TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — When the allegations first surfaced, the Blue Jackets, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association believed Mike Babcock’s request to view private cellphone photos of his players was an innocent, if embarrassing, interaction by a new coach who got to know his players.
But in the days that followed, the story, first revealed by Paul Bissonnette on the “Spittin’ Chiclets” podcast, began to take a much different shape.
Sure enough, those interactions were deemed acceptable by veteran players Boone Jenner and Johnny Gaudreau, who both made public statements in Babcock’s defense. But the NHLPA began getting more information from other players — inside the Blue Jackets locker room and possibly outside — that was far more damning, painting the interactions as nothing less than an invasion of privacy by players who didn’t feel empowered to stand up to the veteran coach.
Burning question: Did the Blue Jackets know the extent of Babcock’s interactions with players when it was first revealed? If they knew the scope and tried to bury this story before it started, it says not too good things about the club’s decision-makers, from president of hockey operations John Davidson to general manager Jarm Kekalainen and others.
But if they didn’t know the extent of Babcock’s invasion of privacy, it means something that should really concern the Blue Jackets — right down to the ownership level.
This would suggest that Blue Jackets players — veterans and/or young players — feel more comfortable speaking their truth to people like Bissonnette and the NHLPA than to the people in charge of the Blue Jackets organization. If that’s the case, the McConnell family — like any ownership group in professional sports — may have to demand answers.
Babcock resigned Sunday, less than three months after his July 1 hire, issuing a scathing statement that suggested he would step aside because he would be “too big a distraction” if he stayed on the job. Nowhere in his statement did he acknowledge behavior that was completely unacceptable.
It’s possible Babcock didn’t even realize he was crossing a line with the players. While this may be his best defense, it would also be proof that he has learned absolutely nothing from the transgressions he committed with former players while coaching the Maple Leafs and Red Wings.
Don’t get it wrong: This is not evidence of a company that is too “woke” to handle a demanding coach with unusual tactics. This is not a problem with young players who expect to be treated with kid gloves and are too soft to play for an old school coach.
This is unacceptable behavior at any level, for any player, in any generation. Looking at someone’s phone is worse than rummaging through their wallet or purse. As one former NHL coach said Athletic: “What happened to lunch or coffee?”
Bissonnette, a former player and current television analyst, actually did the Blue Jackets a huge favor here. As painful as the last few days have been — the Blue Jackets’ prospects looked great heading into the Traverse City tournament, by the way — it was important to get over it as quickly as possible.
The most important thing is to do the right thing, no matter how painful it is. They did the right thing moving on from Babcock, but now there’s more work ahead.
They better hope the locker room doesn’t break because of it. (One player, in a text message Athleticthey said the players remain united.) He’d rather not let players who didn’t appreciate Babcock’s actions bear any of the blame for this early-season distraction.
The organization has several established veterans such as Jenner, Gaudreau, Zach Werenski, Sean Kuraly and Erik Gudbranson. But they have an impressive cadre of young players, including Adam Fantilli, Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger, who must develop the right way in a healthy culture.
While Babcock took no blame in his well-crafted statement through the club, it’s entirely on him. Davidson and Kekalainen will face tough questions on Monday at the club’s annual media day, which has now been hijacked by the story.
The Blue Jackets took a big risk by hiring Babcock. Majority owner John H. McConnell would be wise to demand answers from Davidson or Kekalainen or whoever has been most adamant about his hiring.
This is another in a long line of embarrassing Blue Jackets moments over the years. There’s the phallic-shaped Boomer mascot, which was retired in 2010 after just one game. The raging incompetence of the Doug MacLean era. He had to beg Jeff Carter to accept a trade from Philadelphia to Columbus and trade him after a year. Pierre-Luc Dubois leaves the franchise in mid-game.
Despite all that, the Blue Jackets, who have made it past the first round of the playoffs just once — including five playoff appearances during Kekalainen’s 10-year tenure — have a loyal and passionate fan base that deserves better.
The only saving grace is that the terrible decision to hire Mike Babcock backfired before he could do more damage.
(Mike Babcock Photo: Kyle Robertson/USA Today)