NHL

Siegel: Untold stories from Ron Wilson

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Jonas Siegel
3/19/2012 1:49:04 AM
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The timing was never quite right for telling this story.

One week before he was fired as the 27th head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ron Wilson sat down with TSN.ca for an exclusive, hour-long conversation on a significant milestone that lay just ahead in his coaching career.

In what would ultimately be his final game behind the bench with the Leafs – a 5-4 loss in Chicago opposite former teammate and Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville – Wilson would pass Pat Quinn for 4th on the all-time games coached list with 1401 to his name. Only three men in the history of the game, all legends in their own esteem – Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour and Dick Irvin – have coached more.

Love him or hate him, his journey to this point is worth at least a tale or two.

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Ron Wilson has coached in every NHL season since 1993.

It's unclear if and when he'll coach again, but moving beyond a mentor in Quinn was certainly significant and wildly unexpected when the dream took off. "Back then, Pat's probably already coached 700 games," Wilson said last month. "You don't map this out, like where am I going to be when I get 1500 games or 1400 games or 13 and 1200."

His start to coaching life in the NHL began under the big Irishman with Vancouver in 1990.

An assistant coach with the Canucks farm team in Milwaukee the year prior, Wilson had an opportunity to run the bench with the Admirals for six weeks when the team's head coach, Ron Lapointe, relapsed with kidney cancer. Lapointe returned to coach in the playoffs, but the Admirals head coaching job became available the following offseason. "I thought I might be the head coach and I was prepared for that down in the American League," Wilson said, "but Mike Murphy was one of the assistants in Vancouver and he wanted that kind of responsibility."

Murphy won the job in Milwaukee and in an odd twist of fate, Wilson received his former gig, the promotion on Quinn's coaching staff in Vancouver, strongly recommended for the job by then-Director of Hockey Operations, Brian Burke. A wizard of sorts with computers, Wilson arrived in British Columbia stocked with innovative ideas and promise. He took charge of the Canucks video and statistics analysis, integrating computers firmly into the fold from VHS while revamping the organization's system of game preparation, both internally and for upcoming opponents. The idea was to ease the time crunch on the coaching staff.

"It didn't take long for us to figure out he knew what he was doing," Quinn told TSN.ca last month. "What was impressive was his work ethic in terms of the preparation and the number of hours he put in. It used to be coaches didn't put in those kind of hours that they do now. Ronnie had that right from the start in his career."

"My motivation was always to be prepared enough to help the players be the best they could be," Quinn continued, noting a similar trait in Wilson. "That's what gave me the pleasure and that's what gave me the feeling that I was successful in what I was trying to do. You don't get to the number of games he's at without recognizing that and knowing that you need to be prepared. You don't con people at that stage. They know when you're ready and they know when you're doing your work and clearly that record proves that he's been prepared all his career."

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Technology is ever-present across the NHL today, but at that point in the early 90s, few teams were utilizing computers for their video work and analysis. Wilson had the gift or perhaps the experience. "He had an ability to use computers which many of us older guys didn't have at that time," Quinn said.

It was a chore at first.

As a young boy of 10, maybe 11-years-old, Wilson spent his summers not outdoors on the baseball field or in the street playing road hockey, but in front of a typewriter. His grandfather, a one-time communications employee for the Canadian Pacific Railway who was stricken with polio, made sure of it. "He sat me down, he gave me a typewriter and he said 'you're going to learn to type'," Wilson recalled. He was given a Gregg typing book and a message. "He bought me the book and he said 'every night instead of watching TV or doing what you [kids] are doing, you're going to sit down and teach yourself how to type' so I learned how to type that one summer when I was like 10 or 11 years-old, thinking 'I'll never use this stuff. Now I know how to type, big deal'."

His family moved to the United States shortly thereafter, his father Larry on the hunt for a coaching job following a playing career that stretched over 150 NHL games. A teenager at that point, the younger Wilson typed out letters to the likes of Punch Imlach and Harry Sinden, hoping to help land his father a job. Larry eventually scored a gig with the Dayton Gems of the IHL, but with assistant coaches a wave of the future, he decided it best to put his son to work in the pressbox, tracking shots on goal, scoring chances and other useful stats. "Then he would ask me 'What'd you see up there today?'" the younger Wilson recalled. "Of course I'm at 15 or 16 [years old] I think I'm smarter than my dad like everybody thinks. And I'd be telling him who he should play, who he shouldn't play, who I liked, who I didn't like.

"He would just sit there and listen."

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After three seasons as an assistant coach with the Canucks, opportunity knocked on Wilson's front door. The expansion Anaheim Mighty Ducks were searching for their first head coach and Wilson's name piqued their interest. A call from the Ducks organization – led by President Tony Tavares and GM Jack Ferreira – was placed to Quinn for permission to speak with his assistant coach. "He didn't think it was a good idea," Wilson recalled, before offering Quinn's reasoning. "The guys who often coach expansion teams, that's the only coaching gig they'll ever get."

"It sounds like something that I might've said," Quinn noted, "but obviously it was a chance for him to step up and he ended up doing a heck of a job there."

"I told Pat, I said, 'once I get permission from you, I'm going after the job," Wilson added. "I'll do what I have to do to get the job in terms of preparation and you know me Pat I'll be prepared.' I was surprised I got the job."

In his first season with the expansion Mighty Ducks, Wilson achieved unexpected success, guiding his band of castoffs to an impressive 19 road wins. Their uniforms were a bold blend of toothpaste green and deep purple, complete with the film-inspired cartoon duck on the front. "I think part of the advantage we had is everybody laughed at us," Wilson grinned. "That was our motivation every town we went into is 'Oh the Mighty Ducks are coming. It's a Mickey Mouse Disney production' and we just said 'Well, let's use that for our motivation to prove everybody wrong' and it worked the first year, for sure."

Wilson's four-year term with the Mighty Ducks would culminate in the club's first ever playoff appearance.

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Stints with the Capitals, Panthers, and Sharks would follow before Wilson ultimately landed in Toronto. Years of experience not surprisingly produced an evolution, not only in the coach but the person. "You simplify as you get older," he explained. "I think when you're younger you focus more on complicated things, like little details that might have been important to you when you played, but then you realize you've got to simplify. That's the art of coaching is to make something that is complicated that you've spent a lot of time [on] and you've got to simplify, you've got to get right down to the basics."

Wilson agreed that the practice was not so dissimilar to the art of teaching.

"Yeah you break down the equation, but you don't solve the problem," he said when the math analogy was presented. "The players have to go out and solve the problem. But all your students are different. Some don't want your involvement at all and some want a lot of information so that's what you learn over time. You don't flood the guys who don't want information with that information [or] you'll lose them fast. So you make it available somewhere else that they can see the information."

"He's prepared and that's a real important part of it to start with," Quinn said. "That's John Wooden's first rule of coaching is if you're failing to prepare you're preparing to fail. So it takes work and he was willing to put those hours in; all of those traits would lend you to believe that he had a chance to be a good coach and a long-term coach."

Driving information home in new and varied ways over a lengthy period of time is perhaps the greatest challenge of the job. One thousand, four hundred and one games means at least that many conversations with the team, not to mention all the pre-scouting meetings in the morning, incessant chatter and instruction on the bench and a slew of intermission breakdowns. Add in thousands of practices along with team meetings and the talk seems endless. "Plus you're not thinking about the World Cups, the Olympics, the World Championships, just regular season games and you're coming up on fourteen [hundred]," Wilson said. "That's 1400 times you had to talk to the team.

"And you have to be different. You don't say the same thing every time."

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A lesson from Quinn, Wilson always abstained from speaking with his team in the aftermath of a game. "First of all, when you win, the players don't want to hear the head coach and when you lose they don't really want to hear the head coach either," he explained. "And you're going to end up saying something that you can't take back the next day because you're emotional, those sorts of things."

An eighth round selection in the 1975 Amateur Draft, Wilson played in parts of three seasons with the Leafs, two under the late Roger Neilson. Neilson would spring an impressive umbrella of eventual head coaches, including Wilson, Quenneville, Bruce Boudreau, and John Anderson. "Not that I was ever sitting around thinking that the other guys would be coaches some day, Wilson recalled, "but I knew that there was a possibility that I would."

Asked if passing the milestone in Toronto had any added significance, Wilson offered a response typical of the profession. "This stuff happens so fast you don't really think about that part," he said. "I played for the Leafs and that was a thrill, something I wanted to do that I never thought I would."

Time flies by on a job that is arduous, demanding and frequently unrewarding, but there's a reason men like Wilson and Quinn stick around. "For me I've won lots more than I've lost, I've had more ups than downs, lots of playoff success, so all of those things make it feel like it goes too fast, like you haven't had time to enjoy what is going on around you," Quinn reflected. "You know at the end of the day that you're enjoying it, but you don't think about that when it's happened...It felt like it was fast for me. I wish I was still in it. Time goes by on you."

"What you have to have is passion for the game and a love of the game," Wilson concluded. "That doesn't change. You do get tired at times. That's a lot of games."

--

He was on the phone that day interviewing Corey Hirsch for the goalie coach position in Toronto.

Ron Wilson had recently been hired to coach the Maple Leafs, the team he cheered for as a child and would briefly play with in the NHL. Rooting for the legend of Dave Keon, the opportunity to coach in Toronto is one that he never could have imagined. "You never think you're going to be that character one day on TV, Punch Imlach," Wilson reflected. "You maybe imagine yourself being Davie Keon or Bob Pulford; you don't think you're going to be the coach."

The conversation with Hirsch feels odd from the get-go. "We're talking on the phone…and he's calling me 'Buddy'," Wilson recalled. "And I'm going this doesn't sound right. You don't act so familiar when someone cold-calls you and asks if you're interested in becoming the goalie coach." Delving deeper into the past of his prospective hire, Wilson uncovers a pair of unexpected connections. Eyebrows first raise upon the mention of Dave Prior, whom Hirsch lists as a prominent coaching influence; Prior just happened to be Wilson's goalie coach years back in Washington. Hirsch offers another unsuspecting clue when he declares Olaf Kolzig to be a model in terms of preparation; Kolzig was of course Wilson's starting goalie with those very same Capitals.

Befuddled as he hangs up the phone, Wilson dials up Rob Zettler, his long-time assistant coach. "'I've had the weirdest conversation with Corey Hirsch,'" he tells Zettler, "'and he goes 'What do you mean?' I said 'He's acting like he knows me really well' and he says 'Wils! You coached him!' "I said 'When?!?' He says 'Look it up, he backed up in Washington. Not a lot, but he ended up in Portland and he was like a third goalie in the organization. When somebody got hurt we'd bring up Hirschie'. He says 'You don't remember that?' and I'm like 'No I don't'.

"Then I'm saying 'Oh yeah!'"

"That's when I feel like Pat Quinn," he chuckled. "We used to laugh with Pat when he would forget a guy's name and I'll do the same thing where I'll be 'Uh' and I can't remember like what would be an obvious name."

337 different players have played for Wilson in a career that spans 18 NHL seasons. Forgetting the odd name or two just comes with the territory.

Ron Wilson (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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