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On Mike Babcock, Ken Holland, and my Red Wings fandom

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MAR 06 Avalanche at Red Wings Photo by Steven King/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’ve been mulling for a few days how I need to approach the Mike Babcock story as it relates to his time in Detroit and the increasing evidence that the shitty behavior outed in the wake of his firing in Toronto obviously originated before his time with the Leafs.

After all, I’ve been with WIIM a long time and this site has always had something of an interesting spot in the coverage of the Wings. We have never been credentialed by the Wings outside of training camp. We have not been given access to the team and have instead largely carved our niche as fans sharing our community and our observations with other fans.

We’re not just fans either though. We do get press releases from the team that we share. We will intentionally subject ourselves to every Red Wings game and try to mix in a heavy dose of objectivity into our coverage of the team.

One of the things we’ve done best is to take the locker room tidbits that the credentialed press shares and to cast a wider view on the purpose of those locker room quotes as they relate to the fact that they’re even being shared in the first place. I’d like to think we’ve done an especially good job over the years at translating Ken Holland’s unapologetic salesmanship to the fans as spoken through a stock of reporters we generally felt were all to happy to collect the quotes and disseminate them without any critical context.

Are we the fan ombudsmen then? The watchers of the press, here to try to keep them honest? I don’t know. I know we’ve levied tons of criticism at the journalists we call “The Diggers” for not asking the harder questions - sometimes fairly and other times maybe not so much.

Whatever our role is here, I feel we failed and I’m really wrestling with that.

Hockey culture has a sickness

The truth is we’ve known this for a while. It’s really easy to say and looking at the big picture, it’s obvious to see. It’s also not really helpful to point out. Doing so just starts a circle of finger pointing where everybody within hockey culture is simultaneously aware that there are problems and in no position to fix it because they’re also a part of it.

That’s where we’re at. I’d like to tell you that if we were in the Wings’ room while Mike Babcock was berating athletes, threatening reporters, playing mind-games with his players, and enjoying the fawning adulation that was pouring in from all sides, that we would have asked the hard questions and uncovered this. I’d like to say we could have been the ones to say the emperor has no clothes. I’d also like to be able to sleep tonight having told the truth, so I can’t say it.

In the end, I’m mad at myself for not pushing harder; I’m mad at the diggers for not pushing harder; I’m mad at the national folks for not pushing harder. I’m just mad at the sheer number of hockey players who have been directly or indirectly hurt because the institution could create a bubble like this.

Change doesn’t happen overnight.

I want to take a quick step back for perspective. I know the flow of information that’s come out in the last week paints a very ugly picture and can create a huge challenge in trying to see how these things can have happened without all the alarm bells sounding and the organizational rot being gutted immediately.

It feels almost stupid to say it, but the day-to-day workings of the Red Wings and of overall hockey culture in general does not see the hallowed halls of our institutions regularly trampled through by monsters, but by people.

If Mike Babcock were living up to the pictures painted of him since his firing every single day, he’d have been pilloried. If Ken Holland were constantly telling players to get in line for the Wings’ bus or get in line for the first bus out of town, the exodus would have been much more-immediate than it was.

I also have to point out the other obvious truth: though my perspective is that of a horrified onlooker and regretful participant, there’s a large chunk of the culture - fans, executives, journalists, team personnel, and players themselves, who don’t see any problem with the behaviors described by Mitch Marner, Chris Chelios, Carlo Colaiacovo, Johan Franzen, Dan Carcillo, or even by Akim Aliu.

To that end, I’m not interested in arguing this point—I recognize that people feel that abuse didn’t really happen because it either didn’t meet their personal definition for the word or because they feel in such a relationship, a person’s willingness to stay within an abusive system is a tacit acceptance. I do not accept that point of view.

On Babcock and Holland

I want to share the farewell posts I wrote about both of these men:

On Ken Holland’s Legacy with the Red Wings

Ken Holland is someone who very much believes in team culture, and assuming that he has the autonomy that is reported, I think he will have a chance to succeed.

The End of the Mike Babcock Era: A Red Wings Fan’s Thoughts

I suppose I should be bitter. I should be screaming something about Babcock’s ego or how loyalty means nothing anymore. Maybe I should be sad that the guy a lot of people think is the best coach in the league doesn’t want to have anything to do with a team that he didn’t think could even make the playoffs last July 5th.

In hindsight, I suppose I feel better about the post I wrote in 2015 than the one Peter helped me write in May of this year. Both posts are about being ready for the change for hockey reasons while looking fondly back at their time with the Wings.

I wanted to share them because I want to share a third obvious truth and to perhaps add some context as to why I’m so mad at myself for playing a part in helping cultivate the culture that allowed this kind of stuff: I can’t retract those things I said and I won’t try. The third obvious truth is that on any given day, we’re forming opinions based on the information available to us at the time. When new information comes to light, the responsible thing to do is to reevaluate and move forward.

I wish I could say I’ve done that, but just as I was in a certain emotional state when I wrote those farewell posts, I’m again in one. If I were to try and wait until I have fully-processed by thoughts on how this affects my view of the past, you would never read this post.

I will say right now that my wish for Ken Holland and Mike Babcock going forward is to use whatever power they still hold within hockey culture to help fix these problems we’ve all helped cultivate. Until that happens, I cannot wish them well professionally.

It’s a copycat league and success breeds imitation. While any person in hockey is building a culture of abuse, I cannot wish them success. This goes for anybody formerly or currently associated with the Red Wings.