Columbus Blue Jackets management admitted it made a mistake in hiring former head coach Mike Babcock, apologizing privately to players and publicly to critics.
Babcock resigned from the Blue Jackets over the weekend — days before the start of training camp — after an NHLPA investigation into claims that he violated players’ privacy when he asked to see photos on their cellphones. He had been hired in July.
“We went through a process earlier this summer prior to hiring Mike Babcock as our head coach, but we got it wrong and that’s on us,” team president John Davidson said Monday at a news conference to introduce Pascal Vincent as the team’s new head coach.
Vincent had previously been the associate head coach.
The NHLPA interviewed players in Columbus on Thursday about Babcock’s behavior. Executive director Marty Walsh met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Friday and shared his findings. They both reached out to the Blue Jackets later that day.
“They were very transparent with the information we received. In talking with Mike Babcock, we decided there was no going back,” Davidson said. “The resignation went forward from that point on.”
Babcock was on the first year of a two-year contract. The team declined to share details of his contract settlement.
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen spoke with the players Monday morning and apologized for “any inconvenience or awkward situations” Babcock’s hiring might have created.
Kekalainen also said Babcock had asked to see photos on his cellphone.
“That was his way of introducing his family [and] having me introduce my family to him,” Kekalainen said. “Personally, I had no problem with it, but I can understand that it could put somebody in an uncomfortable and awkward situation.”
Davidson refused to get into specifics about what the NHL and the NHLPA revealed regarding Babcock’s interactions with players that led to his resignation.
“Sometimes when things happen, there’s players involved and that’s a private world and sometimes you need to leave it there,” Davidson said. “But I do know that there were things that happened and it’s led to this point where we’re at right now.”
Veteran players such as captain Boone Jenner and star winger Johnny Gaudreau said they had no issues with Babcock asking to see their camera roll, but several sources indicated to ESPN that younger players were not as receptive to the request and felt much more uncomfortable about it.
“I do not believe there were any ill intentions on Mike’s part in the way he conducted interviews with our players to get to know them,” Kekalainen said. “However, whether there was intent or not, some of our players weren’t comfortable with his methods and that was concerning. As we gathered information and had numerous discussions both internally and externally, it became very clear that the distractions caused by this were too great and were having a negative impact on our players.”
Rather than going to management or team leadership, players reached out to former NHL player and current TV analyst Paul Bissonnette, who shared the initial accusations about Babcock on the “Spittin’ Chiclets” podcast.
Kekalainen said that while he has had players come to him in the past with problems, “it’s a complex relationship with the management and the player” because of power dynamics.
“It is not as simple for the players to always be honest about how they’re feeling or what’s going on through in their lives and show I guess vulnerability to us that are in this position to decide about their future in hockey,” Kekalainen said.
After Babcock resigned, there was speculation about the status of Davidson and Kekalainen. On Monday, Blue Jackets ownership indicated that team management would not pay a price for the Babcock debacle — for now.
“We do not anticipate further changes to our hockey leadership team at this time,” the owners, led by majority owner and governor John P. McConnell, said in a statement. “… Additional disruptions would be detrimental to our players and coaches.”
Babcock was once considered one of the NHL’s top coaches, having won a Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 and two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada in 2010 and 2014.
This was Babcock’s first NHL job since being fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in November 2019 after five seasons. After that dismissal, allegations about Babcock mentally or verbally abusing players surfaced, in particular incidents with then-rookie Mitch Marner in Toronto and with veteran Johan Franzen when Babcock coached the Detroit Red Wings.
After Babcock was fired by Toronto, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said his coaching tactics were not “appropriate or acceptable,” given how times had changed in the NHL.
Despite all of that, Babcock had interviewed for multiple NHL coaching openings in the past year. Kekalainen said he believed Babcock “deserved another opportunity to coach” in the league, having been behind the bench for 1,301 regular-season games since 2002.
“Obviously, that was a mistake and that responsibility is mine,” Kekalainen said. “We understood the dynamics of hiring Mike before we did so and understand the criticism now that it didn’t work out the way we had planned. Mike was hired based on personal relationships we’ve had with him, the feedback we’d received from numerous people in the game that we respect, and extensive conversations with Mike.
“It’s obviously fair to question our due diligence, but I can assure you that it was done thoroughly.”
Babcock’s hiring by the Blue Jackets was met with criticism by many in the hockey world, who were skeptical about him having changed his tactics since his last NHL job.
When asked what he’d say to those critics today, Davidson replied: “Maybe they were right.”