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Mike Babcock returns to the NHL as the coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets

The 2008 Stanley Cup winner returns following the end of his lengthy contract with the Maple Leafs
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FILE - Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock directs his team against the Colorado Avalanche in the third period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, in Denver. Babcock is back in the NHL as coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets announced Saturday, July 1, 2023, they’ve hired the Stanley Cup winner to take over behind the bench. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Mike Babcock is back in the NHL as coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, joining them Saturday after a stint of almost four years out of a pro job.

The 2008 Stanley Cup winner returns following the end of his lengthy contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who fired Babcock early in his fifth season with them in 2019.

Columbus decided early last month to hire Babcock but had to wait until July to make it official because of the significant money still owed to him on the $50 million, eight-year deal he signed with Toronto in 2015.

Babcock, who also made trips to the Cup Final with Anaheim in 2003 and Detroit in 2009 and guided Canada to Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014, gives the Blue Jackets an accomplished veteran behind the bench to oversee their attempt to become a contender again in the Eastern Conference.

Columbus has missed the playoffs each of the past three seasons after making it four years in a row under now-Philadelphia coach John Tortorella. The Blue Jackets finished tied for the second-fewest points in the league this past season and selected Adam Fantilli with the third pick in the draft.

They fired coach Brad Larsen in April after two seasons in that role, the second of which was derailed by injuries after Columbus signed top free agent Johnny Gaudreau last summer and looked poised to take a step forward. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen is now counting on Babcock to do that.

Once considered the best hockey coach in the world — and paid like it by the Leafs — Babcock saw his reputation take a hit when stories emerged about some of his polarizing old-school techniques.

Longtime Detroit forward Johan Franzen in 2019 called Babcock the “worst person” he has ever met, and former teammate Chris Chelios said Babcock berated Franzen in 2012 to the point of a nervous breakdown. Maple Leafs All-Star center Mitch Marner said during his rookie year that Babcock made him rank his teammates from hardest- to least-hardest working and shared that with a couple of the teammates near the bottom.

When Babcock was fired in November 2019, retired defenseman Mike Commodore ripped into his onetime coach in a tirade on social media.

“Simply put your players quit on you,” Commodore tweeted. “They quit on you because you are a terrible human being. You are an average coach with an extremely oversized ego. You finally got exactly what you deserve … . The hockey world is ecstatic.”

Babcock spent time as senior adviser for the University of Vermont’s men’s hockey team before returning home to his native Western Canadian provide to coach the University of Saskatchewan in 2021-22.

Now 60, Babcock will be in his fourth NHL job after stints in Anaheim, Detroit and Toronto.

Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press

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