Commentary

USA's run could quiet Wilson's critics

Updated: February 27, 2010, 11:53 AM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Ron Wilson wanted us to know Friday that the snazzy dress socks he was wearing were from Thomas Pink, a high-end men's clothing line.

He figures it might get him a deal the next time he's there.

He also wanted us to know something else: he can indeed still coach despite reports to the contrary out of Toronto.

[+] EnlargeRon Wilson
Kyle Terada/US PresswireCoach Ron Wilson has helped lead the United States to at least a silver medal at the 2010 Olympics.

And right now, with Team USA assured of at least a silver medal that no one, and I mean no one, ever thought was possible for the youngest squad in the Olympic men's hockey tournament, it is hard to think of anyone who has gained more currency in this event than Wilson.

With Wilson in the line of fire for much of the season in Toronto for the performance of the sad-sack Maple Leafs, the most cutting criticism from some observers was he only avoided being fired because his NHL GM was also his Olympic GM in Brian Burke.

It's a sentiment that stings, and both Wilson and Burke have bristled when it's been suggested.

Well, you can throw that right out the window now. The surprising performance by Team USA in these Olympics will quiet many of Wilson's critics.

"Well, I know I can coach," Wilson said Friday after his team's 6-1 semifinal win over Finland. "When you've got great goaltending, a very mobile defense and skill up front, we're just, as coaches, trying to stay out of the way."

In other words, his team stinks in Toronto, and neither Scotty Bowman nor the late Toe Blake could do much about it, either. So the suggestion that these Olympics will have acted as some sort of career salvation obviously touches a nerve with the veteran coach.

"I didn't come into these Games to justify my coaching career," Wilson said. "I think I'm seventh in wins and close to sixth in games coached in the NHL over 17 years. I don't need a silver or a gold medal to top off my career. I'm proud of all the times I've coached for USA Hockey. I've always answered the bell just as they've answered the bell throughout my career, giving me opportunities as a player and now as a coach. This is going back for me since 1975 [when he played for Team USA]. That's 35 years; that's a long time to be involved with a group.

"Even though I was born in Canada, I'm as proud as any American can be, and I want to help these kids realize their dreams. Since they were little kids, since they were born, they've all dreamed of one, winning a Stanley Cup, and two, winning a gold medal in the Olympics. If I can help these 23 young men accomplish that, that would be a great feeling for all of us."

And know this: Wilson has done a heck of a coaching job in these Olympics. This is young team that could have easily been overwhelmed on this stage. Whether it's been cracking jokes with his players or telling them tales of his past international experiences, Wilson has managed to keep a young team focused and loose.

"He's witty and he's got a bit of sarcastic humor," said St. Louis Blues defenseman Erik Johnson. "I think he's been really good with this team. He's been able to lighten the mood. I think he realized we were kind of a tense and nervous group coming into the tournament, which is to be expected. He's done a great job settling us down and he's got that calm and cool demeanor about him. It's unfortunate what he's going through in Toronto, but all teams go through rebuilding phases. But he's just done a great job in a short time in this tournament.

"He's been a terrific, terrific coach for us and a real leader behind the bench."

On Friday, Wilson was able to keep his players focused on the job at hand after building a 6-0 lead. They remained organized for 60 minutes, and that's impressive. In Wednesday's 2-0 quarterfinal win over Switzerland, Wilson calmly told his players to stick with it when it was still scoreless through 40 minutes, and it's really to the coach's credit that his young players never showed signs of panic when they were being thwarted for so long by goalie Jonas Hiller.

"He's been good. He's let us play," said center Joe Pavelski, who played under Wilson in San Jose. "I think he's handled this well. He's given us some structure in what we want to accomplish. He's been simple, and in a short tournament, I think guys feed off of that."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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