TORONTO – Ron Wilson has already seen the kind of stress the comes with coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He was taking a walk along Santana Row in San Jose earlier this year when the struggling Leafs were in town and happened to spot Toronto coach Paul Maurice across the street.
Even though Wilson was well aware of all the speculation surrounding the team at that time, he was surprised to see the large bags under Maurice’s eyes.
“I said, ‘Geez Paul, you look like a guy who could use a good hug,”‘ Wilson recalled. “So I gave him a big hug on the street. He thought I was crazy.
“We talked a little bit and I told him: ‘You’ve got to keep your head high. It’s a tough business and you’re going to have your ups and downs.”‘
It’s the kind of advice Wilson might want to write down and save for a later date, especially after officially replacing Maurice as the head coach of the Maple Leafs on Tuesday.
He’s the 20th different man – including interim coaches – to step behind the team’s bench since it last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.
Even Wilson acknowledged that there is a lot work to be done if the Cup is to return to Toronto during his tenure. The Maple Leafs are in the midst of one of the worst stretches in franchise history, having not qualified for the playoffs since before the NHL lockout started.
“Everybody’s talking here like the Leafs have sucked for 41 years or whatever it is,” said Wilson. “They came pretty close five, six years ago to winning a Cup.
“You need a break, you need a bounce and you need patience.”
Patience has been in short supply for a fanbase that has continually been disappointed by its team. Maurice famously said during training camp last year that the Leafs were ready to compete for the Stanley Cup, only to watch as they fell well short of that goal.
Expectations will be much lower next season when Wilson takes over what is expected to be a fairly inexperienced lineup. During previous stops in Anaheim, Washington and San Jose, Wilson developed a reputation for getting the most out of his young players.
“I think he’s everything we need here in Toronto,” said interim GM Cliff Fletcher. “He’s one of the top coaches in the league.”
He was also the only candidate Fletcher interviewed for the job.
Wilson spent the past five years with a Sharks team that became one of the NHL’s best under his watch, but couldn’t quite get over the top. He was fired after a loss to Dallas in the second round of the playoffs.
It was his work with young players like Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo, Matt Carle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic that caught Fletcher’s eye. There aren’t currently many up-and-comers in the Leafs locker-room who have displayed that kind of talent but Fletcher is hoping that might change.
“We do have nine NHL players that are 25 and under,” he said. “None of those players may be A players (right now) but hopefully under Ron’s coaching we can develop some of them.”
Another area that he’ll need to focus on is defence, which just happens to be another of his specialities.
Only three NHL teams allowed more goals against than the Maple Leafs last season and Wilson is committed to improving that stat.
“This team needs a little bit more structure defensively (and) needs to do a better job killing penalties,” he said. “I think I can help make a difference.”
If all goes well, the Leafs could be turned into playoff contenders within two years.
“As a coach, you just want to put yourself in a position to knock on the door,” said Wilson. “And if we can be knocking on the door in two years, I think that will be a tremendous accomplishment.
“Then we’ve just got to knock the door down.”
One of the ways he’ll try and do it is by using technology.
His grandfather was a communications director for Canadian Pacific Railway and taught him to type at age eight. Wilson has tried to stay ahead of the curve since and recognized that he would need a coaching “niche” after his modest NHL playing career ended in 1988.
That’s when he decided to use computers to help break down plays and keep track of stats and notes.
“Every game I’ve coached, every gameplan, every practice,” Wilson said of what could be found on his hard drive.
His first taste of NHL coaching came as an assistant to Pat Quinn with the Vancouver Canucks in the early 1990s.
Quinn, who would go on to have more success than any Leafs coach since 1967, instilled in Wilson lessons that he still draws on.
“I was able to use all of the stuff that I learned from Pat Quinn – to be prepared,” said Wilson. “Preparation is the key to everything in life (and) success.
“If you prepare you’ll be successful.”
But is he prepared for the scrutiny he’s sure to face in Toronto?
When Wilson played parts of three seasons for the Maple Leafs in the 1970s, he and some of his teammates would commute into games together on a commuter train.
“That couldn’t happen now,” he said.
The world has changed and there is more pressure than ever on professional athletes and coaches.
Wilson knows he might have to wear a disguise when he goes to a movie during a losing streak but isn’t concerned about the scrutiny he’s sure to face in the coming years. In fact, he welcomes it.
“Bring it on,” he says.