Babcock emotional, but likely successor in line

DETROIT -- When he stood in front of the Detroit Red Wings logo for the last time on Friday morning, it was not the same Mike Babcock we're used to seeing.

Usually, we see the gruff, no-nonsense coach on the morning of a game, still sweating from his routine run around the concrete corridors of the Joe Louis Arena. Or the slightly more grizzled version -- after a win or a loss -- deliberate in both his criticism and praise, consistent always in his intense desire to see his team improve.

But on Friday morning, roughly 48 hours of having to make the most important, and agonizing, decision of his career, we saw a much different side to the man who had spent a decade behind the Red Wings bench.

Less than a minute into his prepared remarks in front of the Detroit media -- a press conference he himself requested -- Babcock had to stop, so overcome with emotion that he had to gather himself. Several times he looked down at his notes, not so much to recover his train of thoughts but rather to shield the tears brimming in his eyes.

"It's emotional to leave Detroit," Babcock said. "I loved it here. Best 10 years of my life."

In reflecting on the past decade with the organization, he could not help but get choked up as he detailed the many difficulties of leaving a place that has become home. Babcock was still clutching remnants from his office -- a press clipping and photograph from his first day on the job -- talismans of the many hours he has toiled within these walls. He described the past few weeks, during which he wrestled with whether to stay in Detroit or sign elsewhere as a free agent, as "gut-wrenching."

"It's way easier to just get fired," Babcock said, joking.

Babcock was sincere in his farewell, so he did not deny that money played a large part in his decision to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, with whom he inked a lucrative eight-year, $50 million deal on Wednesday. Of course that was a primary factor. But that didn't make the process any less grueling, especially when he drove over to general manager Ken Holland's house to break the news in person. Holland's wife gave Babcock a hug on her way to church that morning and told him that she would pray for him. That might have been the tipping point, he mused on Friday.

The allure of coaching another Original Six team, the excitement that comes with the challenge of helping to build an organization from the ashes, and the ability to set his family up for life ultimately tipped the scales.

"What we're going to do there is build a franchise that the people of Toronto can be proud of," Babcock said.

For a man whose presence has become larger than life in this rink, he wanted the proper sendoff and he wanted to show his appreciation. The 52-year-old showed up early Friday morning, shaking hands and thanking team staffers and arena workers.

No doubt his presence in Detroit left an indelible mark on the franchise, but his departure also signals a new era for the Red Wings, one that is still filled with plenty of optimism.

The Wings feel they have a star in the making in AHL coach Jeff Blashill, who has led the club's farm team Grand Rapids Griffins to the Western Conference finals of the Calder Cup playoffs for the second time in three years. General manager Ken Holland, who called Blashill a "leading candidate" to take Babcock's old job, will meet with him next week when the team returns home from Utica, N.Y.

Blashill already has ample experience with the Red Wings roster -- he coached most of the team's young stars en route to the Griffins' Calder Cup win in 2013. He has proven himself as both a skilled communicator and a keen talent developer, grooming young players Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Danny DeKeyser and Petr Mrazek for the NHL.

Babcock sheepishly apologized for putting his foot in his mouth with the Toronto media on Thursday, when he spoke about Blashill as the team's next coach as a foregone conclusion. But he reiterated that the club is in good hands.

"He's a good man. He's smart," Babcock said. "He's put his time in, treats people good. He's demanding. He's a good hockey coach and a good man. I consider him a friend."

The team's confidence with Blashill as one of the most coveted coaches rising the AHL ranks -- five NHL teams requested to interview him for coaching vacancies last summer, a source confirmed to ESPN.com -- prevented Babcock's departure form becoming an acrimonious one. Babcock is beloved by the fans and the city of Detroit and he always will be, but it is now someone else's time to take the reins.

The team's success has never been Babcock's alone. He played a pivotal role in making Joe Louis Arena a hostile environment, as his teams have forced visitors to scratch and claw for every inch of ice, but it has always been a strong organizational structure that has set the foundation for his tough-minded approach and for allowing him to hold players accountable. Holland, who Babcock said is "the best GM in hockey, bar none" has an impeccable track record, as does the team's strong scouting department, and the Ilitch family's deep pockets have allowed them to augment the roster when necessary.

Perhaps no team develops and replenishes players from within better than Detroit, and that is unlikely to change now that Babcock is gone. In fact, Babcock said he's "jealous" of whoever gets to coach top prospect Dylan Larkin, a University of Michigan standout who signed a three-year entry-level deal with the team this week.

Instead, Larkin will be someone else's charge.

Babcock personified, and reinforced, all the fundamental tenets of the Red Wings' way -- hard work, commitment, almost impossibly high expectations. He is passing the torch now, but that team identity will remain.

"The best CEOs at companies, they have a succession plan. And I think that's what Ken Holland has done, just keep building people, giving people opportunities," Babcock said, more or less tapping Blashill as his successor. "This guy's ready to be an NHL coach. If he's not in Detroit, he's going to be somewhere else, for sure."