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A Wilson family reunion

by Michael Caples / Detroit Red Wings
Johnny Wilson
DETROIT -- Ron Wilson will step behind the visitor’s bench tonight, prepared once again to coach against the Red Wings. Like always, his uncle, former Red Wings great Johnny Wilson, will be in the stands with mixed emotions of who to cheer for. But tonight’s game will be more significant than the others. Ron will take the reins of an Original Six team for the first time, facing off against the team he grew up with, a team he watched both his late father and uncle win championships with. And that team will be celebrating another championship before coach Wilson can get to work. And all the while, his uncle will be watching, enjoying the whole event.

The elder Wilson, who played in 379 games with the Red Wings from 1949-59, said that he doesn’t really know who to cheer for when the puck drops.

“They say blood is thicker than water, but it’s difficult for me because I like to see my nephew do well, but I’m still an old Red Wing from the heart because that’s where I started and grew up, as a Red Wing,” Johnny Wilson said.

Coach Wilson, however, took a different approach to questioning about how he feels with his uncle here tonight, saying that was actually concerned about how it might affect the outcome of the game.

“Oh, we’ve been talking already, he always comes around, he says the Red Wings accuse him of being a spy,” said Wilson, who has coached 518 NHL victories. “But I just realized today that I’ve hardly ever won in this building, he actually may be spying on me, he might actually be a double agent, you know?”

No matter how the score plays out tonight, this game will be a sentimental moment for the Wilson family. Ron’s father, Larry, was a member of the Red Wings for three seasons before he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. In the 1949-50 season, the Red Wings captured the Stanley Cup with both Wilson brothers on board.

“Well, when you consider that a father and an uncle were on a 1950 championship team here, and the fact that (Ron) grew up in this area and watched his father play and watched his father coach in Dayton, Ohio … coming in here as a first-year coach as a very prominent franchise when he grew up around this one, I think that would have some significance because Ron is a student of history,” said Versus commentator Doc Emrick, who has covered professional hockey since 1973. “He doesn’t let history dictate what he does, but he’s enough of a student and appreciator of it, that he’ll find this a significant night not only for him, but the atmosphere I think he’ll really, really like.”
Mike Babcock and then-San Jose coach Ron Wilson, Johnny Wilson's nephew, coached the West All-Stars together in Atlanta last January.

Emrick went on to say that Johnny Wilson will appreciate the merging of so much family and hockey history.

“Johnny is fortunately still with us, unlike Larry, I think the fact that John can be here and watch this will mean an awful lot to both of them, because this is kind of like coming full cycle,” Emrick said. “Ron’s not coaching the Red Wings, but he’s coaching an Original Six team, for the first time, and he’s coaching in Detroit for his first game. All of us people who are balding and grey at the temples always like any connection with the past, and this certainly is that.”

Johnny said that tonight’s celebration of an 11th Stanley Cup championship in Detroit will be a little different than the days when he was lacing up his skates at Olympia.

“Well back when I was playing with the Red Wings we had no banners to raise, we just started the game,” Wilson said. “So it’s a big thrill because I broke in with the Red Wings when I was a kid, and been a Red Wings’ fan all my life.”

The elder Wilson went on to say that the fans in Hockeytown deserve a celebration of this magnitude, because they’re the best in the business.

“It’ll be nice to see banners go up because the fans here in Detroit are wonderful, they put all their athletes here on a pedestal, you walk around town they all recognize you, even though it was 40 or 50 years ago since I played, and its quite an honor, it makes you feel good that they still recognize you and who you are and what you accomplished over the years.”

But Wilson said that the excitement of watching his nephew lead the famous Toronto Maple Leafs may be even better then watching his former club raise another banner.

“It’s going to be quite an honor, with him coaching the Maple Leafs,” he said. “I’ve been watching him over a few years and I was out in San Jose when he coached his 1,000 game and we’re very proud of him as a family - he’s done a real good job.

“He’ll straighten the Maple Leafs out, it’ll take a little while because things don’t just happen overnight you know? But he’s highly qualified and he’s made a great study of the game, he’s got a lot to work with naturally but he’s very close to the players and they’ll enjoy him and they’ll give him 100 percent every game.”

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