Portzline: Mike Babcock’s resignation raises troubling questions about Blue Jackets organization

Jul 1, 2023; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets name Mike Babcock as their new head coach during a press conference at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Robertson-USA TODAY NETWORK
By Aaron Portzline
Sep. 17, 2023

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — When the allegations first surfaced, the Blue Jackets, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association believed that Mike Babcock’s request to peruse his players’ private cellphone pictures was an innocent, if awkward, interaction by a new coach getting to know his players.

But in the days that followed, the story, first revealed by Paul Bissonnette on the “Spittin’ Chiclets” podcast, began to take on a much different shape.


Sure, these interactions were deemed acceptable by veteran players Boone Jenner and Johnny Gaudreau, who both made public statements in defense of Babcock. But the NHLPA began to get to more input from other players — within the Blue Jackets’ dressing room and perhaps beyond — that was much more damning, painting the interactions as nothing less than an invasion of privacy by players who didn’t feel empowered to resist the veteran coach.

Burning question: Did the Blue Jackets know the extent of Babcock’s interactions with players when this was first revealed? If they did know the extent and tried to bury this story before it got started, that says not-great things about the club’s decision-makers, from president of hockey operations John Davidson to general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and others.



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But if they didn’t know the extent of Babcock’s invasion of privacy, that says something that should truly concern the Blue Jackets — all the way up to the ownership level.

That would suggest that Blue Jackets players — veterans and/or young players — feel more comfortable speaking their truth to people like Bissonnette and the NHLPA than they are to the people in charge of the Blue Jackets organization. If that’s the case, the McConnell family — as hands-off as any ownership group in pro sports — might have to demand answers.

Babcock resigned on Sunday, less than three months after his July 1 hiring, issuing a pithy statement that suggested he was stepping aside because he was going to be “too big of a distraction” if he remained on the job. Nowhere in his statement did he acknowledge behavior that was completely unacceptable.

It’s possible that Babcock didn’t even realize he was crossing a line with players. While that may be his best defense, it also would be proof that he learned absolutely nothing from the misdeeds he committed with former players when he coached the Maple Leafs and Red Wings.


Don’t get this twisted: This is not proof of a society that is too in the throes of “wokeness” to handle a demanding coach with unusual tactics. This is not an issue of young players expecting kid-glove treatment and being too soft to play for an old-school coach.

This is unacceptable behavior on any level, with any player, in any generation. Looking through someone’s phone is worse than digging through their wallet or purse. As one former NHL coach said to The Athletic: “What ever happened to getting lunch or getting a coffee?”

Bissonnette, a former player and a current TV analyst, actually did the Blue Jackets a huge favor here. As painful as these last few days have been — geez, the Blue Jackets prospects looked great in the Traverse City tournament, by the way — it was important to confront this as quickly as possible.

Most important is to do the right thing, no matter how painful it is. They’ve done the right thing by moving on from Babcock, but now there’s more work to do.

They better hope the dressing room isn’t fractured over this. (One player, in a text message to The Athletic, said the players remain united.) They better not allow the players who didn’t appreciate Babcock’s actions to shoulder any of the blame for this early-season distraction.

This organization has some well-respected veterans, such as Jenner, Gaudreau, Zach Werenski, Sean Kuraly and Erik Gudbranson. But they have an impressive cadre of young players, including Adam Fantilli, Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger, who must be developed the right way in a healthy culture.

While Babcock didn’t shoulder any of the blame in his well-crafted statement through the club, this is entirely on him. Davidson and Kekalainen will face some difficult questions on Monday during the club’s annual media day, which has now been hijacked by this story.


The Blue Jackets took a major risk by hiring Babcock. Majority owner John H. McConnell would be wise to demand answers from Davidson or Kekalainen, or whoever was most adamant about his hiring.

This is another long line of embarrassing moments by the Blue Jackets through the years. There’s the phallic-shaped mascot, Boomer, who was shelved in 2010 after only one game. The raging incompetence of the Doug MacLean era. Having to beg Jeff Carter to accept a trade from Philadelphia to Columbus and trading him after one year. Pierre-Luc Dubois quitting on the franchise in the middle of a game.

Despite all this, the Blue Jackets, who have only once made it past the first round of the playoffs — including five playoff appearances in Kekalainen’s 10-year tenure — have a loyal and passionate fan base that deserves better.

The only saving grace is that the terrible decision to hire Mike Babcock backfired, before he had time to do more damage.

(Photo of Mike Babcock: Kyle Robertson / USA Today)

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Aaron Portzline

Aaron Portzline is a senior writer for The Athletic NHL based in Columbus, Ohio. He has been a sportswriter for more than 30 years, winning national and state awards as a reporter at the Columbus Dispatch. In addition, Aaron has been a frequent contributor to the NHL Network and The Hockey News, among other outlets. Follow Aaron on Twitter @Aportzline