Wilson's revival earns another shot

As he revives the Sharks, Ron Wilson is likely to get another shot at doing the same for Team USA.

Updated: February 6, 2004, 3:32 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Players are often described as having a renaissance, of being reborn in new surroundings. It is so with Marc Savard in Atlanta, Jiri Slegr in Boston, Steve Thomas with Anaheim last year and now with Detroit.

But what about coaches? Are they not subject to the same slumps and fits of fatigue and unhappiness that suck the life from players, that cause people to wonder if they're finished?

Ron Wilson
Ron Wilson has revived the Sharks as he did U.S. hockey in 1996.
Would it not be fair, then, to say that Ron Wilson has been reborn in San Jose?

The bombastic, acid-tongued coach helped restore America as a hockey power when his team won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, only to see much of that undone with the embarrassing collapse of virtually the same team at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano.

After taking Washington to the Stanley Cup final in 1998, Wilson could not replicate that success even with the addition of the enigmatic Jaromir Jagr and was fired.

His first months in San Jose last winter were less than spectacular. Yet he has quietly enjoyed his own personal renaissance with a team that many had left for dead 10 games into this NHL season.

The fact Wilson is expected to be named Friday to coach the American entry in the World Cup of Hockey next summer seems to suggest this is indeed true, even if he, himself, does not subscribe to this theory of rebirth.

"I don't look at it that way," insists Wilson, 47.

Still, he acknowledges this season has been the most fulfilling of an NHL coaching career that dates back more than a decade.

"This has probably been as much fun as I've had coaching because it's a young team," said Wilson.

With a veteran team, you end up "managing situations that come up," rather than teaching, he explained.

After beginning the season with just one win in their first 10 games, the Sharks have rebounded to become the surprise leaders in the Pacific Division. Through 54 games Wilson's no-name Sharks' boasted a Western Conference-best 2.06 goals-against average, second only to New Jersey in the NHL, and had secured points in 37 of their last 45 games before Thursday.

His work in San Jose is no doubt what led Team USA general manager Larry Pleau and assistant Don Waddell to return Wilson to the USA bench in the hopes he can reprise the United States' most impressive international showing since the 1980 Olympics, the victory over Canada in the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996.

"That's always a challenge," Wilson said of coaching on the international stage (he also coached American squads at the 1994 and 1996 World Championships).

It is a challenge Wilson said he feels he is in some ways born to meet.

"The experience of winning in '96 and doing so poorly in '98 has probably made a lot of the players better players and me a better coach," Wilson said.

Still, Wilson said the World Cup job has not been a priority.

"To be honest with you, this really isn't the time to be thinking about that," he said.

In fact, he said he thought it was silly that Hockey Canada was planning to announce its coaching staff at this weekend's All-Star Game with the most important part of the NHL season looming. Certainly, Wilson is looking no further than the coming weeks and the start of the playoffs for his surprising Sharks.

After being hired to replace Darryl Sutter on Dec. 4, 2002, Wilson presided over a San Jose team that jettisoned his boss, general manager Dean Lombardi, his captain Owen Nolan, his best offensive player (Teemu Selanne) and his strongest defensive personality (Bryan Marchment). Longtime Sharks Marcus Ragnarsson and Niklas Sundstrom were also dealt.

Under Wilson, the Sharks stumbled to a 19-24-7-7 record and ended a remarkable string of six straight seasons of improvement by finishing last in the Pacific Division.

Wilson's primary challenge at training camp was in convincing the leftover parts they were better than anyone believed.

"It's not so much the star players you have," Wilson said. "It's what you have that hold up the star players."

Unlike his other coaching stints in Anaheim, where he had Selanne and Paul Kariya, and in Washington, where veterans Adam Oates and Peter Bondra and later Jagr shouldered the leadership burden, Wilson had to teach his Sharks players they could fill the critical roles long held by more familiar names.

He admits there was some resistance, but slowly players like Patrick Marleau, Marco Sturm, Mike Rathje and Wayne Primeau have done just that.

"We haven't really changed anything that we've been teaching," said Wilson, who implemented an up-tempo, puck-pursuit style of play. "It might have taken a little bit longer than I thought. It took some time to exorcise the demons of last year."

Ask players what it's like playing for Wilson, and there is almost always a pause, a moment's hesitation usually accompanied by a kind of smirk, maybe even a grimace.

Doug Weight, who played for Wilson in both '96 and in '98, answers the question with one of his own.

"Have you figured him out?" Weight asks with a smile. "He's a very colorful coach. I don't think you can figure him out."

"He did scare the crap out of me one day," San Jose defenseman Brad Stuart recalled.

Hunched over during practice, Stuart looked up just in time to see Wilson balancing a puck on the blade of his stick.

"And he just fired it at my head."

Stuart ducked only to feel a roll of black tape hit him in the back. Ha, ha.

"That's just the way he is," said Stuart.

Did he think it was funny?

"When I realized what it was, it was funny," Stuart said not sounding all that convincing.

Every day at practice there is usually some Wilson moment, added Alyn McCauley. If you feel someone shooting pucks at your feet or shouting out a one-liner, it's likely the coach, he said.

"Ron keeps it pretty light for the most part. And I think, for the most part, that's how it should be," said McCauley who was acquired from Toronto for Nolan at the trade deadline last spring. "He cracks a lot of jokes. Half of them are funny. Half of them are not."

Wilson makes no apologies.

"We participate in a game. Games are supposed to be fun," he said. "I want the game to be fun for the players and more than the players I want it to be fun for me."

Long known for his biting comments to players and the media, Wilson admits he has mellowed. Now instead of a screaming match with an underachieving player, Wilson simply cuts his ice time from 17 minutes to five minutes.

"It saves me from having a heart attack on the bench," said Wilson, the father of two grown daughters who spends much of his offseason time golfing out of the summer home he shares with wife, Maureen, in Hilton Head.

Longtime assistant coach Tim Hunter agrees there's been a marked change.

"I think Ron has loosened up a little bit. Ron is more patient than he was in the early days in Washington," said Hunter. "It's a necessity here in San Jose because we have such a young team."

Hunter first met Wilson while playing in Vancouver where Wilson was an assistant to head coach Pat Quinn for three seasons. Later, Hunter joined Wilson's coaching staff in Washington in 1997.

"I think at times he was hard on players early in is career," Hunter added. "Now he gives guys a little more slack and is not as confrontational in some situations."

Wilson's sometimes offbeat techniques (a movie buff, Wilson used "The Wizard of Oz" as a motivational tool to help Anaheim upend Phoenix in the first round of the 1997 playoffs) belies a deep connection to the game's roots. His father, Larry, won a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 1950, and his uncle, Johnny, won four rings with the Red Wings.

Wilson and his father are one of only five father-son combinations to coach in the NHL, and during the 1998 playoffs Wilson often kept an old hockey card with his father's picture in his pocket for good luck.

We participate in a game. Games are supposed to be fun. I want the game to be fun for the players and more than the players I want it to be fun for me.
Ron Wilson

If Wilson's public persona is that of a coaching cowboy (he made a point of sticking it to Canadian players during the Nagano tournament, asking them how they liked silver, referring of course to the '96 World Cup result), his attention to detail, his devotion to technological innovations are the real measures of his success.

He is both fundamentally strong and creative, San Jose general manager Doug Wilson said, "and that's a rare combination. The things I was looking for for this team he had in spades."

Wilson, a self-admitted techno geek, has also been on the cutting edge of the technological advancements in the game.

"He's really bright and innovative," Hunter said. "He uses a lot of that to get the best out of whatever team that he has."

From electronic scouting reports to editing game film to dressing room electronics and bench monitors, Hunter figures there isn't a team in the NHL as equipped as the Sharks.

"We've got everything."

In 1996, an emotional Wilson goaded and cajoled his star-studded team into an upset victory over the favored Canadians with two straight wins after dropping the first game in the best-of-three championship.

His players recall Wilson's speech about American hockey players always being at the back of the hockey bus with the Canadians driving. He jokingly anointed Tony Amonte as the next Mike Eruzione and Amonte responded by scoring the winning goal.

"He's a players' coach," added Keith Tkachuk who likewise played on both U.S. teams for Wilson. "He's great around the guys. He got us pumped up to play."

Lou Lamoriello, president and GM of the New Jersey Devils, coached Wilson at Providence College and acted as his agent when the former defenseman was drafted by Toronto in 1975. He and Anaheim GM Jack Ferreira, who hired Wilson to coach the Mighty Ducks, were involved with USA Hockey when Wilson was selected to coach the '96 World Cup team and the '98 Olympic team.

While Lamoriello diplomatically declined to comment on whether Wilson should return to that job, Ferreira was unequivocal.

"I think he has to be the guy," Ferreira said. "He's the guy that has the most experience."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.