TORONTO – When Ron Wilson first left Canada for the United States 41 years ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs had just won the Stanley Cup.
Leafs fans haven’t celebrated an NHL championship since then and now they’ll be looking to Wilson to bring the Cup back to Toronto.
“I left in 1967, so there’s a certain irony to this whole thing,” said Wilson, who is expected to officially be named the Leafs new head coach later this week. “After the Leafs won the Stanley Cup we moved to Dayton, Ohio, because my dad started coaching there for the ’67-68 season.”
He remembers going to a few playoff games the year Toronto last won the trophy.
“My dad actually got a couple of tickets from Johnny Bower,” Wilson said during an phone interview Monday. “I was 13 years old and that was real neat. Those are part of my memories. So to have this happen now is incredible for me.
“I haven’t been this excited in a long time.”
Wilson, 53, travelled to Toronto on Monday to finalize his four-year coaching deal with the Maple Leafs. An official announcement could come as early as Tuesday.
“Just a few minor details left,” said Wilson. “It’s going to get done. It should be done tonight.
“So the way we go. My life will never be the same again.”
Wilson, who was born in Windsor and raised in Fort Erie, Ont., before moving south of the border, has a career NHL coaching record of 518-446-127 in stints with the Anaheim Ducks, Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks. He’s second on the active list in wins behind Mike Keenan (not counting Ottawa GM Bryan Murray, who is set to hire his replacement behind the bench).
The Leafs still don’t have a permanent GM but they’re hiring a veteran coach with a proven track record.
“I think he’ll do an outstanding job,” Sharks GM Doug Wilson said Monday. “Look at the record. I have great respect for Ron. I look at what he did with our organization. He made us a better place and our players better. I think he’s up for the challenge and with all his accomplishments I think he’ll do well in Toronto, I really do.”
The Sharks GM fired Wilson on May 12 after five years behind the San Jose bench. Doug Wilson didn’t lose faith his coach but simply felt the powerhouse team needed a different voice going forward.
“Sometimes the class needs another professor and sometimes the professor needs another class,” said Doug Wilson.
Wilson will succeed Paul Maurice, who was fired May 7 after missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
Unlike his stops in Anaheim, Washington and San Jose, Ron Wilson finally gets to coach in a hockey-mad market. He’s can’t wait.
“Being somewhere where everyone is very passionate about the sport and then some, that intrigues me,” he said. “For my own personal circle in the game, it kind of completes it in a way. I started with the Leafs and now hopefully my career will end with the Leafs.”
The former U.S. college player spent parts of three NHL seasons with the Leafs in the late 1970s. Those are moments he still cherishes.
“This is the team I dreamed of when I was a kid growing up,” said Wilson. “I had always wanted to play for the Leafs and I did for a short period of time. Now by chance or fate, I get to coach them for a while.
“So it’s going to be a lot of fun for me.”
He arrives in Toronto still not knowing who will be his full-time boss. The Leafs continue their search for a permanent GM but that uncertainty doesn’t bother Wilson.
“What you have to do is get the right pieces of the puzzle,” said Wilson. “And you may not find all the pieces at the same time or in the right order. As long as the puzzle fits in the end. And that’s how I’m looking at this in the end.
“I’m pretty confident that I can work with just about anybody. I really am. I’m not really going to worry about that.”
Rumours persist that Wilson’s hiring will set the stage for Anaheim GM Brian Burke to enter the picture once his deal expires with the Ducks next summer. Burke and Wilson played together at Providence when they were younger.
All Wilson would say about the Leafs situation is that he’s happy to work for interim GM Cliff Fletcher, who sought him out a few days after his firing in San Jose.
“It’s kind of funny, I would not have thought that I would have ended up in Toronto to be perfectly honest with you, it just never crossed my mind until Cliff called,” said Wilson. “I got fired on the 12th and probably by the 17th he called.
“From that point on, that’s all I’ve been thinking about in my head is ‘Why not – why not the Leafs?”
Wilson, meanwhile, also wants to clear up some confusion. Yes, he played for the U.S. in three world hockey championships and has coached the Americans in various events, notably the 1996 World Cup of Hockey title and 1998 Olympics.
But he remains a dual citizen and made sure to pack his Canadian passport for his trip to Toronto.
“I’m bringing it up just as evidence,” Wilson said with a laugh. “And my social insurance card, too.”
Even still, he’d be the first American ever to coach the Maple Leafs.
Wilson remains proud of his Canadian roots.
“So it’s not like I’m going to sully the history of the Maple Leafs by them bringing in an American,” he said. “The reason I became an American citizen at the time was to play in the world championships.
“Back in 1975, Canada still didn’t participate in that event. So I thought it would be a great opportunity and a great experience.”