-- For the past few years, it seems like Team USA coach Ron Wilson has had a chip on his shoulder, mad at the world.
Perhaps he is just mad at losing.
Because the 2010 Olympic hockey tournament has brought about Wilson 2.0, a happier, more gentle version of the man that has guided Toronto through one of the most difficult campaigns in that franchise's long history.
Wilson's Maple Leafs have won just 19 games in five months this season. The Americans have five wins in just two weeks. Sunday, they go for their first Olympic gold medal since the 1980 Miracle on Ice (3:15 p.m., NBC, CTV, TSN, SNET, V, RDS).
And, the coach standing behind the American bench Sunday afternoon at Canada Hockey Place -- staring down a powerhouse Team Canada -- will be an enigma to many fans of the Maple Leafs who have been calling for Wilson's head for much of the season.
"Well, I know I can coach," Wilson after his team's 6-1 semifinal win Friday afternoon against Finland. "When you've got great goaltending, a very mobile defense and skill up front, we're just, as coaches, trying to stay out of the way."
Come Sunday, Wilson will coach to win, not survive, which has been his modus operandi all too often in Toronto this season.
"We won't survive if we stay in the foxhole," is how he put it Saturday.
The challenge of winning -- of slaying the Canadian giant on home soil again -- seems to have invigorated the 55-year-old.
Wilson was the coach of Team USA at the 1996 World Cup, a team that beat Canada twice on Canadian soil to pull off one of the greatest upsets in the history of international hockey. For 14 years, that World Cup victory has defined Wilson's coaching career, easing the sting of his inability to win a Stanley Cup in the NHL. Now, he has a chance to add another championship to that resume.
Yet, Wilson insists that is not what his propelled him along during these two wild and wacky weeks of hockey.
"I didn't come into these Games to justify my coaching career," Wilson said Friday. "I think I'm seventh in wins and close to sixth in games coached in the NHL over 17 years. I don't need a silver or a gold medal to top off my career."
So, why did he come to Vancouver, if not seeking validation or vindication?
"Even though I was born in Canada, I'm as proud as any American can be, and I want to help these kids realize their dreams," Wilson said. "Since they were little kids, since they were born, they've all dreamed of: one, winning a Stanley Cup, and, two, winning a gold medal in the Olympics."
"I didn't come into these Games to justify my coaching career. I think I'm seventh in wins and close to sixth in games coached in the NHL over 17 years. I don't need a silver or a gold medal to top off my career."
-- Team USA Coach Ron Wilson
Clearly, Wilson has caught the Olympic spirit.
A hockey lifer that deals most easily in the loud proclamations full of salty language that all too often define the player-coach relationship, Wilson has never been known as a touchy-feely guy.
Yet, there he was Saturday afternoon, just 22 hours before the biggest game of his life, sitting before more than 50 reporters talking about getting hugs from his 3-1/2-year-old granddaughter.
"I'm just spoiling the heck out of her," Wilson said, smiling. "When she sees me, she just gives me a big hug and, whether we win or lose, I know after the game, I can grab my granddaughter and I’m going to get a big hug from her and know that this is pretty cool."
Wilson's transformation has not gone unnoticed by his players. The Americans are a young group and only a handful of players on this roster -- Phil Kessel
, who plays in Toronto, and Joe Pavelski
, who played for him in San Jose are two -- have experienced Wilson first-hand.
But everyone has heard the stories about Wilson's gruff demeanor and demanding nature. Few knew what to expect upon arriving in Vancouver, but it certainly wasn't the Wilson 2.0 that is on display.
Carolina defenseman Tim Gleason
had heard the stories from friends across the League about Wilson's legendary temper. So he has been pleasantly surprised to find a kinder, gentler coach than he expected.
"He cracks the odd joke or two," Gleason told NHL.com. "He's loose. He tells it like it is at the same time, which is good, too. He just expects you to come to work."
There's the rub, it seems. Wilson, like any coach worth his whistle, wants the best out of his players. Give him that and all is well in Wilson's world.
"To me, he is just kind of honest," St. Louis Blues
forward David Backes
told NHL.com. "To me, he gives it to guys when they need to get the gears. Other guys, he's honest that they are playing well and he needs their contributions that night. I can imagine over 82 games if you weren't playing well enough, he would get pretty annoying telling you that you are not very good night after night."
Wilson has not often had to tell the American team -- which has not only not lost, but has yet to trail in this tournament -- that they have not been very good in this tournament.
That will make any coach smile a bit more.
But if you really want to see Wilson smile, root for a Team USA victory Sunday.
"If I can help these 23 young men accomplish that," he said, "it would be a great feeling for all of us."