team era. After getting off to a 5-12-3 start the following season, Reay was fired and Punch Imlach took over. Like Day, Imlach ran a team where star players had to fit into his system … and there were Stanley Cup parades again in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967.
Now, I’m not suggesting the Leafs need someone like Punch Imlach, whose dictatorial ways couldn’t possibly fly today. (Nor am I saying that Babcock’s implacability makes him some sort of modern-era Imlach – though we are starting to hear more and more about his vindictive personality.) Nor do I believe the Maple Leafs were ever quite as tough as Conn Smythe’s “beat ’em in the alley” philosophy intimates, but I do agree that there are other ways of being tough that don’t involve beating up on someone. I actually hope the Leafs can succeed on offensive skill, but I’m not yet convinced they have those other kinds of toughness. But I have no analytical insights into that.
So, was changing coaches a good move? Only time will tell…