Toronto Maple Leafs Coach Ron Wilson was officially revealed today as the man who will lead USA Hockey into the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It's his second chance to coach the Olympic squad, having previously led the Americans to the quarterfinals of the 1998 Nagano Games. (A team more famous for $3,000 in dorm-room damage than anything it did on the ice).
"No U.S. coach has the credentials Ron brings to the table," was the assessment from USA Hockey on a conference call today, which is a little hard to swallow when both of the other finalists mentioned by 2010 U.S. Olympic Team General Manager Brian Burke -- New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella and former Carolina Hurricanes Coach Peter Laviolette -- have won Stanley Cups, while Wilson has been a bridesmaid.
Does Wilson's hiring present hope that the U.S., with an infusion of stellar young talent, can get back into serious medal contention? Or is he, as Scott Burnside argued, not the right man for the job "by virtually any meaningful measuring stick"?
Some fresh answers from today's call, as well as some lingering questions ...
Has He Seen "Miracle"?
Hasn't everyone? There was talk that Wilson was miffed that Herb Brooks replaced him behind the USA bench in 2002, but he's spoken respectfully of the late "Miracle on Ice" coach previously.
Is Wilson the Right Choice, Based on the Other Candidates?
His international experience -- he'll also coach the U.S. in this month's world championships in Switzerland -- is impressive, having led the U.S. to a memorable gold medal in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey in Montreal.
But the goal is to turn the Americans from good to great, and Wilson's professional track record is that of "good to good" -- witness his inability to win a Cup, and his San Jose Sharks' inability to find postseason success prior to his firing last season.
Tortorella would have provided a fiery presence behind the bench. Laviolette is every bit the tactician Wilson is. The difference between the two and Wilson is one of philosophy: Theirs is up-tempo hockey in an Olympic environment that frequently calls for it, and Wilson is a more conservative coach by comparison.
If the idea is to cut down on mistakes with a core of young talent in order to win, then Ron's your guy. If the idea is to let young stars like Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils go talent-for-talent with the Canadians and Russians, then Wilson's not the right fit.
Wilson also brings some ego to the job, which is a good thing ... unless you're Mike Milbury, analyzing Wilson earlier this season:
Seems the real life Mr. Wilson has contracted what I like to call coach's disease. That's the ailment where the coach becomes delusional and actually believes that he is the most important man in the organization and if it weren't for him, all would be lost. All around him, players, management, media and fans better listen because the pearls of wisdom spewing forth from his lips are precious.
Was This Selection Simply Nepotism by Brian Burke?
It's no secret Burke and Wilson are long-time friends, for 30-plus years, and that Wilson's coaching the Leafs while Burke is the team's front-office overlord is no accident.
But Burke was crystal-clear on the call today that the committee that selected the coach -- Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren, Atlanta Thrashers President Don Waddell, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero, Nashville Predators GM David Poile, with an assist from Los Angeles Kings GM Dan Lombardi -- made their recommendation without his input.
"There will be people who say, ‘Isn't this convenient, that Burkie picked his best buddy.' I will tell you that when we talked about the head coaching job for Switzerland and for Vancouver, I did not weigh until the rest of the committee had done so. But I think we'd be fools to pass on Ron Wilson just because he's a buddy of mine," said Burke.
What Does Wilson Bring To the Team?
First off, the ability to coach a Brian Burke team, which is pretty important when Burke's the one culling the roster. Burke said he likes a team with size "that can play any style, survive and do well." Wilson's track record suggests he can adapt very well to the talent he's given, whether that's winning with defense with the Anaheim Ducks or winning with offense with the Sharks.
"We're going to have a young team, we're going to have an aggressive team. We want to play an attacking style," Wilson said.
If the roster matches the philosophy, concerns about what Tortorella or Laviolette would have provided as coach are a little eased.
But What About Inspiration? You Know, Like a Herb Brooks Speech?
Are you blissfully unaware that Wilson is the only coach who tried to motivate his baffled team in the Stanley Cup Finals with a parable about Crazy Horse? Hanta Yo!
What About the Goalies?
Burke's involvement is one level of personality for this team. Wilson's hiring is another. But the character of the 2010 U.S. squad could come down to which goalie they choose to shoulder the load, because it's the most critical decision left to make in many ways.
Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres would appear to be a lock. Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins wants desperately to play, although he'll be 35 by the start of the tournament. Both are competent goalies, but Thomas is an unorthodox and aggressive keeper while Miller is a steadier hand.
In other words, there's more of a gamble but potentially more upside with the Bruins keeper. It's up to Wilson to decide whether it's a gamble he'll take.
Finally, What About the Veterans?
It's clearly a transitional time for USA Hockey, as old guards like Bill Guerin, Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk and Chris Chelios (who will have some non-competitive role with the team) give way to the young stars Wilson and Burke discussed. The amount of veteran participation on this roster will be a tough call for Wilson, who has advocated a mix of experience and youth on his teams. No less than 10 players who won silver in 2002 for the U.S. are still active in the NHL; who do you turn down?
Again, it's hard to argue that Ron Wilson is a bad choice for U.S. Hockey in 2010. We would have opted for Tortorella, based on what we felt this team will look like and what he brings to the bench psychologically and structurally.
Not to say Wilson's the wrong coach, mind you. Perhaps we're caught up in the jingoism of the snarky head coach of the New York Rangers being the face of the nation rather than the sardonic coach of Toronto's flagship team. But that's symbolism; no one's giving that a second thought if Burke and Wilson turn a team that some expect to get skated out of the building by its rivals into a medal contender.