By HOWARD BERGER
CHARLOTTE (Nov. 18) – As I sit here in North Carolina awaiting a USAirways connection to Toronto, I find myself thinking about the complex temperament and personality of Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
Why am I thinking about that now? I haven’t got a clue, other than to presume something topical entered my mind to mitigate the two-hour layover after flying here from Nashville. That said, it doesn’t take much for a hockey observer in Toronto to form thoughts and opinions about the man that has stood behind the Leafs bench since 2008-09. Should Wilson survive the current season – devoid, as he is, of a contract extension – he’ll have out-lasted every Toronto coach in the post-expansion era except Pat Quinn (Wilson will draw even with Red Kelly, who also coached the Leafs during four complete seasons in the 1970s).
The notion of this doesn’t seem remotely popular. Unlike Quinn and Kelly, of course, Wilson hasn’t yet guided the Blue & White into the Stanley Cup tournament, which almost certainly contributes to the anti-Ron feeling back home. Quinn and Kelly were in the playoffs during their first seasons behind the Toronto bench – Quinn guiding the 1998-99 Leafs to the Conference final (and a five-game loss to Buffalo); Kelly taking the 1973-74 Leafs back to the Cup chase after the team’s worst-ever season to that point (Leafs were swept by Boston in the opening round). Neither comparison may be valid, for it wasn’t as onerous a task to make the playoffs back then. Otherwise, the current situation is rather elementary: Wilson will not generate affection from Leaf fans until his team advances beyond the regular schedule, nor would anyone bet a plug-nickel on him hanging around to accept scorn if that doesn’t happen this season.
General manager Brian Burke – with whom Wilson’s fate lies – seems all but bullet-proof at the moment, though a fourth consecutive playoff miss would likely engender a fair amount of doubt in his ability to rescue the franchise. Looming, of course, is the possibility of another labor interruption next season, when the league and its players will try and hammer out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. If the past two negotiations in the Gary Bettman regime are a guideline, I wouldn’t wager a heck of a lot on a full, 82-game schedule in 2012-13. Should most or all of the season pass without a truce, Leaf fans may start forgetting the year their team last participated in the Stanley Cup hunt.
Apart from mere technicalities, what is it about Wilson that doesn’t resonate with fans of the Blue & White? We know he presents himself as less-than warm and fuzzy in front of television cameras, and virtually no fan sees him in another light. But, he is a smart hockey man; college educated, with a wide variety of interests beyond the game. If you get to know the guy at all, he’s a fascinating person to chat and debate with (though I’ve never emerged victorious in the latter circumstance). His temperament – at least around the rink – doesn’t leave room for grey area… and that appears to extend through players, media personnel and co-workers. Not that he should be vilified for such a demeanor; many others are either liked or disliked, without lukewarm consideration. But, most of them aren’t in need of engendering support beyond their immediate superior – a frequent ally for coaches in big media markets.
Wilson seems non-plussed by such a factor. He’s going to either stick around or take a hike on his own terms and that isn’t something to belittle. If temperament were a guiding factor in Wilson’s future with the Leafs, I’m not sure which way I’d lean. Though many reading this blog only remember the two of us sniping at one another in the Air Canada Centre media lounge after a March 2009 game, I’ve developed what I consider to be a solid working relationship with the Leafs coach. I’ve learned the proper strategy in raising even the most contentious issues with him; a valuable one is to wait until the ubiquitous media mob disperses after a scrum session, so the aura of “making a scene” doesn’t come into play. Such patience – I’ll concede – is much easier in my current role as a Leafs blogger and part-time reporter with the National Post than it was during my two decades following the team around North America with a microphone for The Fan-590. But, it is something I worked on in my final years at the radio station.
For whatever reason, I’m frequently asked if I like Ron Wilson. The answer – unequivocally – is “yes”. Even during our famous set-to, I didn’t dislike him; choosing to believe that he’d merely gone off his rocker for a minute or so. That circumstance – as publicly as it played out – was smoothed over less than a week later, when I ran into the Leafs coach outside the arena in Tampa and informed him – endearingly – that I thought he was nuts. When he asked what I meant, I told him there was absolutely nothing about his career as a coach in the NHL that warranted a smear of reputation, as he’d accused me. Since then, we’ve had no words between us and have actually enjoyed some fairly good talks in a social environment: at Cliff Fletcher’s estate in Scottsdale AZ during the past two Leaf trips to Phoenix.
The biggest dis-service he’s done me – and it occurred at Fletcher’s after a beer or two – was to yell at the top of his lungs “My God, who DIED in here?!” while approaching a lavatory I’d just vacated. Thankfully, only I heard him and knew what he was referring to – a story that prompted me to pull over convulsed in laughter when I informed my media colleagues during the ride back to suburban Glendale.
Otherwise, I suppose Ron will ultimately be graded on his record behind the bench, which is in desperate need of rehabilitation. And, that’s probably the way it should play out.