U.S. picks a winner, loses style points

Not only is Ron Wilson the right man to coach Team USA in the World Cup, he's the only man.

Updated: June 16, 2004, 2:01 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- If style mattered over substance, Canada scored a preliminary round victory over the United States on the World Cup stage.

Just watching the Canadians introduce their coaching staff for the upcoming hockey tournament on Friday was a case study in why Canadians always say hockey is their game.

To introduce Pat Quinn as its World Cup head coach (perhaps the worst kept secret in sports this week), Hockey Canada brought in its World Cup executive director Wayne Gretzky and his staff of Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe, Vancouver VP of player personnel Steve Tambellini and Hockey Canada boss Bob Nicholson. Quinn was joined by his 2002 Olympic Games assistants Ken Hitchcock, who is coaching in the All-Star Game anyway, and Wayne Flemming. Jacques Martin, who rounds out the gold-medal winning holdovers, was available on speaker phone.

Team Canada outfitted its coaches with custom made jackets, presented them with name-embossed hockey sweaters and then allowed them to launch into a surprisingly organized plan for player selection, which is set to commence Saturday morning the moment Quinn finishes putting his Eastern Conference All-Star charges through a morning workout and Gretzky and a few others attend some NHL meetings.

"We want to start evaluating right away," Gretzky said, adding that the process will inlcude assembling a preliminary roster of some 42 players. "Well start that process as soon as we get back from the (Board of Governors) meeting and Pat gets off the ice."

Then there was Team USA's presentation.

Executive director Larry Pleau wasn't present to announce his coaching selection, San Jose Sharks head coach Ron Wilson. Although there were rumors that Pleau stayed in St. Louis to address problems with his troubled team -- reportedly he was prepared to fire coach Joel Quenneville had the Blues lost Thursday night -- a Team USA spokesman said he had a family matter to attend to and was made available by speakerphone.

Wilson wasn't there either. He was spending the first day of the All-Star break on the golf course, reportedly in the Carolinas, but was available via speakerphone as well.

Don Waddell, general manager of the Atlanta Thrashers and Pleau's right-hand man in this affair, was present, as were a bevy of USA Hockey administrators. There were, however, no jackets, no sweaters.

There also weren't any assistant coaches -- or a plan to select them. Pleau and Wilson both said there wasn't a timetable for picking the team and no real sense of urgency to start the process.

Sense a different level of commitment here?

Look, there were clearly some problems with all this. For one, while Canada had its ducks in a row, the U.S. hadn't been working on the same timetable, nor should they have had to. They appeared rushed -- perhaps even pressured -- to come up with something for the assembled media. Frankly, they did their best under the circumstances. Canada simply did it better.

One shouldn't understate the importance of that. Since Gretzky hooked up with Nicholson to guide Canada's Olympic effort, Hockey Canada has been out front and pulling away. The Canadian contingent beat the U.S in the gold medal game in Salt Lake City, ending 50 years of frustration for Canada. With that win in hand, Gretzky jumped at the opportunity to go for the World Cup gold and bring his posse with him.

That said, however, the U.S. shouldn't feel obligated to take a back seat.

You can argue that, for political reasons, the U.S. could have selected someone other than Wilson. He was, after all, coach of the U.S. men's team in Nagano in 1998, one of the most disappointing and, given the dorm-trashing incident, embarrassing moments for Americans on the world stage.

You can argue that, but you would be wrong.

The World Cup is a pros tournament. It uses NHL pros and it plays on NHL-sized rinks. To be sure it's a world-class affair with teams from Canada, the U.S. and most of the major hockey playing nations of the world, but the bulk of the rosters in the 1996 tournament were made up of NHL players and it's likely they will be again.

In that regard, Wilson has more than an edge over other candidates, he laps the field.

He led Team USA to the gold medal in the 1996 World Cup. And though the rosters will change mightily for Team USA in the upcoming tournament, having an experienced coach at the helm, a coach who knows pros, can coach pros and actually coached them to two memorable wins over Team Canada (in a best-of-three final with the last two games in Canada no less), that means a lot.

It might be fair to say that if Herb Brooks hadn't been killed in a single-car accident last summer, Team USA might have tapped him for the honor. Brooks lost the gold to the Canadians in the 2002 Olympics, but he won it in 1980 and has a long resume in international competition. Without Brooks, there really is no better choice.

Tampa Bay's John Tortorella is certainly an up and comer, but he has no experience at this level. Carolina's Peter Laviolette, a two-time Olympian, led the U.S. national select team to the gold in the Deutschland Cup in November, but it was his first international coaching experience, and this is a different beast all together. And Pittsburgh's Ed Olczyk has less experience than both men at the NHL level. USA Hockey might have looked to Mike Eaves, a successful college coach who recently led the U.S. junior team to a win over Canada in the World Junior Hockey Championship, but again, this is a pro's tournament and it's a stretch to say Eaves is ready to step up to that level just yet.

USA Hockey probably could have gone off the board and selected a transplanted Canadian to do the job. The NHL's all-time winningest coach, Scotty Bowman, has a green card and now makes both his living and his life in the U.S. The same could be said of Mike Keenan, who once coached the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup and Team Canada to a win in the Canada Cup.

There are a handful of others who fit that scenario, but lets get real here: What's the point of having a U.S. team coached by a transplanted Canadian? It would be a disaster for the American hockey movement. It would be a slap in the face to all American-born and trained coaches who aspire to compete on the world stage. It would be a tacit admission that Canadians do it better.

And while that may be true, there isn't a single person in the USA Hockey hierarchy who would ever admit it let, alone cement the perception by making the choice.

So it falls to Wilson. And despite the Nagano debacles, he truly is the best man for the job. Players respect him, he's a winner (not a Stanley Cup winner, but then again Quinn hasn't done that yet either) and he's a pro.

"Experience is a tremendous plus in a tournament like this and Ron's been through it before," said Pleau.

It didn't matter that Pleau wasn't in Minneapolis to say it. Facts are facts and Wilson has more experience than anyone else in the USA scheme of things.

Even a speakerphone couldn't distort that.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

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