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Wilson Armed With Tools To Lead A Winner

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
RELATED: Closer Look: Kessel Shines On Broadway

 VIDEO: Kaberle - Oct. 15 | Wilson - Oct. 15 | Game In Six - Oct. 15
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When someone asked him whether it was coaching or personnel that transformed the Leafs penalty kill, Ron Wilson answered without flinching.

“Personnel,” he said.

Yes, if you are going to run a corral, you’d best have some horses.

Now, that remark might seem self-serving. Modesty can be a casualty of the truth.

The Leafs host the New York Islanders Monday and will be feted as conquering heroes by virtue of their 4-0 record and their 2-0 road trip to Pittsburgh and Manhattan.

Some of the credit for his extraordinary turn of events has to be laid at the feet of Ron Wilson although the old bromide about coaches getting too much credit in the good times and too little in the bad deserves a turn here.

But in every sport, the question lingers: do bad teams make for bad coaches or managers? If your team is a loser and you are the man in charge, is it invariably your fault?

That was the question threatening to surround Wilson this fall. His team was coming off the league’s second-worst record. Special teams, traditionally a Wilson forte were in shambles. Entering his third season as Leafs’ coach, Wilson was 64-73 with 23 overtime losses.

Watching Wilson work now, you wonder what all the preseason fuss was about. How much coaching influences talent is a hypothetical. How much talent helps coaching can be found in the standings.

Just look at this season.

Tomas Kaberle, in conflict with Wilson last year, has been very good after a preseason summit with the coach.

Wilson benched Phil Kessel late in a win in Pittsburgh. Phil Kessel scored twice, including the winner in New York.

Wilson diffused any notion of Jonas Gustavsson assuming an equal spot in the goaltending rotation. Gustavsson will have to be content with one game in three until Jean Sebastien Giguere falters or his contract runs out at season’s end.

Wilson is old school. Despite innovations including tableau computers to instruct players when they return to the bench and an interest in abstract statistics, this is the family business. He is a coach’s son.

His dad Larry Wilson was a distinguished minor league player locked out of the league by the scarcity of big league jobs. The Leafs ‘coach remembers his father coming to their Fort Erie home after playing in Buffalo. Often Larry would talk hockey strategy at the kitchen table, moving salt and pepper shakers about the table to illustrate his point.

You had to love the game to live the minor leaguers life. You have to love it even more to stand behind the bench in Dayton and Providence and Cleveland and Baltimore and for part of a season in Detroit where Larry went 3-29-4. Somewhere there is a mountain of names belonging to coaches who could not survive their dreadful teams. You will find Larry Wilson’s name there.

Finish the circle to this season.

Kaberle is one of the world’s nicest people but like all of us, he struggles to find interest in the things that do not interest him; especially if that increased interest might involve a stick in the teeth. As such, there was bound to be some conflict.

Unlike most of us, Wilson has no real trouble with conflict. He can be ruthlessly honest, not out of pettiness, but because he knows it works. His sarcasm can be withering.

But equally effective is the gentle massaging of a player’s confidence he practices with Mike Komisarek or the arm’s length approach he seems to deploy on the incendiary Dion Phaneuf. When he had Jeremy Roenick in San Jose, Wilson would wind him up with text messages.

Never shy about using the media to reinforce his message, he plays the press box elevator like a violin.

When Nikolai Kulemin lost the intensity that defined his first season Wilson sent him to the press box. When Luke Schenn struggled to make do with less ice time, he was granted two days off to think about things from upstairs. Both players eventually righted themselves and have been in lockstep so far this season.

Practice watchers notice Wilson working with the team’s two Russian speaking players, Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski. He is forever joshing them, shooting pucks at them, gently slashing them, all the while re-affirming their position within the group. There are countless ways to build an army.

Bob Gainey once said the trick to playing for Scotty Bowman was to maintain a ruthless self-assessment. “You had to maintain yourself,” Gainey said “because you never wanted Scotty to maintain you.”

That is the way of the old school coach. Look past the computers and the graphite stick he handles in practice and that’s what you have with Ron Wilson.

The heart of the job hasn’t changed at all since Larry Wilson got off and on the bus in Dayton. The guy in the suit behind the bench doesn’t control the future of the 20 players on the bench.

It’s always been the other way around.
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