SAN JOSE, Calif. – Ron Wilson has been hired and fired by enough hockey teams to render him immune to any silly, sentimental longings for an old home or a lost opportunity.
Even if Wilson felt the tiniest bit bittersweet about the San Jose Sharks’ outstanding start in their first season since his departure, he would never admit it to the likes of Jeremy Roenick or Joe Thornton.
The coach who led the Sharks to almost every major NHL achievement except the Stanley Cup finals returns to San Jose on Tuesday night behind the Toronto Maple Leafs’ bench.
Like any coach, Wilson admires the 20-3-1 powerhouse that has emerged in San Jose under new coach Todd McLellan, but he doesn’t anticipate any excess pride or disappointment at the Shark Tank, which is likely to greet him warmly.
“I’ve been through this three or four times,” Wilson said Monday after the Maple Leafs’ morning skate prior to a 3-1 win over Los Angeles . “How many times have you been fired? If you haven’t, you don’t know what I’m talking about. Don’t assume you know what I’m thinking. Obviously, I have great friendships there. I think I have a lot of good relationships with a lot of the players. It’s going to be fun to see them.”
Indeed, Wilson is still on cordial terms with Doug Wilson, the general manager who canned him last May. Most of his former players praise their sarcastic, cerebral former leader – even if they’re giving him grief via text messages at the same time.
“Joe and J.R. were giving it to me (Sunday),” Wilson acknowledged. “I quieted them down. I gave it back to them a little bit. I talk to Doug Wilson every couple of weeks, text with some of those guys occasionally. They’re also friends.”
Wilson is the winningest coach in Sharks history, going 206-134-45 after taking over mid-season in December 2002. His teams won two Pacific Division titles and reached the Western Conference finals in 2004, winning a playoff round in each of his four full seasons.
Last season’s club finished with the NHL’s second-best regular season record, but flopped out of the second round of the playoffs for the third straight year. Although the Sharks had won more post-season series than all but two franchises over the previous four years, Doug Wilson replaced him with McLellan, a rookie head coach who had been an assistant in Detroit.
Wilson was surprised and disappointed by the firing, but he quickly landed a plum, high-paying job with rebuilding Toronto, even bringing along Sharks assistant coaches Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler – but not before the same decompression process he performed after losing previous jobs in Anaheim and Washington.
“They fired me, and I was on a red-eye and a golf course the next morning,” said Wilson, who spends the off-season in South Carolina. “That’s exactly what I did. On my boat in the evening. The first thing I did was bust out the golf clubs and move on. It’s as simple as that.”
Doug Wilson said he fired Ron Wilson because “sometimes the class needs a new professor, and sometimes the professor needs a new class.” Sometimes the professor also needs three outstanding veteran defencemen with Stanley Cup rings, and that’s exactly what McLellan got.
With Dan Boyle, Rob Blake and Brad Lukowich providing the most visible difference between last season’s solid team and this fall’s outstanding group, the Sharks are on top of the NHL standings with a seven-game winning streak, sturdy goaltending and the league’s highest-scoring offence.
The Sharks who played for Wilson haven’t forgotten his contributions to their current success. Thornton said he’s glad Wilson landed with an Eastern Conference team to keep their reunions to a minimum.
“We have to keep it business as usual, and we don’t play against the coach,” said Roenick, who postponed retirement last year to play another season for Wilson. “I’m sure it will be a bit bittersweet, (but) he’s certainly in a media hotbed now, and I think he’ll thrive in that situation. I still love him. He’s still my buddy.”
Moving from one of the league’s most laid-back supportive hockey markets to the sport’s epicentre could have shaken a coach with less self-confidence than Wilson. But taking a job in which his every word or line change is endlessly dissected has done little to change Wilson’s approach to hockey or life.
“The last thing I want is guys worrying about my feelings, or (thinking) that I’m saving our energy (Monday night) to win tomorrow’s game,” Wilson said. “We’re not that good. ‘Holy cow, we’re going to march in and beat the best team in the league tomorrow, or I’m going to cry for three weeks if we don’t beat the Sharks,’ or anything like that. Don’t make it more than any other game.
“I’ve played Anaheim plenty of times, Washington plenty of times. The games don’t take on extra meaning. They don’t. It’s another game.”