There is a rule when a coach gets fired.
Write about the new guy. The guy heading out the door is known all too well.
The new guy is Randy Carlyle, in case you haven’t heard.
Indulge me for writing about the old guy.
Ron Wilson will work again. It’s in his blood.
He’s a father, a brother, a grandfather and a husband and he is Larry Wilson’s son and Johnny Wilson’s nephew.
Ron Wilson is a hockey guy the way a Kennedy is a political guy.
To him, Toronto was his ancestral home. It was a vocation to him.
For a decade or so, the family lived in Fort Erie and on game days, Ron, maybe 10 years old, and his brother would skip across the Peace Bridge with their dad and shoot tape pucks at each other. The boys would head home and enjoy their pre-game nap. All three would awake to mid-afternoon steaks. Then all three would don their suit and drive back across their bridge for the night’s work.
Wilson’s first day as Leaf coach brought a closure that was profoundly important to him.
Larry Wilson was 48 and had nicely made the transition from player to coach when he set out for a jog. His heart stopped along the way and while his brother Johnny would continue the Wilson name through Detroit, Colorado and Pittsburgh, the famous hockey family was breached.
You have to know that for the Wilson boys even the coffee table was a classroom. Larry and his boys would arrange salt shakers and water glasses to illustrate breakouts and power play formations. Ron was 23 when his Dad died. He had just wrapped up his one and only season with the Maple Leafs.
Wilson did not make the playoffs in nearly four years of trying, although the first three years Scotty Bowman would have been hard pressed to reach eighth.
While he was habitually described as aloof, Wilson had time for the people who weren’t as important as he was. Once, en route to a scrum, a meek man approached him and explained that he was involved in a coaching program somewhere on the east coast. Wilson gave him 10 minutes, 10 real minutes of conversation. To Wilson, they were both coaches, both locked in the same racket.
He is not warm. He yelled at officials and his clipped sarcasm was sometimes seeped out. Those who had enjoyed the privilege said he was fine company at dinner. He adored his two grandkids and his first wife, Maureen, remains his first.
He is a hockey coach, one of a long and proud line of hockey coaches who probably wanted to coach the Leafs since the horrible day he learned his father never would.
For what it’s worth, he held the reins while his buddy Brian Burke reconstituted the Leafs. Three years is the magic line in hockey coaches. He got that far and a bit more.
For all the talk of Armageddon Carlyle walks into a palatable situation.
Carlyle, 55, has a lovely pedigree for the job. He is the first coach with a Stanley Cup ring to slide into the big chair since Punch Imlach. A former Leaf he is tough-minded and defensively oriented.
At this writing the Leafs are five points out of the playoffs with 18 games to play. That’s the good news. They stand in 11th place right now. That’s the bad.
Carlyle’s mandate, of course, is much different than Wilson’s. He doesn’t have three years to produce a winner. It seems impossible to write this about the Leafs job but the new guy will find a higher level of risk and, if negotiated successfully, reward.