‘We made a mistake’: Blue Jackets apologize for Babcock hiring
Columbus Blue Jackets leadership met with the media Monday and said they made a mistake hiring Mike Babcock as head coach earlier this summer.
Babcock resigned Sunday after investigations by the team, NHL, and NHLPA into his conduct during his brief tenure as head coach.
“I am very disappointed. 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. I can promise you we will learn from this moving forward,” Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson said Monday.
“This morning I had a meeting with the players, and I apologized for any inconvenience or awkward situation that this may have put them in, and my sincere apology to them. I am extremely disappointed by what has transpired over the last week. We understood the dynamics of hiring Mike before we did so, and understand the criticism now,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said.
“It’s obviously fair to question our due diligence, but I can assure you that it was done thoroughly. At the end of the day, I believed Mike Babcock deserved another opportunity to coach. Obviously, that was a mistake, and that responsibility is mine.”
Blue Jackets ownership said before Monday’s news conference that they do not expect to make any further changes to the team’s management.
“Our ownership group is deeply frustrated and disappointed by the events of the past week," a statement released by the group Monday, led by majority owner and Governor John P. McConnell read. "We have been in contact with (president of hockey operations) John Davidson, (general manager) Jarmo Kekalainen and our management team throughout this process and were in full agreement with Mike Babcock stepping down and Pascal Vincent leading our team as head coach.”
Columbus named Babcock the ninth coach in franchise history on July 1, nearly four years after his firing by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He succeeded Brad Larsen, who was fired by the Blue Jackets last spring after two seasons behind the bench.
The investigations into Babcock began on Sept. 12 after TNT Sports and Barstool Sports personality Paul Bissonnette claimed on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast that he had been told that Babcock had asked for captain Boone Jenner’s phone during an off-season meeting to view his personal photos and then put the photos onto a larger screen in his office using Apple AirPlay.
“I do not believe there were any ill intentions on Mike’s part in the way he conducted the interviews with our players to get to know them. However, whether there was intent or not, some of our players weren’t comfortable with his methods and that was concerning,” Kekalainen said Monday.
Both Babcock and the Blue Jackets were originally quick to call the report a mischaracterization of what had actually happened.
"While meeting with our players and staff, I asked them to share, off their phones, family pictures as part of the process of getting to know them better," Babcock said in a statement last week.
"There was absolutely nothing more to it than that. The way this was portrayed on the 'Spittin' Chiclets' podcast was a gross misrepresentation of those meetings and extremely offensive. ... These meetings have been very important and beneficial, not only for me but for our players and staff as well, and to have them depicted like this is irresponsible and completely inaccurate."
Jenner also released a statement confirming Babcock’s account.
"While meeting with Babs, he asked me about my family and where I'm from, my upcoming wedding and hockey-related stuff,” Jenner said. “He then asked if I had pictures of my family, and I was happy to share some with him. He showed me pictures of his family. I thought it was a great first meeting and a good way for us to start to build a relationship. To have this blown out of proportion is truly disappointing."
Despite the denials, former Arizona Coyotes forward Bissonnette stood by his story, asserting that he had heard from more people following the release of the podcast who corroborated it. Mike Commodore, an outspoken former Detroit Red Wings defenceman who played under Babcock, also said that he heard similar stories about other Blue Jackets players.
"It happened with a few other players in Columbus, too,” Commodore said in a video posted to social media. “I don't want to use any names, but in particular [it involved] a young, very highly touted prospect.”
New NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh and his assistant, former Blue Jackets defenceman Ron Hainsey, flew to Columbus to meet with players to learn more on Thursday. Then on Friday, Walsh and Hainsey met with the league office, in a meeting that was previously scheduled to address other matters, to report back on their findings.
The incident marked the latest instance of Babcock’s methods coming under heavy scrutiny.
Following Babcock’s dismissal from the Leafs midway through his fifth season with the team, multiple former players accused the Manitouwadge, Ont., native of abusive conduct, including Commodore, Chris Chelios and Johan Franzen, who all played under Babcock with the Detroit Red Wings.
“He’s a terrible person, the worst I ever met,” Franzen said in 2019. “He’s a bully who was attacking people. It could be a cleaner at the arena in Detroit or anybody. He would lay into people without any reason.”
Babcock responded to Franzen’s comments in a 2021 interview with TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic, expressing remorse.
“When you’re talking about this kind of thing, if the person — whether it’s a co-worker, your spouse, your student — if they think that’s the environment, that’s what they’re feeling,” Babcock said.
“Now, I sure wish I would have known about that then. And I could have done something about that. Besides apologize, there’s not much I can do about that now. But does it sting? Does it hurt? Absolutely.’’
During his time with the Leafs, Babcock allegedly asked a then-rookie Mitch Marner to rank his teammates by their work ethic before sharing his list with the rest of the team. While Babcock disputes some of the story, he acknowledged to LeBrun that he did reveal the conversation with Marner to Tyler Bozak.
“What I should have done in hindsight, I should have stopped everybody and said, ‘This is what I did to Mitch. I screwed him.’” Babcock told LeBrun.
“Now, he didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. But I could have made a lesser deal of it. But (for) anyone to think Mitch Marner and Mike Babcock didn’t have a relationship, or Mitch didn’t play great for me or anything like that, that’s sadly mistaken.’’
Vincent takes over as Jackets’ head coach and Kekalainen said he has the full support of the organization going forward.
“Pascal Vincent is an outstanding coach,” said Kekalainen in Sunday’s news release. “He knows our players and organization and is respected by everyone here. He was a strong candidate for our head coaching position several months ago and is in the best position to help us navigate this change as we begin camp and lead our team moving forward.”