COLUMBUS, Ohio — One hour before president of hockey operations John Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen were set to meet with the media Monday in the wake of Mike Babcock’s resignation, the Blue Jackets ownership group, led by majority owner John H. McConnell, decided to weigh in.
If you understand the dynamics of the Blue Jackets organization — how the ownership group is as hands-off as any in professional sports — that tells you the weight of this moment in the franchise’s history, and the new level of pressure on Davidson and Kekalainen.
Babcock resigned on Sunday, two days after the NHL Players’ Association informed the NHL of what they’d learned when speaking to Columbus players about Babcock’s perusal of their private cellphone pictures as part of his get-to-know-you meetings.
It was only right to wonder if Davidson and/or Kekalainen would follow Babcock out the door, if they would pay an immediate price for having hired a controversial coach in the first place, one who didn’t last long enough to coach a game with his new charges, or even run a single practice.
For now, Davidson and Kekalainen appear safe. But the ownership group made their feelings clear, setting an ominous tone if the Blue Jackets don’t show marked improvement this season.
“Our ownership group is deeply frustrated and disappointed by the events of the past week,” the statement read. “We have been in contact with John Davidson, 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.
“We had candid conversations with our leadership after last season about our goals and expectations for growth and progress on the ice in 2023-24. Those expectations are still in place and can still be achieved, so we do not anticipate further changes to our hockey leadership team at this time. Additional disruptions would be detrimental to our players and coaches as they prepare for the opening of training camp in two days.
“We will continue to have regular communications with our hockey leadership and are looking forward to an exciting season.”
Those words may have set the tone for a press conference unlike any other in Columbus, in which Davidson and Kekalainen both took responsibility for not only hiring the wrong person — Babcock came here with plenty of baggage from previous stops in Toronto and Detroit — but for putting their players in an awkward position.
Davidson went first and maintained a somber tone throughout.
“I am very disappointed,” he said. “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 going forward. I also understand the criticism we’re getting. It is deserved.
“On a very personal note, this is one of the toughest times I’ve been a part of in my long dealings in the NHL. It’s very troubling for me. We’ve learned a lot as a group to help us move forward, and I plan on moving forward.”
Kekalainen, similarly stone-faced, said he met with veteran players in Columbus on Sunday after he returned from the NHL prospects tournament in Traverse City, then gathered with the entire group of NHL players on Monday morning “to apologize for any inconvenience or awkward situation that this may have put them in. It was my sincere apologies 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 that it didn’t work out the way we planned.”
When this story first surfaced, via former NHL players Paul Bissonnette on the “Spittin’ Chiclets” podcast, the NHL, NHLPA and the Blue Jackets — players and management — mostly dismissed the story, saying that Babcock’s attempts to get to know his players was entirely voluntary and was being wildly misconstrued by Bissonnette.
But the story didn’t end there. Bissonnette stood by his story emphatically, and some players contacted the NHLPA later that day, saying that their interactions with Babcock landed with them as an invasion of privacy. That prompted the NHLPA to travel to Columbus to meet with Blue Jackets players on Wednesday.
It was then that this story started to become much more serious. In that meeting, Blue Jackets captain Boone Jenner, Johnny Gaudreau and other veterans got a different view of the matter, one that contradicted their comments on Tuesday.
“I was speaking on my experience with Babs, how that went, ” Jenner said. “From there, the next day or two, the PA came to us with some other issues that I was not aware of. The PA took it from there and went to work with the league.”
Werenski, who met with Babcock at the coach’s residence in Michigan, said the meeting with the NHLPA was eye-opening. It revealed that there were major issues between Babcock and other players, either players who perceived the interactions with Babcock differently or had entirely different experiences than the veteran players.
“It was definitely a 180 (degree turn) on my end,” Werenski said. “We spoke on our experiences with it. After having the PA come talk to us and gather more information, obviously it flipped. They did a great job of bringing everything to light for us. We talked as a group and here we are.”
The NHLPA made its report to the NHL on Friday. The league and the PA then contacted Davidson that evening while he was at dinner in Traverse City, Mich., as part of the annual prospects tournament. He walked out of the restaurant and took the call alone in his rental car, he said.
“It was (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman, (deputy commissioner) Bill Daly and the entire NHLPA staff on the call,” Davidson said. “They filled me in with what had transpired in their investigation. With that I went to Jarmo and our group and we started the process of what we were going to do.
“We had to digest it, figure it out. Jarmo ended up meeting with Babcock and there was basically going to be no end to this. This is what we had to do, and the resignation process had to start at that point. It wasn’t going to work with our players. It wasn’t going to work. So we have to move forward.”
Babcock was with the club in Traverse City for the start of the tournament, but was gone by Saturday’s game vs. Toronto.
“What is fair to say is, he’s made players very uncomfortable,” Davidson said. “We just can’t continue with that happening.”
The Blue Jackets knew they were taking a major risk in hiring Babcock, but they insisted that he could change his coaching tactics. They also hinted that maybe the reports coming out of Toronto were exaggerated or incorrectly told.
On Monday, there was no such waffling.
Kekalainen has been on the job in Columbus for 10 seasons, the third-longest tenure among NHL GMs. It’s become clear that patience is running out with many in the fan base. On Monday, it became clear that ownership is growing weary, too.
“It’s obviously fair to question our due diligence,” Kekalainen said. “But at the end of the day, I believe Mike Babcock deserved another opportunity to coach. Obviously that was a mistake, and the responsibility is mine.”
(Photo of John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen: Eric Bolte / USA Today)