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Wilson ready to roll up sleeves, get to work

by Brian Compton

Ron Wilson will take over as head coach for the Maple Leafs after being let go by San Jose less than one month ago.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have their man.

Less than one month after being fired as coach of the San Jose Sharks, Ron Wilson was named the bench boss in hockey's Mecca on Tuesday afternoon, when he signed a four-year deal with the Leafs.

Born in Windsor, Ontario, Wilson grew up a fan of the Maple Leafs. Toronto will be his fourth NHL stop as a coach, as he has also worked in Anaheim and Washington before taking over in San Jose in 2002.

Wilson, 53, was a seventh-round selection of the Leafs (132nd overall) in the 1975 NHL Amateur Draft. He made his NHL debut by playing in 13 games for Toronto in 1977-78, followed by 46 games in 1978-79 and five games in 1979-80. He recorded seven goals and 15 assists to go along with six penalty minutes in 64 games. He becomes the 15th individual to play for the Maple Leafs and then coach at least one game for the Original Six franchise.

Wilson replaces Paul Maurice, who was let go by interim General Manager Cliff Fletcher on May 7 after the Leafs (36-35-11) failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second year in a row. Wilson, who has won more than 500 games in his NHL coaching career, guided the Sharks to a 108-point season. But San Jose, which was picked by many to make a serious run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, lost in the second round to the Dallas Stars.

"Growing up in Fort Erie, I dreamed of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs," Wilson said at Tuesday's press conference. "I lived and died with the Maple Leafs through the '60s. I eventually got an opportunity to play for the Leafs. To be able to come back and be a part of the Maple Leafs again is basically a dream fulfilled that I never thought I'd get to experience."

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That being said, Wilson is fully aware of the fact that he is inheriting a team that didn't come close to enjoying the success that the Sharks did in 2007-08. While San Jose nearly beat out the Detroit Red Wings for the top record in the League, the Maple Leafs missed out on the postseason and could be on the verge of losing captain Mats Sundin to free agency.

"The core of this team will change," Wilson said. "You can't build Rome in a day. You have to peel this back and forth and decide who stays and who goes. All I want to do is coach the team. I'm not in player personnel, and I've never, ever demanded somebody be traded. Whatever Cliff and management decide they want to do, I'm here and make this team as competitive as can be."

With free agents set to hit the open market on July 1, the Maple Leafs clearly will have some decisions to make in the next few weeks. While Sundin is obviously at the top of their priority list, the Leafs must also decide in the near future if they are going to buy out some of their hefty contracts.

While it will ultimately be Fletcher's call, the GM said he will ask for and value Wilson's input.

Whoever comes in here as the general manager, I'm pretty confident that I can get along with … he'll see and understand what I can do to help this team as a coach. - Ron Wilson
"I think it's prudent for any general manager to have a meeting of the minds," Fletcher said. "It's the coach that puts the players on the ice and uses them in all situations. The coach has to feel comfortable in the players he has. We're both in it for the same reason – we want to win. It's just a natural process."

Wilson said on Tuesday that he has never had a desire to be a general manager, and that won't change now. While it's still undecided who will lead the front office in the future, Wilson said he's willing to work with whoever is named the new boss. It is unknown how long Fletcher will continue to guide Toronto on an interim basis.

In the end, though, Wilson said the uncertainty of the Leafs' front office didn't play a role in his decision to take the coaching job.

"To me, that's irrelevant," Wilson said. "It's putting the pieces of a puzzle together. Anybody here who has played and done puzzles, there's no exact way to do it. I think Cliff's job is to assemble the best team in any order possible. I think that's what management intends to do.

"Whoever comes in here as the general manager, I'm pretty confident that I can get along with … he'll see and understand what I can do to help this team as a coach."

Wilson became the first coach in the history of the Anaheim franchise in 1993 and guided the Ducks to their first postseason appearance four years later. He joined the Washington Capitals in 1997 and was behind the bench for that franchise's only trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998. After being tabbed as San Jose's coach in the midst of the 2002-03 season, Wilson has since become that franchise's all-time winningest coach with 206 victories.

His ability to turn teams around is what Wilson believes will be his biggest asset in Toronto, where losing is never accepted.

"I've coached three teams in the National Hockey League, and each time I've had to kind of start underneath the radar and work our way up," Wilson said. "I feel I've accomplished those things."

Nonetheless, patience will be a recurring word for the Maple Leafs, who finished in 12th place in the Eastern Conference in 2007-08. Wilson knows the task of winning games and developing players simultaneously will be no easy task.

"In today's NHL, you have to be very patient," Wilson said. "You see the top teams in our League, and I'd like to think that I come from one of them in San Jose. Every year, we were incorporating three or four rookies into our lineup. The job of a head coach in the National Hockey League today, there's a good part of development that's involved. You don't have the luxury of putting guys in the minors for two or three years of seasoning."

But what Leafs fans ultimately want to know is, can Wilson break the hex and deliver Toronto its first Stanley Cup in more than 40 years?

"I truly believe this … I left Fort Erie in 1967, right after the Leafs won the Stanley Cup. It might be my fault, so I'm back," Wilson said. "All kidding aside, I'm not worried about curses. The New York Rangers buried their curse. You can't believe in curses."

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