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Burke chooses 'best coach' available in Wilson

by Dan Rosen
Brian Burke didn't even have to leave his own building to find the guy who he thinks is the most qualified candidate to coach the 2010 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

Ron Wilson's office is in the Air Canada Centre, too.

USA Hockey announced Monday that Wilson has officially been named the head coach for both the 2009 IIHF World Championship in Switzerland and the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. It also announced that Burke, who is already the general manager for the U.S. Olympic team, will also serve in the same capacity for the men's national team at the World Championship.

"There will be people who say, 'Isn't this convenient that Burkie picked his best buddy?' " Burke said Monday on a conference call set up by USA Hockey. "I think we'd be fools to pass on Ron Wilson just because he's a buddy of mine, which he is. We feel he's the best coach to give us success in Switzerland and in Vancouver."

Burke, who is also the president and GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, specifically mentioned Peter Laviolette and John Tortorella also were high-ranking candidates and both could still serve in some capacity at the World Championships and/or the Olympics.

But Wilson was the unanimous choice among the panel charged with putting together the U.S. Olympic team, including Nashville GM David Poile, Atlanta's Don Waddell, Pittsburgh's Ray Shero and Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren as well as USA Hockey Assistant Executive Director for Hockey Operations Jim Johannson.

"The group felt strongly and unanimously that Ron Wilson was the guy we should have," Burke said.

What made the marriage with Wilson even more appealing is that because the Maple Leafs have been eliminated from Stanley Cup Playoff contention, he is available to coach the national team in Switzerland later this month. Laviolette would have been available, too, but Tortorella's New York Rangers are still in a fight for a playoff spot.

Burke, though, stressed that availability for the World Championship did not affect anybody's candidacy for the Olympic job. It was simply a bonus.

"We were going to pick the best coach for Vancouver," Burke said. "If it had been a coach who was involved in the playoffs and was not available (in Switzerland) we would have gone that way. We felt it was a nice ducktail with Ronnie being available for both teams. We were going to pick the best coach and we picked Ron Wilson."

This will be Wilson's second time coaching the U.S. Olympic team, making him only the fourth person to make a return to the Games behind the Americans' bench.

He coached Team USA to a sixth-place finish (1-3-0) in 1998, but the Americans' time in Nagano was marred by a vandalism incident at the team’s lodgings less than 12 hours after they lost to the Czech Republic, 4-1, in an elimination game.

Wilson, though, chooses to look at the Nagano experience as a key moment in USA Hockey history. It was after that experience that they decided to hold summer evaluation camps and take the process of building team chemistry much more seriously.

USA Hockey will invite prospective members of the 2010 Olympic team to an orientation camp at Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodbridge, Ill. from Aug. 17-19.

"What we've learned from that experience in Nagano, both ourselves and Canada, is that we needed to get our team together in the summer time," Wilson said. "We basically assembled ourselves, flew over, had one practice and unfortunately never really came together as a team. As a coach, I'm very much into team-building and preparation, and I think that experience, whether it be on the ice or off the ice, led to a much better procedure both for us and Canada.

"We had some off-ice issues, but they paled in comparison to how we played on the ice in the sense that we never really got our game going," he continued. "We never played like a team in my estimation. The week, we'll spend with the players in Chicago will help us become a much better team."

Wilson's resume with USA Hockey actually goes back to when he was a player in the 1960s and 70s and the organization was called the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States.

He credits friendships he made with Art Berglund and Bob Johnson for his relationship with USA Hockey.

Berglund recruited Wilson to play on the 1975 men's national team and Johnson was the coach. Fifteen years later Johnson put Wilson on his staff at the Goodwill Games and Wilson's career as a coach for USA Hockey began to blossom from there.

The 2009 World Championships will mark the sixth time in the last 15 years that Wilson has been a head coach for a U.S. team. His most memorable experience was in 1996 when he led Team USA to a 6-1 record and a gold medal at the World Cup of Hockey. He also won bronze at the 1996 IIHF World Championship.

"Every experience makes you a better coach," Wilson said. "Whether you are talking the World Cup or the Olympics, what you did well and what you could have done better, that's the value of experience and the value of being under that kind of microscope.

"For example, coaching in Toronto now is for me a great learning experience because of the magnitude of pressure that comes with coaching in this environment. Everybody pays attention to everything you say and the importance of it. Being able to function in that kind of environment is huge. All the experiences I had…it all adds up to you build up a much thicker skin and you know what you have to focus on specifically for the players so that they're ready."

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