Mike Babcock resigns as Blue Jackets’ coach amid NHLPA photos probe

Less than three months after he was hired as coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Mike Babcock resigned Sunday amid an NHL Players’ Association investigation into allegations that he demanded access to players’ phones and scrolled through their personal photos.

“This was a difficult decision on everyone’s part, but one we felt necessary to ensure our focus remains on the players and the team’s upcoming season,” Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen said in a statement.

Pascal Vincent, who had been the Blue Jackets’ associate head coach for the last two seasons, will replace Babcock as head coach, just three days before the start of training camp.

“Our players deserve to be treated with respect in the workplace. Unfortunately, that was not the case in Columbus,” NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh said in a statement. “The club’s decision to move forward with a new head coach is the appropriate course of action.”

Babcock’s hiring was announced July 1 — the day after the expiration of his contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who fired him in 2019 four years into an eight-year contract. On Sunday, he handed in his resignation after a five-day probe into the allegations, which were first surfaced last week by former NHL player and current TNT hockey analyst Paul Bissonnette on his podcast, “Spittin’ Chiclets.”

“I get a text from a player,” Bissonnette said on the podcast. “He goes, ‘Have you heard what Babcock is up to again?’ And I’m like, ‘No.’ So, [Babcock] gets to Columbus and one of the first things he does is he calls in Boone Jenner, the captain of the team, and he says, ‘Let me see the photos in your phone. I want to know the type of person you are.’ ”

A clip of Bissonnette talking about the incident gained traction on social media, which led the Blue Jackets to issue statements from both Babcock and Jenner on Tuesday. Both coach and player firmly denied there was anything untoward about the incident.

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“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,” Babcock said in the statement. “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.”

Added 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 good way for us to start to build a relationship. To have this blown out of proportion is truly disappointing.”

Blue Jackets forward Johnny Gaudreau echoed Jenner’s sentiment in an interview on the “32 Thoughts” podcast with Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. But Friedman then reported Thursday that Walsh and assistant executive director Ron Hainsey met with players in Columbus and received a different impression from the Blue Jackets’ younger players, some of whom felt uncomfortable about their interactions with Babcock.

The main focus of the investigation was on Babcock’s meetings with the younger players, according to Friedman, and he characterized Walsh and Hainsey’s meeting with the players as “intense.”

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On Friday, Walsh and Hainsey discussed their findings at a previously-scheduled meeting with NHL leadership. By Sunday evening, Babcock had resigned, ending his tenure with Columbus before he coached a single game — or even ran a formal practice.

“Upon reflection, it has become clear that continuing as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets was going to be too much of a distraction,” Babcock said in a statement. “While I’m disappointed to not have had the opportunity to continue the work we’ve begun, I know it’s in the best interest of the organization for me to step away at this time.”

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