Greg Eno

Blashill Sounds Like Babcock, But Will Talk Be Cheap?

In Hockey on June 15, 2015 at 3:22 am

Jeff Blashill isn’t Canadian. But he sure sounds like he is.

In fact, he sure sounds like his predecessor and mentor, Mike Babcock.

If you listened to Blashill, the new Red Wings coach, speak at Tuesday’s introductory presser—especially with your eyes closed—it was like you stepped into a time machine and traveled back to the summer of 2005.

That’s when the Red Wings hired Babcock.

Blashill, 41, is a year younger than Babcock was when the Red Wings brought Babs in to replace longtime, loyal employee Dave Lewis, the promoted assistant whose two years as head coach were checkered.

Blashill speaks with the same cadence as Babcock. He seems to have the same approach to the game as Babcock has.

When Babcock arrived in 2005, most Red Wings fans knew him only from that horrific playoff series in 2003, when Babcock’s Anaheim Mighty Ducks used a hot goalie and some puck luck to sweep Detroit in the first round—a year after the Red Wings capped Scotty Bowman’s brilliant career with another Stanley Cup.

By the time Babs left the Red Wings a decade later, to attempt to breathe life into the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was being hailed as the best coach in the NHL.

Enter Babcock’s Mini Me.

Blashill, born in Detroit and reared in Sault Ste. Marie, has been groomed by the Red Wings for this moment. He spent one year as Babcock’s apprentice in 2011-12 and then he guided the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins for three, bringing a Calder Cup home in 2013.

Blashill represents the new age hockey coach in the NHL: young and prepped in college and the minors.

It’s another confession here from an admitted old-timer.

It’s remembrances of when the NHL coach wore a fedora behind the bench and he had a first name like Toe or Punch or Sid. His ruddy face was etched with crevices. He wasn’t younger than 50. There were only six of them.

And they were never, ever, anything other than Canadian.

Today, five times that many are coaching in the league, and more teams are opting for youth behind the bench.

Not only is Blashill on the young side, but he’s young and a coaching veteran. That’s how these kid coaches roll nowadays.

Blashill is barely older than the players, yet he’s been behind hockey benches for well over a decade. Which means he started coaching in his 20s.

Mike Babcock started in his 20s as well.

I don’t think the coaches in the Original Six days were ever in their 20s. I swear they came to life one day, pacing behind the bench at the Forum or Olympia, 53 years old.

Blashill was a goalie when he played, and you can make cracks if you’d like, that former goalies rarely make good head coaches. You’d be right. It’s kind of like how former pitchers rarely make good managers in baseball.

It’s another former goalie, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who kept Blashill hostage in the organ-eye-ZAY-shun last summer. When Blashill was being approached by other NHL teams, Holland hit Blashill with a hefty raise and made the kid coach promise to stay with the Red Wings. If that sounds like how the Mafia does things, well there you have it.

The reality is that if Holland is anything, it’s that he’s always prepared with a Plan B.

In this case, B, as in Babcock/Blashill.

One of the two Bs was going to be the Red Wings coach in 2015-16. That was for sure.

If Babcock played the field after his contract expired on June 30, 2015, and found that the ice isn’t always smoother elsewhere, then Babs would be the coach in Detroit.

If Babcock left, then Blashill was going to be the man.

There was no Plan C, because it wasn’t going to be needed.

The Red Wings have their first American-born head coach, and the first to be born in the 1970s. It’s like being the first U.S. president to be born in a hospital.

Blashill’s birth in December, 1973—in Detroit—presents a delicious tidbit for the old-timers, like yours truly.

Blashill was born when the Red Wings were a league laughing stock. Just a few months after Blashill entered the world, Red Wings GM Ned Harkness resigned.

Harkness left the Red Wings a mess, four years after he swept into town. It took the franchise a good 15 years to return to relevance.

More irony here.

Harkness was the Red Wings’ attempt to be forward thinking. He was hired from the campus of Cornell University, where he was wildly successful as a college hockey coach.

The NHL barely had any college-prepped players, let alone coaches, in 1970.

Now here comes Blashill, with some college coaching experience at Western Michigan University and those three years in the AHL.

Where Ned Harkness was an “out of the box” hire, Jeff Blashill is merely another young hockey coach who is getting his big chance in the NHL.

Harkness was hired out of the blue; Blashill was waiting in the, um, wings.

Harkness was hired against the wishes of GM Sid Abel; Blashill was hand-picked by GM Ken Holland.

OK, so it’s not necessary to belabor how this Red Wings organization is so very different from the the one that stumbled through the league in the 1970s, but with Blashill being born in 1973 and growing up a Red Wings fan when the team was doo-doo, the old time hockey fan can’t help but smirk.

Blashill wanted this Red Wings job very badly. So did a host of other coaches, but the reality is that they never had a shot at it.

Coaching the Detroit Red Wings is like managing the New York Yankees. The line of interested parties in the job would be longer than that at a deli counter on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s a plum job and Blashill has been eyeing it ever since he served his one year as an assistant in Detroit.

Of course, it’s one thing to be standing next to the head coach and quite another to actually be him—especially with the Red Wings.

You don’t coach hockey in Detroit in anonymity.

Come next spring, Jeff Blashill is likely to find himself in a playoff series. It will be his crash course. The shelter that being an assistant coach provides will be gone. The kid coach will have to grow up in a hurry.

Contrary to some people’s belief, the Red Wings don’t gun to simply make the playoffs every year to keep their post-season streak alive.

The goal every year is to win the Stanley Cup.

Wait—isn’t that every team’s goal?

Sure, but in Detroit it’s more than just talk. The Red Wings haven’t raised hockey’s chalice in seven years and that’s bordering on being unacceptable.

Two years ago, the Red Wings took the favored Chicago Blackhawks to a seventh game in the conference semi-finals. In April, the Red Wings scared the bejeebers out of the current Cup finalists Tampa Bay Lightning, extending that first round series to seven games.

Was Mike Babcock the reason that those underdog Red Wings teams didn’t go quietly?

Not sure.

But instead of basking in the glory of twice taking a favored opponent to the brink of elimination (the Red Wings blew a 3-1 series lead against Chicago and a 3-2 lead against Tampa), the focus ought to be on why the Red Wings couldn’t close the deal.

Maybe that’s a question better asked of Holland, but Blashill is the one that’s going to be at the podium, answering reporters’ questions during the playoffs.

And we’ll see how much he still sounds like his predecessor.

American Pharoah Creates Dramatic Moment in Non-Dramatic Way

In Horse racing on June 8, 2015 at 2:31 pm

Conventional wisdom says that if something in sport has only been done 12 times in over 120 years and never since 1978, it must not be easy to do.

American Pharoah ran his eighth career start Saturday. When he finished it, he won horse racing’s first Triple Crown since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978.

Eight starts? Then a Triple Crown?

I thought this was supposed to be hard.

Affirmed, the Triple Crown winner of 1978, ran nine races in 1977 alone.

But now here comes American Pharoah, the 3-year-old colt with the chewed off tail, and he ran the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, history waiting at the finish line—and the horse with seven starts under his mane glided to victory by 5-1/2 lengths.

This, after a one-length win at Churchill Downs and a seven-length cruise in the rain and muck in the Preakness.

Just like that, the Triple Crown.

At the Preakness, American Pharoah became the first horse since 1994 to win the race while starting on the rail in the usually unfavorable no. 1 post position. The torrential downpour on race day didn’t matter, either. Jockey Victor Espinoza used American Pharoah’s long stride to its fullest.

American Pharoah has been called, by various horse experts, a “superhorse” that’s “nice and light on his feet.” Espinoza has called him “an amazing horse,” and the Mexican jockey has had two other cracks at a Triple Crown, so it’s not like he’s never been around the block.

Baseball hitters will tell you that when they swat the ball on the sweet spot of the bat and drive it out of the park, the impact is so perfect that they can barely feel it in their hands.

Espinoza said something similar when interviewed on camera immediately after Saturday’s Belmont.

“The way he moves, the way he travels, the way he stretches his legs, the way he hits the ground” Espinoza told NBC about American Pharoah, “you don’t even feel it when he’s going that fast. You feel like you’re going in slow motion.”

Except that the colt was hardly going in slow motion. He was, however, gliding into the history books on Saturday.

There was a slight stumble out of the gate, but American Pharoah quickly recovered and he basically led, wire-to-wire.

There was little drama to what should have been a dramatic moment. Instead, there was a feeling of fait accomplit as you watched Espinoza guide the three-year-old around the track, not truly challenged by the rest of the field.

It wasn’t Secretariat stuff (he won the Belmont by 31 lengths in 1973) but nor was the outcome really in doubt. The lead was never eye-opening, but nor was it in any danger.

Espinoza said that after the first turn, it was the best he’s ever felt on a horse. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said he knew the Triple Crown was his long before the home stretch.

As if to punctuate his place in history, American Pharoah poured it on at the end, turning a two-length lead into a 5-1/2 length romp in the official order of finish.

With all great race horses, there’s a moment when jockey, owner and trainer all realize that something special is going on.

Owner Ahmed Zayat bought American Pharoah as a yearling for $300,000.

Why?

“We felt that he had brilliance in him,” Zayat said. “His demeanor, his aura, his conformation, the way he moved.”

Baffert, who took over the training of American Pharoah in the spring of 2014, said, “I’ve never had a horse that moves or travels over the ground like he does.”

As for the chewed off tail, Baffert has his own theory of how that happened.

“I think he was in the pasture one day and there was a mountain lion chasing him—that was the closest he could get.”

Now when Bob Baffert is that effusive in his praise over a horse, it’s like Scotty Bowman glowing over a young hockey player. Both have seen lots of colts and skaters come and go, and when both say that a particular one is special, well, you should listen.

Espinoza was a history maker as well on Saturday. He became the oldest jockey (43) to win the Triple Crown, and the first Latino to do it.

Twice before, Espinoza had a shot at the Crown but, in his words on Saturday, “the third time was the charm.”

Baffert bemoaned to NBC in the winner’s circle that the elusive Triple Crown Trophy was something that had caused him to hate the damn thing. Espinoza said the trophy has “caused me a lot of stress.”

Not anymore.

American Pharoah made it look easy on Saturday. He made it look easy in the mud at the Preakness. He needed a late charge to win the Kentucky Derby (the Crown’s first leg) but to use an analogy from that other sport that reveres Triple Crowns, it’s like an ace pitcher: if you don’t get to him early, forget it.

The thing about racing horses, however, is the short shelf life of their careers. In that regard, the era of a Secretariat or a Man ‘O War pack a lot of punch. The bang for the buck is amazing, because we can talk for decades about a two or three-year career.

After the Crown was won, Espinoza said that American Pharoah’s future would be determined by Baffert, and that the horse’s best interests would be of primary concern. But the jockey also acknowledged, correctly, that the sport “needs our stars,” too—i.e., racing the greats for as long as is possible and safe to do so.

Zayat said he hopes American Pharoah races for as long as he was healthy and “has it in him.”

But even if the colt was retired tomorrow, his place in history is secure.

Baffert said it best.

“This little horse deserves it,” the trainer told Forbes magazine. “There’s something about this horse that he just brought it every time. He’s a joy to be around.”

 

Babcock’s Unprecedented ‘Winning’ Tour Comes Down to Money, After All

In Hockey on May 21, 2015 at 2:52 pm

Twenty-five years ago, Mike Ilitch sent a car to pick up his hockey coach.

Jacques Demers was about to go for a ride.

Inside Ilitch’s home, the Red Wings owner sat down with Demers and the two men had a good cry.

Ilitch gave Demers the ziggy, after four years in which Jacques won back-to-back Jack Adams Trophies and led the Red Wings to two Final Four appearances. All this, after Ilitch hired Demers away from St. Louis on the heels of a season in which the Red Wings won 17 games and allowed over 400 goals.

But after three straight playoff appearances under Demers, the Red Wings slid, and missed the post-season in the 1989-90 season.

Jacques wasn’t shocked by the ziggy, but ever emotional, Demers began weeping and so did Ilitch.

Bryan Murray, the Red Wings coach-in-waiting, was brought over from Washington for the 1990-91 season and beyond.

The Red Wings made the playoffs again in Murray’s first season and they haven’t missed spring hockey since.

The coach for the past 10 years of that post-season streak called his boss, GM Ken Holland, on Wednesday morning.

There was a message to be relayed to Ilitch, the ziggy-renderer of Jacques Demers 25 years ago.

Mike Babcock, Holland told the octogenarian owner, was leaving the Red Wings. This time, the coach was giving the team the ziggy.

Such is the change in the landscape these days.

Babcock was the tail wagging the dog with the Red Wings. He had all the leverage. It was quite a role reversal from the status of most coaches in professional sports.

It was the old Pistons and NBA legend Earl Lloyd, who we lost earlier this year, who put it best.

In 1971, Earl was just hired as the coach of the Pistons and he made an astute observation.

“When you’re hired as a coach,” Lloyd said, “you’re signing your own termination papers.”

But Mike Babcock wasn’t in the boat of so many of his brethren. He was the rare pro coach who could call his own shots. His question wasn’t whether he’d have a job—it was where that job would be.

Ilitch, who values loyalty as much as winning, and probably more so, couldn’t possibly have enjoyed seeing his coach, who was still under contract, flitting around North America, playing the field.

It’s been suggested that Max Scherzer’s refusal to take the Tigers’ contract offer made before the 2014 season turned Ilitch sour on the Tigers star pitcher. From that point on, those folks suggest, Ilitch wasn’t going to sign Scherzer. No way, no how.

Yet Ilitch let the Mike Babcock Road Show go on, with the apparent provision that the Red Wings and their contract offer (reportedly five years at $4 million per) would be waiting for Babcock should he determine that the ice wasn’t smoother elsewhere.

Then again, Scherzer was only a Tiger for five years; Babcock coached the Red Wings for ten.

The Babcock spectacle was unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Detroit, involving player or coach.

Players certainly can’t shop their services before their current contract expires, so why should coaches?

It’s a question that nobody seemed bothered enough to ask while Babcock jetted from city to city, entertaining offers.

As usual, the so-called insiders on social media made their sure-fire declarations of what was going to happen before it actually happened.

Bob McKenzie of TSN boldly stated on Monday that Babcock was definitely NOT going to Toronto. McKenzie didn’t know where Babcock would end up, except that it wouldn’t be in Toronto.

A day later, rumors heated up, led by more “insiders,” that Buffalo had become the front runner for Babcock’s services. A contract with the Sabres was being negotiated, the insiders said.

The San Jose Sharks were longshots.

The Red Wings were still in the mix as late as Tuesday, other insiders maintained.

In the end, on Wednesday morning, the Sharks had been eliminated. The Sabres had dropped out of contention on their own volition.

And Babcock made his phone call to Holland, informing the GM that Detroit was out, as well.

That left the Toronto Maple Leafs, widely dismissed as a poor destination for a coach of Babcock’s stature and desire to win, as the last team standing.

Go figure.

Holland told the media on May 1 that money wouldn’t be an issue for the Red Wings when it came to retaining Babcock as coach.

But money was even less of an issue for the Maple Leafs, who ponied up $50 million, spread over eight years.

That offer dwarfed that of Detroit’s, which was five years at $4 million per.

Babcock told us that he was all about winning. His hesitation at re-signing with the Red Wings was supposedly tied to his concerns about the future of hockey in Detroit, i.e. would the Red Wings be Cup contenders again soon?

The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967. They have made the playoffs once in the ten consecutive years that Babcock has guided the Red Wings to the post-season.

Their locker room has been dysfunctional. One of their best players, Phil Kessel, has a reputation for being difficult to coach and he’s sparred with reporters along the way.

The team isn’t close to winning and their farm system doesn’t have very many people talking.

Yet Babcock, who is all about winning and who had grave concerns about the hockey future in Detroit, signed with Toronto.

It would be easy to call this a money grab and nothing else, but who among us wouldn’t have taken an offer that was, essentially, $30 million more than what you were being offered by your current team?

All things being equal, yes, it’s about winning. If the Leafs offered roughly what the Red Wings were offering or slightly more, then Babcock probably stays.

But $30 million is a lot to leave on the table.

So Babcock is gone, and another Detroit sports team has to pick up the pieces.

First it was the Tigers, with the departure of Scherzer to the Washington Nationals.

Then it was the Lions, who lost Ndamukong Suh to Miami.

Now it’s the Red Wings, who’ve lost their coach to another Original Six franchise.

But at least the Red Wings appear to have a capable replacement for their loss, unlike the Tigers and Lions with Scherzer and Suh, respectively.

Jeff Blashill is the coach-in-waiting, just like Bryan Murray was 25 years ago, when Jacques Demers got the ziggy.

Blashill is 41 years old and all he’s done is win at the college level and in the high minors. His Grand Rapids Griffins are still in the AHL playoffs.

Blashill has coached many of the current Red Wings and he has one year as a Babcock assistant on his resume as well.

It says here that Blashill will be named the next coach of the Red Wings as soon as it can possibly happen.

The Red Wings are ripe for a coach like Blashill. The NHL has been moving more toward younger head coaches for several years now, and with some success.

Blashill will also come much cheaper than Babcock.

Not that money is an issue.

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