Ron Wilson, now in his third season as head coach of the Sharks, has taken this team further than anyone in the franchise’s history. But he is not satisfied by “organizational firsts.” He wants the Stanley Cup and is not going to be satisfied with anything less.
Just prior to the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Rink Report sat down with Wilson to talk about the Sharks chances, his philosophies on coaching and reaching 1,000 games coached.
RR: Now that you’re a couple of weeks removed from the excitement of your 1,000th NHL game and the ceremony, has what you’ve accomplished and the company you’re now in hit you yet?
RW: Yeah, it’s kind of sunk in. I had hoped to get to that number, especially with the type of team we had. I’ve looked at it and I knew there were a lot of great names there. I’ve also been able to reflect on the help I have had along the way from various people, starting with my parent’s and my uncle’s influence on my life. Then, Lou Lamoriello at Providence College and becoming friends with Brian Burke, which led to my first opportunity coaching in the Canucks organization. I wouldn’t be half the coach I am without the assistants who have helped me do the job like Tim Army, Al Sims, Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler. Those guys have been very loyal to me and I appreciate all of their hard work and dedication. And obviously, you’re only as good as the players you coach and I’ve been blessed to coach some of the best players in the game. I have had a ton of memories and experiences that have helped me be the coach that I am.
RR: Of the 13 coaches to hit the 1,000-game milestone, only two – Al Arbour and Billy Reay – did it with fewer than three teams, as you, Dick Irvin and Jacques Martin did. Does that make it any more special to you?
RW: Not really. To be honest, I’m disappointed that I didn’t do it with Anaheim. And what I mean is that when I got hired, I thought I’d always be there. Then I moved on to Washington and I thought I’d finish my career there and now I’m here. I plan on finishing my career with the Sharks but sometimes those circumstances are beyond your control (laughs). So I don’t really even worry about that. Once you’ve been fired once, that’s the last thing that ever crosses your mind. I know I have a pretty good track record and the only thing I’m focused on now is winning a Stanley Cup. By the end of next season, I hope to be just 30 games or so short of winning 500 games. I think that would be even more noteworthy for me is to win 500 games in the NHL because then you’re really in an elite club. But, again, no matter how many games you win or coach, my sole focus is winning a Cup. If I can somehow do that, it pretty much rounds out your career and it’s something that can’t be taken away from you.
RR: Your uncle, former NHL player and coach Johnny Wilson, was quoted as saying that your style of coaching is more similar to his than perhaps that of your father’s, Larry Wilson. Would you agree with that assessment?
RW: He would be the only one who could comment on that really because I was never coached by my Dad or my uncle. My uncle is a first-born and I’m a first-born. My dad was second born and my brother, Brad, is a second-born. I’m a lot more like my uncle and my brother is just like my dad. I don’t let things bother me as much as my brother might or as I believe things bothered my dad as a coach. So hearing that from my uncle, I would say he is probably right.
RR: How special was it to your family that not only did your father and uncle play in their first NHL game together in 1950 but also went on to win the Stanley Cup that season?
RW: Well, unfortunately, my Dad passed away really before he shared those stories or even before I asked about those stories. Obviously, I’ve spent my whole life trying to follow in his and my uncle’s footsteps. My uncle talks about how excited they were. That was their first year and it was the first time they got called up and they played with Gordie Howe. My dad was a center and my uncle was a left winger. Then, they got called back up for the playoffs and by circumstance, my dad got in because Gordie Howe had a fractured skull so my dad got to play the games in the Finals. My dad was 19 and my uncle was 20 when they won their first Cup. I’m sure my dad, at that time, thought he was going to win 10 Cups and that ended up being his only shot at it. When my dad passed away, we had a family fishing contest and I won so I got his Stanley Cup and all of that memorabilia that he had from that year they won. I treasure that and I hope that I can add my own right next to his. The other thing is that my dad’s first game coaching in the NHL was against my uncle. They were, ironically, kind of intertwined with things throughout their career.
RR: Having already been to the Stanley Cup Finals and knowing what it took to get there, does that experience affect decisions that you make as the playoffs move along?
RW: You just try to pass on to your players how difficult it is to win it and to appreciate the opportunity when it comes. I went to the Finals (Washington, 1998) with a team that was basically the underdog in every series but we won. We believed, until we got to the Finals, that we were better than those other teams. Once we got there, I don’t think our team really believed that we could beat Detroit and maybe they were satisfied to get there. I want to make sure that if this team gets to the Finals, were not just satisfied to be there. Because at that point, you’ve reached another goal for this franchise that has never been reached but you can’t be satisfied by that. It’s so hard to get there. Look at Detroit – they were easily the best team in the NHL the last few years and they got beat in the second round one year and in the first round last season. You need luck and good fortune with injuries. You don’t know what the other team’s goalie is going to do. You have a puck hit the post and go in the net instead of bouncing out. There are so many factors that go into it.
Often, in a series, you’ll look back at one moment that made all of the difference in the world. Last year, perhaps it was the two-on-one with Jonathan Cheechoo when Dwayne Roloson makes an unbelievable save in double-overtime. If we win, we’re up three games to none – we might have won the Stanley Cup at that point. You might hit a post early in a game and that could be the turning point in your life at winning a Cup. Having been there, you appreciate that luck plays a part in it but you have to be able to turn good luck into good fortune.
RR: Many people were critical that this Sharks team was “too young” or that the defense was “too inexperienced” to be a serious Cup contender. With the additions of Craig Rivet and Bill Guerin notwithstanding, are you surprised at how this team, the youngest in the NHL for most of the season, has performed this year?
RW: No, I haven’t really been surprised. I’d be a liar if I said that I thought, before training camp started, that Marc-Edouard Vlasic
would be an integral part, if not our best defenseman this year. We knew that the plan was to give our younger players a chance to show what they could do with the idea of keeping our eyes open on what players might become available early in the year. But we didn’t have to do that. Later in the year, I think we bought ourselves some insurance with the addition of Craig Rivet to add some experience on the back end. It’s not an indictment against the younger players in their current roles but what you’re really doing is protecting yourself in case you run into injury troubles with a Scott Hannan or a Kyle McLaren-type player. Rivet has really helped solidify the back end. My job as a coach is to work with the players that I have and to try and make everyone better as the year goes on. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not just on the ice, but off it as well. These players are learning to become professionals. I’ve been around long enough that my experience tells me that if you’re patient, these guys will come around.
The only way these players mature as a group is to go through some of these experiences. We didn’t give up on anybody and look at the benefits we’re reaping now. You have to believe in your system and we believe in how we develop players. There are organizations that give up on guys after 15 or 20 games and they end up making poor decisions. Our players know that we’re going to support them and help them find the answers before we’d ever throw someone in the junk yard. I believe in opportunity as long as you’re trying. I can live with mistakes. I can’t live with people who don’t try and improve themselves. That’s what our goal is. I tell our team “It’s impossible to be perfect but there’s nothing wrong with trying to be perfect.” And it’s not just the young guys. We want Joe Thornton
to continue to improve, we want Patty Marleau to continue to improve as much as we want a Vlasic or Matt Carle to improve every day.
RR: Being among the top-five-to-ten teams in fewest goals allowed for most of the year does not happen by accident. What do you attribute the team’s success in that area?
RW: That’s a team effort. Some people say it’s the goalie, some will say it’s the defense but I think it’s a total commitment from the team to understand what’s important. We’ve used statistics to set goals in training camp of being in the top-five in all of the important categories. Historically, the teams that are in the most top-five categories normally make the playoffs and go the furthest. All I am is a salesman selling some ideas and trying to get the players to buy in. And they don’t have to buy in happily either. This isn’t the rose garden where everyone is hopping along happily. This is a democratic dictatorship that I’m running – that’s what I call it. I get opinions from players but what I decide is final. That’s why I’m the coach. We think these things are important throughout our whole organization and we expect commitment from the players. And if they have that commitment, they have 100 percent support from the coaching staff and the general manager. Those who can’t live up to those standards sometimes don’t make it.
RR: The Sharks have four of the top-15 leading rookie scorers this season with Matt Carle, Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic playing important minutes for your team. How has their success made a direct effect on the success of other players like Thornton, Cheechoo and Marleau?
RW: Yeah, I think it’s good for veteran guys to see young people succeed. They get excited with their success. I don’t know if this is the right way to say it but sometimes, players get “used” to playing in the NHL and it’s nice to have guys around who are experiencing things for the first time. That helps keep everyone motivated. But our players also understand that even though those players may be called rookies, they’re not treated that way. We hold everybody to the same standard and everyone gets a chance. We don’t have guys come in and say, “He’s not going to be allowed to do certain things or participate in certain areas.” They’re all treated equal here.
RR: Admittedly, Jonathan Cheechoo did not get off to the start he would have hoped for after scoring a league-leading 56 goals last season. However, over the last few weeks of the season, you could really see his game coming around and his scoring touch return. What do you think is most responsible for his resurgence lately?
RW: It might have been too much to expect another 50-goal season and how do you deal with that success? Maybe he tried too hard and pressed the issue. I think in some instances, he was just thinking about scoring and had forgotten about the rest of his game. As much as he has scored lately, I look more at his plus/minus where I think at one point in the season, he was minus-12 and he finished at plus-11. He’s been a lot more committed to working hard in his own end, which was his core before. He’s a grinder who can score and he had forgotten to grind. Since he’s gotten back to that, working harder, playing more physical and all of a sudden, the scoring chances are there. They were there earlier in the season. Some of them didn’t go in and I think it affected his confidence and eroded other parts of his game, but he’s found his mojo and that’s a good thing for us.
RR: What would you say, in your mind, are the keys for this team to make a long playoff run and challenge for the Stanley Cup?
RW: Like any team, knock on wood, you hope you stay healthy. Our conference is loaded with eight or nine teams that can play each other pretty evenly. Win on the road, win at home and play physical. It’s going to be a real war and the only way you’re going to survive is to be lucky enough to survive the games and not get hurt. If we can stay healthy, get the kind of goaltending that we know we have, get our scoring spread out on four lines then we have a really good shot. But I think that all of the teams that qualify for the playoffs are saying the same things.
RR: Is there one thing that sticks out for you most or that you are most proud of in your three-plus seasons here in San Jose?
RW: What I’m most proud of is I think we have gotten better each year as a team in different areas. You look at our power play from when I first got here to where we are now. We’ve gone from being mediocre on the power play to having one of the best power plays in the League. We’ve been consistently sound defensively and on top of that, I think we play a very entertaining brand of hockey. We’re not trying to bore anybody. We’re trying to have fun and let our guys express themselves offensively. And, we’re a young team that has even more room to improve as we go forward. For me, that’s what keeps me motivated as a coach. My work feels easy because of the young talent we have and guys are enthusiastic and like to practice. When you have a team like that, it’s fun to be a coach.