Sports

Why Mike Babcock is out as Blue Jackets coach — before his first game

Mike Babcock resigned as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets days before the start of NHL training camp and just over two months after he joined the franchise. How and why did this happen? What does it mean for the future?

Here’s a look at those questions and more after checking in with a range of NHL sources:

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How did Mike Babcock end up in Columbus?

Babcock was officially announced as the new head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 1, 2023, after his contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs was up. He signed a two-year deal worth $4 million per season.

The 60-year-old coach was fired by the Leafs in November 2019 after five seasons. It was his third NHL coaching gig after stints with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (2002-04) and Detroit Red Wings (2006-15), with whom he won the Stanley Cup in 2008. Babcock was also behind the bench for two Olympic gold-medal wins for Team Canada (2010, 2014) and Canada’s win in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

After his dismissal in Toronto, Babcock’s reputation took a severe hit.

As coach of the Leafs, Babcock requested a private meeting with rookie Mitch Marner, had the young forward rank his teammates by work ethic and then shared the list with the players who were at the bottom of that ranking, much to the embarrassment of Marner. The incident was reported to then-general manager Lou Lamoriello.

Other accusations about Babcock’s tactics were made by former players. Former Red Wings forward Johan Franzen, in the Swedish media outlet Expressen, accused Babcock of “verbal attacks” that, at one point, caused Franzen to break down on the bench and dread coming to the arena.

After Babcock was fired, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said his coaching tactics were not “appropriate or acceptable,” given how times had changed in the NHL.

“We have to evolve,” Shanahan said in 2019. “We all came from a certain generation where things occurred to us as players that we just sort of accepted. We all have to do a better job of just creating that [better] kind of work environment on the ice and off the ice.”

After being fired by the Leafs, Babcock volunteered with two college hockey programs: The University of Vermont and the University of Saskatchewan. He interviewed for NHL coaching vacancies, including one with the Washington Capitals. But his return to the NHL ultimately came with the Blue Jackets.

GM Jarmo Kekalainen said at the time that Babcock was “the right person, the right man” for the job.

“Our organization has some strong values that are never compromised and they’re nonnegotiable,” Kekalainen said.


What did Babcock do that was so controversial?

It was clear to all involved that Babcock’s behavior would come under incredible scrutiny, given his past.

On the “Spittin’ Chiclets” podcast this past Tuesday, former NHL player and current TV analyst Paul Bissonnette said that Babcock asked Columbus captain Boone Jenner to show him his cellphone camera roll before displaying those photos via AirPlay on the coach’s office wall.

“Enough with putting guys on the spot in the coaches room asking them to link their phones up to AirPlay mode and grilling them. I’ve had tons of players confirm it,” Bissonnette said after the episode was released.

Blue Jackets star forward Johnny Gaudreau confirmed to ESPN that he had also shown Babcock photos that were on his phone, per the coach’s request.

Former NHL defenseman Mike Commodore, who played for Babcock and has been a long-standing critic of the coach, said he heard this behavior also occurred during Babcock’s time coaching the Maple Leafs.

“It happened with a few other players in Columbus, too. I don’t want to use any names, but in particular [it involved] a young, very highly touted prospect,” Commodore said in a video posted to X, formerly known as Twitter.

Privately, the Blue Jackets pushed back on the report from Bissonnette. While not denying that Babcock asked to see photos from players, they felt the way it was framed made it seem more nefarious than how it went down, which was a “get to know you” tactic Babcock had used in the past.

Official statements from Babcock and Jenner doubled down on that response.

Said Babcock: “While meeting with our players and staff I asked them to share, off their phones, family pictures as part of the process of getting to know them better. There was absolutely nothing more to it than that. The way this was portrayed on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast was a gross misrepresentation of those meetings and extremely offensive. These meetings have been very important and beneficial, not only for me but for our players and staff as well, and to have them depicted like this is irresponsible and completely inaccurate.”

Said Jenner: “While meeting with Babs he asked me about my family and where I’m from, my upcoming wedding and hockey-related stuff. He then asked if I had pictures of my family and I was happy to share some with him. He showed me pictures of his family. I thought it was a great first meeting and good way for us to start to build a relationship. To have this blown out of proportion is truly disappointing.”

Gaudreau, at the NHL/NHLPA player media tour, said he had “a great meeting” with Babcock.

“We got to share things together, pictures of our family,” the star winger said. “I was a little upset to see the way it was handled and how it came out … but nothing you can do about it. We got off to a great start, had a great meeting with him and looking forward to working together.”


How did this lead to his resignation?

The controversy appeared as if it might die down after the team’s statements. However, the NHLPA decided to investigate the matter further.

On Thursday, Marty Walsh, NHLPA executive director, and assistant executive director Ron Hainsey, who played three seasons with Columbus (2005-08), met with Blue Jackets players at Nationwide Arena after a morning skate. The trip was not previously planned and was made after the allegations against Babcock were made public.

They also contacted some of Babcock’s former players.

A source told ESPN the Blue Jackets welcomed the NHLPA investigation to determine whether there was any wrongdoing by Babcock.

Walsh had a previously planned meeting at the NHL headquarters in New York City on Friday morning. Whatever the previous agenda was, it was overwritten by the Babcock news. The NHLPA laid out what it learned by interviewing players.

According to a source with knowledge of the NHLPA, it became clear that veteran players like Jenner were having a much different experience with Babcock than young players were having.

What was reported by Bissonnette was “the tip of the iceberg,” according to a source.

Babcock’s exit was negotiated Saturday. The announcement that he had stepped down, and associate coach Pascal Vincent has been named head coach on a two-year contract, was made Sunday.


What was the reaction to the resignation?

Kekalainen said the resignation was essential as the season approached.

“This was a difficult decision on everyone’s part, but one we felt necessary to ensure our focus remains on the players and the team’s upcoming season,” he said. “On behalf of the entire Blue Jackets organization, we want to thank Mike for his hard work and the professionalism he has shown in working together on a plan to step down.”

Babcock also released a statement through the Blue Jackets. “Upon reflection, it has become clear that continuing as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets was going to be too much of a distraction. While I’m disappointed to not have had the opportunity to continue the work we’ve begun, I know it’s in the best interest of the organization for me to step away at this time. I wish everyone in the organization well in the upcoming season,” he said.

The NHL did not release a statement in the wake of the resignation.

“Our players deserve to be treated with respect in the workplace. Unfortunately, that was not the case in Columbus,” Walsh said. “The club’s decision to move forward with a new head coach is the appropriate course of action.”

“He may be trying to change, but you can’t force it,” a player agent told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan. “His communication style wasn’t going to work for the younger generation.”

“Why hire him in the first place?” one source asked.

Late Sunday, Bissonnette posted to X: “We’re a players podcast. If you f— with the players, your day will come.”


Who is Pascal Vincent?

If there’s a beam of light for the Blue Jackets in the aftermath, it’s that Vincent finally gets his chance at being their head coach.

Vincent, who will turn 52 on Friday, joined the Blue Jackets as associate coach in 2021 after 10 seasons with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose, the Winnipeg Jets‘ affiliate. He was their head coach for five seasons and won AHL Coach of the Year in 2017-18. He was an assistant coach with the Jets under head coaches Claude Noel and Paul Maurice for five seasons, 2011-16.

Vincent was in the running for the Blue Jackets’ job in 2021 when Brad Larsen was hired, and then again in the offseason when Larsen was fired. He knows this roster well and is popular with the players. Needless to say, the chance to run an NHL bench has been a long time coming for Vincent, the 10th full-time head coach in franchise history.

And the fourth one Kekalainen has hired.


What does this mean for the future?

Kekalainen has a contract through the 2024-25 season. Hired in February 2013, he’s the longest-serving general manager in franchise history and the third-longest-serving current GM in the NHL behind Doug Armstrong of the St. Louis Blues and Kevin Cheveldayoff of the Jets.

During his tenure, the Jackets have qualified for the playoffs five times and won a single playoff round: their legendary 2019 upset sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning. They have not qualified for the playoffs in the past three seasons.

There’s no getting around how terrible this situation is for Blue Jackets management. Columnist Michael Arace of The Columbus Dispatch wrote on Sunday that it’s “an embarrassment for John Davidson, the team’s president of hockey operations, and Jarmo Kekalainen, the general manager.”

Multiple NHL sources told ESPN they wondered why the Blue Jackets didn’t stand by Babcock when they clearly knew what kind of coach he was and the scrutiny he was going to be under.

Another NHL source said that Kekalainen’s “leash just got a lot shorter” after the Babcock resignation.

There’s no getting around how this disaster falls squarely on Kekalainen. He told the media in July that the team did its “due diligence” in vetting Babcock for the job. While others in the organization backed the hiring — Davidson said that director of players development Rick Nash gave the move “two thumbs up” — it was Kekalainen who vouched for him as a coach and a person, having had a personal relationship with Babcock since the late 1990s.

An embarrassment like this could have a devastating effect on Kekalainen’s job status. A season that was supposed to have positive vibes — No. 3 pick Adam Fantilli making his NHL debut, a healthy Zach Werenski rejoining a revamped defensive corps, holdover stars such as Gaudreau and Patrik Laine — has fallen flat on its face before the campaign even began.

Babcock is done as an NHL head coach, full stop. No media interviews to cleanse his reputation, no vows from new employers about how he has changed — none of it could wash away the toxicity of parting ways with a team before training camp even starts.

He’s a coach. His new team worried he could no longer successfully coach the players. That about does it.

The most interesting name in the fallout from all of this might be Marty Walsh. While people like Bissonnette said Commodore deserves credit for keeping the pressure on Babcock and helping to platform these revelations, it was the proactive investigation by the NHLPA that led to his resignation.

Walsh is the former U.S. Secretary of Labor under Joe Biden and former mayor of Boston. He’s been on the job for only a few months. Flying to Columbus, conducting the investigation, meeting with the NHL and having this all lead to the resignation of a coach who might have crossed the line — it’s a declarative statement from a labor leader who is still earning his constituents’ trust.

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