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?
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.