My favourite Ron Wilson story doesn’t involve inspirational videos or impassioned speeches or even subtle moves behind the bench that won him games in Anaheim, Washington or San Jose.
It has to do with an e-mail sent in 2004.
I was covering Team USA for the Toronto Sun. The Americans were a rancorous, largely unhappy group who would be quickly eliminated from the World Cup of Hockey. The cast included the mercurial Keith Tkachuk, a discontented Brett Hull, and metalhead goalie Rick DiPietro. They were a very easy team to dislike and the impending lockout made the tournament seem pointless.
Ron Wilson was coaching the Americans and he too vacillated between cryptic and enlightening. The dysfunction and curtness of the Americans made for good reading. I noted how Wilson, who had been so memorably media-friendly in leading the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup finals just that Spring, had soured.
Wilson, I wrote, “was a guy who you liked less and less with every word that tumbled from his mouth.”
A little while later, it’s Ron Wilson on e-mail. How can you write that? Haven’t I been good to the media?
He surely had. But the criticism wasn’t just of Team USA, it was of what I saw as his attitude at the media briefing. I cited answers that were to the point and others that were evasive and bordering on hostile.
And then Ron Wilson did something remarkable. He explained the circumstance of his remarks, and he admitted that yes, he was out of line. (I have often wished I had kept the e-mail).
This is who the Maple Leafs are getting in their 27th head coach. A quotable, passionate character who insists on personal accountability, even, and this is rare, from himself.
“I am not the antichrist I have been made out to be,” he told journalists after two-and-one half hours of straight talk and straight talking at his press conference.
He has never made a player cry, although he wept when his granddaughter was born 18 months ago.
He is a defensive first coach who takes pride in being able to teach anyone to keep the puck out of their own net.
He has engaged, and we do mean engaged, virtually every player over 15 seasons that have brought 518 wins, third among active coaches behind Mike Keenan (626) and Bryan Murray (620). He has hockey bloodlines. His father Larry Wilson and uncle Johnny Wilson are both former Stanley Cup-winning players in Detroit and in games, he keeps his dad’s hockey card in his breast pocket. He has played for some of the game’s best, most innovative coaches, Herb Brooks, Roger Neilson and Badger Bob Johnson. He played over parts of three seasons for the Leafs in the late 1970s. He lived in nearby Fort Erie, Ontario until he was 13 and still corresponds with old schoolmates. His hiring by interim General Manager Cliff Fletcher seems, in retrospect, the most natural thing in the world.
But confidence, real confidence, the kind Ron Wilson wears like a second necktie, isn’t built on bluster. In fact, it comes from an entrenched sense of right and wrong and when you understand right and wrong, you understand that sometimes you will be both.
And so you write an e-mail where you admit a critic has a point. Or if you go too far with a player, you say so.
“The biggest apology I ever made was to (defenceman) Joe Reekie in Washington,” Wilson remembered yesterday. “I said something out of frustration and anger one day, and the next day in front of the team, in front of everybody, I apologized to him. I crossed the line and couldn’t sleep that night. I shouldn’t have said it.”
The point, Wilson said, isn’t that he clashes with his players. Those interactions are the natural by-product of him wanting more than a player is prepared to give. What matters is that he manages them.
It was widely assumed that wild-child Jeremy Roenick would drive Wilson berserk. Instead, Roenick enjoyed a bounceback season with the Sharks as Wilson insisted he participate for a limited number of games through the regular season. When goalies Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov insisted on playing the majority of games in San Jose, he reasoned that one of them would ended up hating him. “I’d rather have both of you just sort of disliking me,” he said, and put them on a strict rotation.
In San Jose, he obliquely called out Patrick Marleau but when Wilson was fired by the Sharks, Marleau left him a gracious message and thanked him for making him a better player.
“Along the way there are lots of guys. (Washington goalie) Olaf Kolzig and I used to fight, tooth and nail, over his temper,” Wilson said. “Eventually, he came around and said I was right and he was wrong, but we had a direct, confrontational relationship because I didn’t like his behaviour.”
“My greatest weakness is I can be brutally honest and I might say something people don’t want to hear,” Wilson said. “Hopefully I can be as honest to help this team get to where it should be.”
That honesty will not always be easy to hear although by now, surely it cannot be shocking. The Leafs need a major rebuild with a higher premium on drafting and pro scouting.
Three straight seasons of failing to qualify for the post-season meant two excellent coaches, Pat Quinn and Paul Maurice, failed to get the job done, Wilson said. Now it’s time to look at the core of the team.
“If you’ve had two coaches and nothing’s changed, what do you have to change? It’s pretty evident. That’s where people have to take a really hard look at this team and maybe I’m the guy who can help people look at the team the way it should be looked at.”