LAST WEEK Mike Babcock stood in the same spot where he had stood after so many Red Wings games and held the strangest press conference. Babcock had already been introduced as the Maple Leafs' new coach in Toronto 24 hours earlier. He flew back to Detroit to explain why he had chosen the Leafs over returning to the Wings, a large offer from the Sabres and various other opportunities. His chin quivered, and his eyes teared. "It's way easier," he said, "just to get fired."
Getting fired reduces the stress of choosing. This is true for teams too: Firing a coach is easy; hiring a new coach is hard, which is why three teams took such disparate tacks this year.
The Maple Leafs gave Babcock an eight-year, $50 million contract, more than double what the Blackhawks pay the NHL's previously highest-paid coach, Joel Quenneville. The Leafs have the money, and it's not like they're going to spend it on a parade any time soon. The hope is that Babcock can restore the team's credibility with the Canadian public (he helped Team Canada win two Olympic golds) and rebuild the franchise after several failed regimes. And the Leafs might be right.
The Red Wings, meanwhile, are expected to replace Babcock with Some Guy. He calls himself "Jeff Blashill," and he coaches their AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids. Blashill would be a system hire; the Wings groomed him. They think their franchise is so strong and stable that while they wanted to keep Babcock, they didn't need him. And they might be right too.
In Philadelphia on May 18, the Flyers introduced their new coach, Another Guy. He calls himself "Dave Hakstol." He is only a household name in North Dakota—where there are not many households. Hakstol has never coached in the NHL, and he will be the first coach in 33 years to jump from NCAA hockey to NHL head coach. (He has been the coach at the University of North Dakota since 2004.) The Flyers think Hakstol will bring a fresh approach and help them return to Stanley Cup contention. And they might be right as well.
Babcock's deal signals a shift in coaching salaries; every other coach in the league should thank him by taking him to dinner, then suggesting he pick up the check. But as salaries rise, teams will be wise to ask: What are we getting for our money?
If you say the Maple Leafs overpaid for Babcock, you are missing the point. He is worth more to Toronto than he is to any other team. The city's media are the most intense in hockey, by far. It would be ridiculous to throw Blashill or Hakstol into that shark tank.
The Leafs' enormous following puts extreme demands on a coach, but it also enables the franchise to rake in money even when the team is lousy. Toronto hasn't made it past the first round of the playoffs since 2004. The Leafs can pay Babcock and still spend on players.
Babcock's popularity tends to rise the moment he leaves his team's dressing room. Veteran players often chafe at his methods. Sometimes he comes off as condescending with the media, which will not play well in Toronto. But Babcock is a great coach, as driven as he was a decade ago, and even players who don't love him produce for him. There is a reason the Red Wings wanted him back for an 11th season. Toronto's future is brighter today than it was 10 days ago.
The Red Wings have one of the best general managers in sports, Ken Holland, and a core of young players who responded well to Blashill in Grand Rapids. Blashill is not a sure thing, but even Babcock gushes over him.
The Flyers took a risk. But after 40 years without a Cup, why not? Why pay big for a coach who has proven he is not as good as Babcock, as Edmonton did on May 19 by hiring San Jose retread Todd McLellan for $3 million a year? Hakstol has not shown he can coach in the NHL, but he was 289-143-43 at North Dakota. Another team in town, the NFL's Eagles, hired a college coach, Chip Kelly, and has no regrets.
The Flyers made a bold move, and so did the Maple Leafs, and so will the Red Wings. And they have an option if the new coaches fail: Fire them.
NHL Ice Breakers
Indy 500 Montoya Wins
SI Edge Fast Hands
Faces in the Crowd
Games played for Chelsea by striker Didier Drogba, who is leaving the team. After Drogba was removed for a sub during a 3--1 win over Sunderland on Sunday, his teammates carried him off the pitch. In two stints with the Blues he scored 164 goals, including the tying and winning scores in the 2012 Champions League final. He had seven goals this year and helped Chelsea win the Premier League title.
AGE OF HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS LEGEND MARQUES HAYNES, WHO DIED LAST FRIDAY. HAYNES, OFTEN CALLED THE BEST DRIBBLER EVER, PLAYED FOR THE GLOBETROTTERS FROM 1947 TO '53 AND '72 TO '79. HE WAS ELECTED TO THE BASKETBALL HALL OF FAME IN '98.
The equivalent, in U.S. dollars, of the ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£10,000 a British judge ordered Stewart Muir to pay John Ure after Muir sliced his tee shot on the ninth hole at Bellshill Golf Club in Lanarkshire, U.K., and hit Muir in the head on March 9, 2013.
Strikeouts by Pirates starters in a sweep of the Mets last weekend. Gerrit Cole had 10 last Friday, A.J. Burnett had 10 the next day and Francisco Liriano had 12 on Sunday. It's the first Bucs trio to each toss double-digit K's in a three-game series since 1969.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW
SUNDERLAND AFC/GETTY IMAGES (DROGBA)
HEINZ KLUETMEIER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HAYNES)