TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The Blue Jackets traveled to this Lake Michigan resort town Wednesday, ready to watch their promising crop of prospects play in the annual NHL Prospects Tournament. But the story they’d hoped to leave behind in Columbus isn’t finished yet.
On Tuesday, former NHL player and current TV analyst Paul Bissonnette reported on the “Spittin’ Chiclets” podcast that Blue Jackets coach Mike Babcock scrolled through players’ cellphone pictures in an attempt to “know what type of person you are.”
Babcock has vehemently denied the report, saying the way Bissonnette portrayed it “was a gross misrepresentation of those meetings and extremely offensive.”
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen has also denied the accuracy of the report, as have veteran players Johnny Gaudreau and Boone Jenner, the Blue Jackets’ captain. They all said they shared pictures with Babcock as a way for the new coach to get to know his players and fellow staff members.
National Hockey League Players’ Association executive director Marty Walsh and assistant executive director Ron Hainsey, a former Blue Jackets defenseman, traveled to Columbus and are speaking with players Thursday, a players association source told The Athletic. The NHLPA has declined to comment, except to say that its investigation continues.
Bissonnette has stood by his reporting emphatically, both in text exchanges with The Athletic and on X, the social media platform previously known as Twitter.
Jenner, in a statement through the club and in a direct conversation with The Athletic, said he did not regard his interaction with Babcock and the request to exchange photos as anything nefarious or out of line. But his statement was clear to only speak for himself.
It’s possible — and this is what the NHLPA is attempting to ascertain — that another player, perhaps a young player with fewer NHL credentials, would view Babcock’s request to see his private photos as something quite different.
Babcock was named the Blue Jackets’ new coach on July 1. It was a controversial hiring, given the way Babcock’s previous NHL job ended 3 1/2 years earlier with Toronto. Shortly after he was fired, players came forward with reports of verbal and mental abuse during his time with the Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings.
He has acknowledged some of the misdeeds, saying that conversations with his adult-aged children and others have convinced him to try a different tack with players in Columbus, including a direct conversation with each player about how they wish to be coached and motivated.
There are at least two sides of this to be considered.
First, Babcock’s reputation precedes him in Columbus. There are former players across the league who did not speak highly of him or his coaching tactics. (Former Blue Jackets defenseman Mike Commodore has been a vocal critic, but there are others.)
But the NHLPA also is trying to determine if the story was leaked — or tweaked — as part of a former player’s vendetta against Babcock.
Kekalainen, speaking with The Athletic on Thursday, was asked if Babcock has been told to handle the sharing of photos with players and staff differently.
“We always have to learn from experience,” Kekalainen said. “There are safe ways to (share pictures) and I’m sure that we’re going to learn.”
(Photo: Kyle Robertson / USA Today)