Two NHLPA executives met with Columbus Blue Jackets players on Thursday to investigate whether coach Mike Babcock violated players’ privacy when he asked to see photos on their cellphones, union officials told ESPN.
Marty Walsh, NHLPA executive director, and assistant executive director Ron Hainsey, who played three seasons with Columbus (2005-08), met with Blue Jackets players at Nationwide Arena after a morning skate. The NHLPA’s trip to Columbus wasn’t previously planned and was specifically made to further look into allegations against Babcock, who was hired to coach the Jackets in July.
Former NHL player Paul Bissonnette said on Tuesday’s edition of the “Spittin’ Chiclets” podcast that Babcock asked Columbus captain Boone Jenner to show him his camera roll before displaying those photos via AirPlay on the coach’s office wall.
“Enough with putting guys on the spot in the coaches room asking them to link their phones up to airplay mode and grilling them. I’ve had tons of players confirm it,” said Bissonnette after the episode was released.
Jenner wasn’t alone. Blue Jackets star forward Johnny Gaudreau confirmed to ESPN that he had also shown Babcock photos that were on his phone per the coach’s request.
Former NHL defenseman Mike Commodore, who played for Babcock and has been a long-standing critic of the coach, said he heard this behavior also occurred during Babcock’s time coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It happened with a few other players in Columbus too. I don’t want to use any names, but in particular [it involved] a young, very highly touted prospect,” said Commodore in a video posted to X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter.
A source told ESPN that the Blue Jackets have welcomed the NHLPA investigation to determine if there was any wrongdoing by Babcock.
Babcock and Jenner released statements through the Blue Jackets on Tuesday that denied the photo requests were anything nefarious.
“While meeting with our players and staff, I asked them to share, off their phones, family pictures as part of the process of getting to know them better,” said Babcock. “There was absolutely nothing more to it than that. The way this was portrayed on the ‘Spittin’ Chiclets’ podcast was a gross misrepresentation of those meetings and extremely offensive. … These meetings have been very important and beneficial, not only for me but for our players and staff as well, and to have them depicted like this is irresponsible and completely inaccurate.”
Said Jenner: “While meeting with Babs, he asked me about my family and where I’m from, my upcoming wedding and hockey-related stuff. He then asked if I had pictures of my family and I was happy to share some with him. He showed me pictures of his family. I thought it was a great first meeting and a good way for us to start to build a relationship. To have this blown out of proportion is truly disappointing.”
Gaudreau said he had “a great meeting” with Babcock.
“We got to share things together, pictures of our family. I was a little upset to see the way it was handled and how it came out … but nothing you can do about it. We got off to a great start, had a great meeting with him and looking forward to working together,” said the star winger.
Babcock was bound to face greater scrutiny than most coaches as he returns to the NHL. His reputation was tarnished after being fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in Nov. 2019, following multiple accusations of mental abuse of players.
As coach of the Leafs from 2015-19, Babcock requested a private meeting with rookie Mitch Marner, had the young forward rank his teammates by work ethic and then shared the list with the players who were at the bottom of that ranking, much to the embarrassment of Marner. The incident was reported to then-general manager Lou Lamoriello.
Former Red Wings forward Johan Franzen, in the Swedish media outlet Expressen, accused Babcock of “verbal attacks” that, at one point, caused Franzen to break down on the bench and dread coming to the arena.
After Babcock was fired, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said his coaching tactics were not “appropriate or acceptable,” given how times had changed in the NHL.
“We have to evolve,” Shanahan said in 2019. “We all came from a certain generation where things occurred to us as players that we just sort of accepted. We all have to do a better job of just creating that kind of work environment on the ice and off the ice.”
Babcock has coached 1,301 games in the NHL with the Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. He led the 2008 Red Wings to the Stanley Cup. His teams have won three conference championships (Ducks in 2003, Red Wings in 2008 and 2009). His 700 wins is the 12th most all time, and his .608 points percentage is the fourth best among NHL coaches with at least 1,000 games. He also coached Team Canada to Olympic gold in 2010 and 2014.