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.
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.