OPEN MIC: San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson

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Jim Kelley

Ron Wilson is a career hockey coach. He's had other jobs — TV commentator, analyst and the like — but they were all related to his core job, hockey coach. Before being named to replace the fired Darryl Sutter as coach of the San Jose on Dec. 4, 2002, Wilson had been coach of the Washington and coach of the of Anaheim. He's also coached at the U.S. national team level and in international competitions, including the Olympics. Coincidentally, Wilson was all but offered the San Jose job several seasons ago but opted instead to sign with Washington. The then went to Darryl Sutter on the rebound. Heading into Thursday night's game with the Pittsburgh , Wilson, 47, had a NHL career record of 312-312-82 in 702 NHL games. That may look mediocre, but Wilson has a track record for taking teams from nowhere and building them into something. He also has had playoff success with teams that weren't expected to win, including one appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, a memorable Caps run through the Eastern Conference in 1998 that ended with a one-sided loss (four games to none) to the Detroit . FOXSports.com talked to Wilson during the time he was unemployed (between the Washington and San Jose gigs) and supplemented that conversation with portions of a telephone interview arranged by the NHL and the on Tuesday. Portions of that interview have been edited for space and clarity. FOXSports.com: You were let go late last off-season, pretty much at a time when a lot of vacancies were filled. Did you anticipate getting back into the game this early? Ron Wilson: I was, I guess, hoping that I could get back into the game quickly, but I wanted to make sure the situation was going to be right for me. On the other hand, not to be flippant, but as some would say beggars can't be choosers. However, this turned out to be an ideal situation, I guess, and when I was contacted after Darryl (Sutter) was let go by (Sharks general manager) Dean Lombardi I needed a few minutes to think about it. But when I gathered my thoughts, I thought, well, I couldn't pick a better team to take over in midseason.
NAME: Ron Wilson
POSITION: Head coach of the San Jose
OTHER JOBS: Head coach Washington and of Anaheim.
WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW HIM: Because he's a hockey thoroughbred. His father, Larry, and his uncle Johnny both played in the NHL (for Detroit) and later coached there. After a stunning career at Providence College (two-time All American and led the U.S. in scoring in 1975) the American-born Wilson was drafted by the Toronto and had a brief NHL career. He also played six seasons in Europe and returned to the NHL for a brief stint with the former Minnesota North . Wilson is also a fixture in international hockey coaching circles. He coached the 1998 U.S. Olympic team in Nagano, the first U.S. team to use NHL players. He finished out of medal contention there, but he won gold in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and twice coached U.S. teams in the World Championships. He was the first coach of the of Anaheim and coached there four seasons before moving on to Washington. With the Caps, in addition to a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998, he won two division titles and directed the team to a 102-point season in 2000-01. The Caps however, did not win a playoff series in his last four seasons there, and the team missed the playoffs by two points last season (36-33-11-2), a result that eventually led to his firing.

FOXSports.com: Were you looking for this kind of a situation? RW: In the back of my mind I was prepared to take the year off. I wasn't ever going to call anybody and express an interest in anything, and San Jose initiated the whole thing after Darryl was let go. It caught me off-guard, I can tell you that. I wasn't prepared or sitting at home preparing or doing anything like that to take over any team. I was a fan and doing my stuff with (Canadian-based sports network) TSN and enjoying it. Doing the work with TSN certainly rekindled my interest. If TSN didn't ask me to come up and do some TV work, I don't know where my mind would have been to be honest with you. FOXSports.com: During your time in Anaheim, and to some degree in Washington, you were looked upon as a coach who was helping teams build for the future. The situation in San Jose is pretty much a "win now" situation. Is there an adjustment necessary in the way you approach this team? RW: Well, there's no doubt that the team is built, but I wouldn't be coaching the team if there wasn't something wrong up to this point. I don't know what the best word is for it, underachieve, through the first third of the season essentially. And I am just right now trying to get a feel for the players and how they played in the past and try to mesh that in with my philosophies on the game or how I coach. And this past weekend was very good for me to be able to not so much spend so much time practicing, but seeing maybe some areas that need improvement. And we have been able to start practicing hard this week and trying to fix those things that kind of more mesh with my philosophy and how the game should be played or how I like to coach. FOXSports.com: What kind of things? RW: It would sound like I am knocking Darryl Sutter and I am not. We're different coaches. I am just trying to get the group to play as a cohesive unit. And for various reasons they haven't been in terms of offense and defense this year. In some ways maybe because of a holdout or an injury, and the team never really being able to put the full lineup on the ice until the last couple of weeks. I am trying to get the guys up to speed and get to know them (the players) personally as much as I can in short order, but you know, it's the first time I have ever done it like this. I have had experiences coaching, whether it's a U.S. national team at the World Championships, the Olympics, or the World Cup, where you only have a couple of practices to prepare and away you go. But the advantage you have there is that you know a lot of the players from previous teams in the World Championships, etc. This is a group of guys, with the exception of , I do not know personally and I don't understand their habits and traits. Had I been previously coaching a Western Conference team and came to the , I'd have a better idea of what they are about than what I do right now. So I am trying to be as quick a study as I possibly can. FOXSports.com: What about specifics? RW: I am trying to instill a little bit more creativity, in particular, from the defense. Getting the defense more involved in joining the attack, and that's what we have been practicing in fits and starts on the weekends, not so much the first game, where we really didn't have any time to prepare. In the second game even though we lost it, we were much improved in terms of our defensemen being a part of the attack. I want to get it to where our team thinks of the game as a five-man unit when they step on the ice, five guys on the attack when we have the puck, and five guys working in a concerted effort to get it back when we don't have the puck. FOXSports.com: Five-man units including the same defenseman playing with the same forwards? RW: No, not like that. But I want the group when they are on the ice to think as one, five guys as one. And so far I have seen, it's kind of like three forwards are thinking about scoring, and the two defenders are thinking about defending, and I want it where all five guys are participating in the offense and, likewise, defensively. FOXSports.com: That indicates a major change is in the works yet it's hard to install a new system without benefit of a training camp. Is this going to be difficult? RW: Well, certainly you feel a different sort of pressure altogether, and it's not that easy. But I am going to try and do my best. You can't, you know, those sayings, you can't build Rome in a day and that is for sure. But I can tweak things as we move forward and hopefully you will see us gradually developing into a different kind of a team with my stamp on it. I can't fix too many things without overly confusing our team. I am trying my best not to confuse these guys or confuse them anymore than I am already. FOXSports.com: The are perhaps best known for their ability to score goals. There's a good and deep core of forwards. Your reputation is in offense, but with offense from defense being a big part of the game. How do you see using the defensemen with San Jose? RW: Well, they are physical. But you look at a defenseman like , he can play physical, but he's also very capable of joining the rush and has great offensive skills, and I want to utilize them more as he gets healthier as we move along. I think has made a breakthrough this year contributing to the offense. And then you've got a young kid like who has incredible offensive potential, but he's still learning how to play the game. The other defensemen ... I mean, I had, for example, playing the point in the power play the other night in a 5-on-3 situation. And he made one of the nicer plays I have seen in two or three years setting up on a nice one-timer goal. So it's there. Obviously some guys are blessed with more talent and natural ability than others, but that doesn't mean the other guys can't learn and improve their skill set and that's what I am going to set out to do. The longer I am here the more I can do it, but in the immediate future we're trying to get everybody to feel confident to handle the puck and to be a part of the attack. Because I will tell you, as you know, you watch the games, if the other team has three people back and you are attacking with just three you are going nowhere. You have got to have a fourth man and sometimes a fifth man involved in the attack ... just as decoys and more often than not to be involved so that you can be a major part of the offense. I have been fortunate enough to have that in Washington with — he's led the league in goals from defensemen the last couple of years, and in Anaheim we had different people accomplishing that from early to and eventually Dmitri Mironov. FOXSports.com: Very soon on the schedule you go up against the organization that fired you, the Washington . How will you approach that? RW: One of the hardest games I have coached in, emotionally, was the first time I went back to Anaheim. That was difficult from an emotional point of view ... but I don't know. In this situation, it doesn't bother me so much. We're playing here in San Jose. I don't have to worry about going back to Washington in Washington this year. They already played there. Obviously I am going to have some feelings in the game. You spend five years and you give up a lot in an organization, you still have some special feelings for people and I have a lot of friends there. But we have to win the game and hopefully we can prepare to do that. But I am not going to overstress this game to the rest of the team. It's a very important game whether it's Washington or Pittsburgh, or whomever we happen to be playing. Every game is equally as important and I would never ask them to go up there and try harder because the Caps let me go. Every player in that room, for the most part, or a lot of guys in the room have been let go by a franchise and that's not how you operate. FOXSports.com: You're coming into a difficult situation. The team is expected to win, the division and the conference are very difficult and you're behind in the standings. How do you view the task ahead? RW: I am one of those guys who went on TV on opening night and said that there was a possibility that San Jose could come out of the West just because you know, in the West it's been, I guess you'd say, a three-team show for the last 10 years — it's Colorado, Dallas, and Detroit battling it out. And I thought well, geez, there's a team (the ) that has just had kind of a taste of it, came pretty close to upsetting Colorado last year, and because they haven't had to go through the wars that the other teams have had, they might have an advantage. (It's been) the other three teams, and then you can always throw in St. Louis as being competitive and the over the last three, four years. It's a very tough conference to come out of. I mean, right now, it's not looking very good for us because we're, I guess, six or seven points out of the playoff spot with a bunch of teams ahead of us. We have got a tough road to go. (We have) a nice favorable schedule after the new year but we have got to somehow survive and not lose any ground from now until the new year. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Red Wings, Devils, Sharks, Maple Leafs, Capitals, Ducks, Mike Rathje, Scott Hannan, Brad Stuart, Sergei Gonchar, Jeff Jillson

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