Ex-Maple Leafs Mike Babcock Teaches All Coaches a Valuable Lesson

A caveat: What you will read here are my thoughts, written based on my personal and professional background. I have outlined the news of this story using accurate and confirmed reports however, I am only speaking for myself.

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I offer these opinions, in what I hope is a level-headed manner, for one reason: I would like people (especially coaches within or outside of sports) to understand a valuable lesson is embedded in the incident.

My Background, My Perspective

I am a semi-retired teacher and university professor who will soon complete my 50th year of teaching. That sense of being a teacher is in my work. Although I am 72 years old, I continue to teach and I also coach women’s basketball at a local high school where I live on Vancouver Island.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mike Babcock
Toronto Maple Leafs ex-head coach Mike Babcock (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

In short, I care about people and I try to remember that, when I write about hockey players, coaches, and general managers, I am writing about young people involved in playing a difficult game under stressful conditions, where failure and success are separated by a hair’s breadth. It’s what makes hockey exciting to watch and to talk about with each other. Sports can be joyful and devastating.

Babcock Put Marner in a Tough Spot

With this in mind, it’s upsetting to hear the report that emerged on Nov. 25, that former Maple Leafs head coach, Mike Babcock called rookie Mitch Marner into his office and asked him to make a list of his teammates, from hardest working to least-hard working. Then Babcock told the players where Marner had listed them.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

As Terry Koshan wrote for the Toronto Sun:

Babcock was alleged to have asked one of the Leafs rookies to list the players on the team from hardest-working to those who, in the eyes of the rookie, didn’t have a strong work ethic. The rookie did so, not wanting to upset his coach, but was taken aback when Babcock told the players who had been listed at the bottom, (from ‘Reinvigorated Leafs eager to keep pushing forward with Keefe at helm,’ Toronto Sun, 11/25/2019).

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Jim Parsons reported it in his Nov. 25 rumors post, and Ian Tulloch of The Athletic confirmed the same rumor: “I heard about this Babcock story when it happened, but I didn’t want to bring it up until I could confirm it was true. The rookie he did this to was Mitch Marner.”

Marner confirmed the story today, but said it was a long time ago and it was over now. He claims it’s out of his mind now, and I have no reason to believe otherwise. However, I have to admit that he’s a better person than I am because I wouldn’t have forgotten being put in that situation very easily.

Babcock confirmed the story as well, as noted in Elliotte Friedman’s tweet:


This Is Not My Kind of Story, Except for the Lesson

I don’t like to report about these types of stories however, it would be wrong to ignore it. It’s a horrible example of how leadership can go wrong and, in case any athlete or coach out there might read these posts, it’s worth taking time to share the lesson.

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It’s a coach’s job to consider the welfare of the team. All coaches at any level, amateur or professional, should know what’s good about each player on their team and should not put them in harm’s way or single them out for public abuse. I have experience in leadership and community/team-building, and it’s both a pragmatic and an ethical stance.

Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL, Hockey
Former head coach Mike Babcock (C) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

When coaches engage in actions like Babcock’s, and no one mentions it, sports are the worse for it. In short, it was a terrible for Babcock to use his position of power to pit a very young Marner against his teammates. I hope that any coach who might read this can see the importance of that.

Bob McKenzie’s Has a Point, But It Isn’t My Point

I have read that Bob McKenzie has decided not to report the story because he believes it should have been reported during Babcock’s tenure as a coach with the team and not after he’s been let go. That’s a good point and makes sense for him as a sportswriter.

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However, as a life lesson, the incident is worth sharing and considering – albeit quickly. As a teacher and a coach, it’s a good lesson for me (and others) about what not to do and how not to treat people.

Thus, I was moved to comment on it because not to do so would miss an opportunity to be instructive and remind us how to live and work with others, especially if we hold power or status over them as coaches.