By Keith Gave
After reading in a Toronto newspaper that the Red Wings planned to honor former coach Mike Babcock when he brings his Toronto Maple Leafs to Joe Louis Arena to open a new hockey season, I asked Detroit GM Ken Holland for some details.
He offered none because, officially, there is no such plan. Yet.
“I said we’re thinking about doing something,” Holland said before the Wings opened their preseason recently against Chicago.
Good. As long as this idea is in the developing stage, maybe the Wings will consider this suggestion: Don’t.
Seriously, isn’t stroking that immense ego behind the Leafs bench Toronto’s challenge now? How many more words of honest appreciation for a job fairly well done the past 10 years are needed? Holland has said it repeatedly for the past year while he tried to sign Babcock to a contract extension. So have Babcock’s players in Detroit, though clearly it nearly made some of them nearly gag in mid-sentence.
The Detroit-Toronto rivalry is one of the longest and most colorful rivalries in the NHL, and it’s been dormant far too long. So some of us, perhaps naively, figured Babcock’s defection to the Leafs might be kickstart the intensity level, especially since the teams meet more regularly as adversaries in the Eastern Conference.
That’s why it was so galling to see Babcock – the brand new coach of the Leafs – holding his tearful farewell news conference inside the Red Wings’ dressing room. If that’s not unprecedented, it’s certainly blasphemous to anyone who respects and appreciates the passion, and occasional vitriol, that has punctuated this rivalry over the decades.
(Think John Brophy, in his black fedora, looking over at Jacques Demers behind the Detroit bench and giving him the choke sign throughout a crucial playoff game at Maple Leaf Gardens.)
But in order to begin to appreciate why the Wings would even consider allowing Babcock back in the building again instead of suggesting he hold his media event in a nearby parking lot, you have to understand his relationship with Holland. They share a friendship built on trust and respect through a decade of sharing a foxhole together.
“We’ll be friends forever,” Holland said. Babcock says the same thing. And they mean it.
All of which adds another layer to a rivalry that’s beginning to finally show some signs of life. We’re going to get at least a glimpse of where it’s headed soon enough, when the Leafs and Wings play three consecutive games – one of those cherished home-and-home series to close the preseason this weekend, then a face-off to begin the regular season in Detroit on Oct. 9.
That begins the Jeff Blashill coaching era in Detroit, and that’s where the Wings need to focus, if they’re going to highlight any coach on Opening Night. Babcock, of course, discovered, hired and mentored Blashill, and one day that may be seen as Babcock’s greatest legacy in Detroit.
Holland, meantime, spoke for many of his team’s most experienced players when he explained to that Toronto reporter what he hopes for most when the Wings face Babcock and his Leafs: “We want to kick his ass.”
That’s a good start, and a whole lot better than continuing to kiss it.
Keith Gave is a Michigan-based freelance writer and former educator. He has spent nearly two decades covering the NHL, starting with the Detroit Free Press in 1985 and continuing with the Dallas Morning News in 1998. He was a contributor for The Hockey News from 1987-1997. For the past year, he has covered the Red Wings for FOX Sports Detroit. Follow him on Twitter at @KeithGave.