"I was shocked by how impressed I was at how impressive it was."
• Mike Babcock talking to TSN's Gino Reda on May 21, 2015, the day he signed his eight-year, $US50-million deal to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs, about GM Brendan Shanahan's opening contract offer.
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Chicago’s old Stadium was notorious for the debris that rained down on the ice from fun-loving fans in the gallery seats, coins and shoes and playing cards, paper airplanes and novels, fruit and emptied bottles. The Black Hawks did their best to curtail the bombarding over the years, with pleas (above, from January of 1935) and threats and, sometimes, rewards. Below, calm before they storm, high-altitude fans in February of 1942 play some pre-game pinochle with a deck or two of possible future projectiles.
Camelbacker: Goaltender Dave Kerr of the New York Rangers featured in a 1939 ad for Camel cigarettes, which (if you hadn’t heard) were both “the largest-selling cigarette in America” and “a matchless blend of finer, more expensive tobaccos — Turkish and domestic.” They soothed your nerves, apparently, with their mildness, rich and ripe taste, comfort, and pleasure. Toronto-born, Kerr ended his sixth season in the NHL in the spring of ’39 and started his seventh in the fall. The latter was the best of his career. Starting every one of the Rangers’ 48 games, he won the Vézina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender and was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team. In the playoffs, Kerr went 8-4 to back the Rangers to Stanley-Cup victory, their first since 1933. It was 1994 before they won another.
Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos scores a goal on Henrik Lundqvist’s New York net during the second period of the fifth game of the Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden last night.
“Very proud,” Brendan Shanahan was telling the media at the Air Canada Centre, “very happy today. Happy to introduce Mike as the 30th coach in Toronto Maple Leafs’ history. Thank you, Mike. Welcome.”
Except, of course, that Babcock is the 31st man to coach the Leafs. Dick Duff is the odd man out, relegated to a footnote in the team’s media-guide list of head coaches, untallied in the overall count that runs, now, from Alex Romeril to the pride of Manitouwadge, Ontario (Babcock’s hometown) by way of Saskatoon (where he grew up).
The Leafs, of course, are free to count their coaches in any way they so choose. But the case for leaving Duff out is cloudy, at best; the logic for including him in is at least persuasive as that associated with several other names who are on the list.
Duff’s tenure was brief, just two came in March of 1980, as detailed here. It came on suddenly, overnight, when the incumbent Floyd Smith was injured in a car accident on a Friday night. Smith had a couple of assistants that year, Duff and Johnny Bower, and on the Saturday morning ahead of an evening game, GM Punch Imlach put Duff in charge. “I told the players that Duff had absolute control of the team,” Imlach told reporters, “and I wanted them to do exactly what he told them.”
Still, it was a stopgap measure, no question about that, an emergency measure, a battlefield commission. Much like (minus the highway accident) the situation that the San Jose Sharks found themselves in December of 2002. In that case, GM Dean Lombardi had fired his head coach, Darryl Sutter, and a pair of assistants, named a Shark scout, Cap Raeder, as a temporary replacement. He did the job for precisely one game, a 3-2 overtime win over Phoenix, before Lombardi got a new coach, Ron Wilson, into place. According to the Sharks’ media guide, he was the seventh coach in team history, just as the man who succeeds the eighth (Todd McLellan) will be the ninth — i.e. no bumping about in the footnotes for Cap Raeder.
Brevity shouldn’t sink Duff’s cause. Maybe, then, Leaf management and asterisk lobbyists would argue that everybody knew that Duff wasn’t going to last, he was no more than a placeholder, a bookmark, filling a space behind the Leaf bench until the new, real coach showed up.
On that basis, Alex Romeril shouldn’t count, either — he was only doing the job in the latter days of the 1927 season until Conn Smythe finished up his coaching commitment with the University of Toronto Grads. And what about Peter Horachek, this year? Like Duff, he was an assistant who found himself appointed interim coach when, in his case, GM Dave Nonis fired Randy Carlyle this past January. Nobody expected him be in the job beyond the end of the season. He was, but only for a day or so: Brendan Shanahan fired him and Nonis on the Sunday after the Leafs played their final game.
Ah-ha (as the Leafs might say, and do, in this imaginary debate I’m having with them, whether they know it or not) — ha-ha, but Punch Imlach never spoke the magic word, whatever the GM might have mentioned about absolute control, Dick Duff was never officially anointed with those three all-important syllables: interim.
Is that true, though? On Monday, March 17, 1980, the day Duff coached his second and last game in the NHL, newspapers across the continent published a brief Associated Press notice that included the words Dick and Duff and named and interim coach. The AP would have got their information from some reputable source — maybe the PR people at the NHL? Likewise The Toronto Star, wherein readers of the small print in the sports pages might have seen this:
Is that enough to pluck Duff out of the margins and get him properly numbered as the fifteenth coach in Leaf history? I don’t know. Maybe Mike Babcock could put a word in for him. Continue reading
I know, I know: the reason that the Toronto Maple Leafs say that Mike Babcock is the team’s 30th coach rather than the 31st is that they can’t count. Sorry: they can’t count Dick Duff, or don’t, won’t. The Leafs discount him, count him out, and so should everybody — which, fortunately, they’re already doing.
It’s not that Duff, 79 now, isn’t a good guy/former revered left-winger /six-time Stanley-Cup winner / Hall of Famer. He’s all that. Nor does the fact the Leafs lost the two games in 1980 when he ran the bench as a ghostly caretaker have anything to do with his exile.
The thing is, he was never formally appointed head coach. Unlike Babcock this morning, he wasn’t unveiled in a giddy city at a press conference even as the southerly breezes blew in Buffalo’s bitterness and Detroit’s disappointment.
Here’s how it went for Duff. The Leafs’ 1978-79 season ended when they lost to Montreal in the second round of the playoffs. Owner Harold Ballard had fired GM Jim Gregory and coach Roger Nielson’s contract was expiring. Ballard didn’t want him back anyway, unless he couldn’t find another coach, in which case, maybe, he would let Nielson stay. (“I may have to eat crow,” he said. “It’s not a very nice meal when you get to the feathers.”)
Ballard had his eye on both Don Cherry and Scotty Bowman but when they got away on him and he settled on bringing back an old Leaf hand, Punch Imlach, as his GM. In July of 1979, Imlach hired Floyd Smith to coach the team.
A week later, Imlach augmented Smith’s staff. “I asked Smitty when I hired him whether he’d like some assistant coaches,” the GM told The Globe and Mail. “He said yes.”
He got two: Johnny Bower, who’d been scouting for the team, would tutor the goaltenders, while Duff said so long to (as The Globe noted) the furniture business to help out with the forwards and defencemen.
Forward, fast, to the following season. The Leafs were in (ho-hum) turmoil. Imlach was feuding with/trying to humiliate Darryl Sittler. In what seemed to be part of his plan to undermine Sittler, Imlach put Ian Turnbull and Lanny McDonald on waivers. When he brought in Carl Brewer to play on defence, some of the players thought he was an Imlach spy, and in his first game back Borje Salming refused to pass him the puck. McDonald was traded to Colorado. Sittler cried.
Then in March, 12 games left in the regular season, coach Smith was driving on a Friday night from Toronto to his home in Buffalo when he crossed the median near St. Catharines, Ontario, and crashed head-on with another car. A woman in that car died and the driver went to hospital with serious injuries. (He would die of his injuries three days later.) Smith broke a kneecap and suffered (The Star) severe lacerations and abrasions.
The accident occurred, as the newspapers noted, no more than a mile from the place where Leaf defenceman Tim Horton died in 1974. “That stretch of highway,” said Imlach, “has caused me a great deal of grief and sorrow.”
Hockey, as it does, went on. Saturday night the Leafs were hosting the New York Rangers. That morning, Imlach visited the dressing room after the team’s morning skate to let the players know how Smith was doing and to announce that Duff would be in charge for the Ranger game.
“I told the players that Duff had absolute control of the team,” Imlach told the reporters afterwards, “and I wanted them to do exactly what he told them.”
“I told them that the best medicine they could give Smitty was to play well and win a few — and I think these players will do just that.”
The Leafs lost, 4-8. Nobody blamed Duff. Nobody knew who’d be coaching the next gam, though it did look like Smith wouldn’t be back that season. Imlach was evaluating the situation. Duff was happy to help in whatever way he could. “There are some mechanics behind the bench — changing lines, things like that — that I’ll need a few games to get down pat,” he said. “I’m willing, and I’d like to stay on the job, but that will be up to Punch.”
Monday night the Atlanta Flames paid a visit. Duff would be in charge again, though Imlach said he hadn’t made any decisions beyond that. The Leafs lost 1-5. The Globe: “The way the Leafs played, it wouldn’t have mattered who was coaching the team. They lacked zip, giving away the puck several times and refusing to forecheck in the Atlanta end.”
“I don’t know what it is with them,” Imlach grouched. “Maybe they’ve decided not to try because the trading deadline has passed. But I have a long memory. “They have three weeks to show that they want to stay here and play hockey. If they don’t show that, they’re saying to me that they’re looking to be traded.”
Wednesday was the next game, at home again, against the Winnipeg Jets, the league’s worst team. Tuesday Imlach announced his decision: he would himself be taking over as coach.
The Toronto Star reported how he broke the news to the players:
His first words as coach: “All I expect from you bastards is effort and I’d better get it.” Then he slammed the door and walked out of a film session. There was no applause from the players and no comment either.
With Dick Duff patrolling again as an assistant, the Leafs beat the Jets 9-1. Did it feel, maybe, like he’d never been coach at all?
Lots of numbers flying around today with the announcement that Mike Babcock is taking over as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, from one (number of Stanley Cups Babcock has one) to ten (years he was in Detroit) to 50,000,000 (non-Canadian dollars Toronto will reportedly be paying him over the course of the next years).
The number 30 has been prominent, too, in the mix, notably from the Leafs themselves, who at 11:22 a.m. this morning took to Twitter to make welcome “the 30th head coach in club history.”
Can you blame everybody else, press and public alike, for taking the team’s word for it — even though it’s wrong?
Whether the Leafs know it or not, Mike Babcock is the 31st man to coach the team.
That’s going back to the winter of 1927, when Conn Smythe transformed the St. Patricks into Maple Leafs midway through the NHL season and counting all the way through to, well, now. Along the way, the coaches have included many former playing greats (from Hap Day to George Armstrong) along with enduring bench legends (Dick Irvin) and those who’ve been unfortunate to have wear the word interim next to their job description (Peter Horachek). A couple (King Clancy and Punch Imlach) have had more than one go at the job. Any way you tally them all (try it yourself here), the number is 31.
Could just be a simple oversight handed down over time. I can’t say for certain whom the Leafs and everybody else are leaving out of their calculations, but my guess is that it’s the man with the briefest of Leaf leaderships — Dick Duff, who steered the team for just two (losing) games in 1980, post-Floyd Smith, pre-Punch Imlach.
Could be, I suppose, that it’s a matter of mercy: maybe the team believes that Duf, another Leaf great as a player, only stepped up to fill a gap that needed filling, and that his coaching days (and their .000 winning percentage) deserve to be excused from all our memories.
News that Vladimir Putin was skating and scoring on the ice yesterday wasn’t really news: the 62-year-old Russian president’s love of hockey is as well-known as his penchant for archaeology and for riding bare-chested on horses. He was at the Bolshoi Ice Palace taking part in a “gala” game dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the victorious end of the Great Patriotic (a.k.a. the Second World) War.
Putin’s team was also Slava Fetisov’s, and they lined up Pavel Bure, Alexander Yakushev, and Sergei Makarov as well. It will shock no-one to learn that they won by a score of 18-6, or that Putin scored eight of his team’s goals. The fact that Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, added a hattrick — that, I own, caught me a little off my guard. Recognized as the game’s best player, Shoigu was rewarded with a trip to the Crimea. As a satire enthusiast, I wish I’d invented that last detail, but no, it’s true enough.
I was checking in on Canada’s semi-final at the World Championships yesterday afternoon when I saw the Putin news. Feeling good about Canada’s team in Prague, I’d decided that they were strong and confident enough to do without me watching the whole broadcast of their game with the Czech Republic and that I — and they — we could get away with updates on my iPhone.
And so it proved. Taylor Hall had just scored, on a pass from Sidney Crosby; Jason Spezza would add another goal to guarantee the 2-0 Canadian win. The Putin story was just filtering out by that time, along with news from the other semi-final where (also unaided by my viewership), Russia dismissed the U.S. by a score of 4-0.
That’s when my eyes began to open to the bigger picture. Of course. President Putin wasn’t just playing in a friendly game of pick-up by the Black Sea. He was, as Putin likes to do, sending a message. Sometimes they go out disguised as unmarked armoured columns headed west, towards Ukraine, while on other occasions they resemble air-force bombers skirting along the edges of foreign airspace.
Mostly, messages Putin sends have a distinct sabre-rattling sound, but who says they can’t also clack like hockey sticks on ice? Anticipating that today’s Prague final would pit Russians against Canadians, Putin knew what he was doing. The fans in Sochi may have enjoyed Putin’s goals, his preening, but they weren’t the intended recipients. Even as he entertained them, he was trolling us, Canadians, marking his territory, telling those of us who hold the maple leaf high that when it comes to ice, that’s Russian territory, as it ever was, just like with Crimea and Novorossiya.
I don’t know why we haven’t responded. That’s what puzzling. When I say we, I mean, of course, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Diplomacy dictates that if Canada wanted to answer a display like Putin’s, it would have to come from the PMO. Is it possible that they missed it? That Putin sent his message and it wasn’t received? I don’t know how else you could explain Ottawa’s silence. Are you telling me that the PMO couldn’t at short notice have organized a game at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre to answer to President Putin? Maybe last night would have been pushing it, but what about this morning? The Conservative Party is always dialling up instant crowds of hard-working Canadians to backdrop the PM as he pretends he’s not already electioneering, so how hard would it have been to this morning?
As for players to skate, well, what’s the Cabinet for other than to lace ’em up whenever the boss calls, needs interference run, a screen in front of the opposition’s net/pertinent inquiry during Question Period. And it’s not as if actual hockey players are in short supply around the capital — Ottawa not only has a whole NHL team of players with nothing to do, they’re called the Senators, after our national chamber of sober second-thinkers (mostly) beholden to the man who appointed them.
It would have been easy to outdo Putin at his own game — that is, at our game. Harper could have taken to net, maybe even played both ends, skated away with a pair of shut-outs, awarding himself a trip to Kurdistan. That would have shown the Russians.
I’m not saying our lack of leaderly showing-off is going to make any difference in today’s final in Prague: what happens there is up to the Crosbys and Eberles and Ovechkins and Malkins. All I’m saying is, I don’t know — either our PM isn’t the prince of propaganda I took him for or else he was genuinely impressed by Putin’s feat of never scoring fewer than two hattricks in any game he’s ever played. I guess that could explain why Stephen Harper held himself goalless this weekend.