Wilson fits Leafs mould

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:04 PM ET

At last look, a U.S. marine colour guard wasn't raising the stars and stripes at the Air Canada Centre to mark the first American citizen to coach the Maple Leafs.

Tough-talking, true-blue Yank Ron Wilson (his Windsor birth certificate was exchanged long ago) is home in South Carolina tonight, mulling over a multi-year offer from Toronto.

"We'll probably touch base this weekend, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have other (job) options," interim general manager Cliff Fletcher said.

Coaching vacancies still exist in Ottawa, Atlanta, Florida and as of yesterday, Tampa Bay, where John Tortorella was let go, though Barry Melrose is poised to replace him.

Reports on Monday had Wilson being given the keys to Paul Maurice's old office, but the delay could simply be an unwillingness on the Leafs' part to hijack any more of the Stanley Cup spotlight than their pursuit of Wilson and/or Brian Burke already has.

The abrasive Wilson isn't to all tastes. But given his 518 career wins and that three springs have lapsed since the Leafs made the playoffs, no one's likely to care if he snaps at players, media and fans, or even wears that loud red, white n' blue tie from Team USA's 1996 World Cup win.

"He's a good fit for what we're looking for," Fletcher said after two days of interviews. "We met, it was very straightforward and he has gone back to talk about our offer with his family."

Wilson, a Leafs defenceman from the Roger Neilson era who rose to eighth in NHL coaching wins, eventually will be hired elsewhere if not with Toronto.

"We're looking for a lot of things," Fletcher said. "Someone who has patience with younger players and Ron has certainly shown that with one of the youngest teams in the league in San Jose. He has coached more than 1,000 games."

Fletcher, whom many believe is building a Burke-style team to hand over to Anaheim's lame-duck GM at a later date, also wants a mentally tougher and physically stronger club next season.

What's interesting is that Wilson was let go in San Jose partly because he was judged too harsh on a star-studded lineup that failed to meet its Stanley Cup potential. In Toronto, where recent coaches Maurice and Pat Quinn often coddled a middle-of-the-road lineup, a more hard-ass sort might just be the tonic.

During an intermission of a Sharks' game this year, Wilson is said to have scribbled the names of Matt Carle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Milan Michalek on the dressing room board and embarrassed them in front the whole team by stating: "These are the guys that are letting us down."

Watching a Leafs squad that carries several big-ticket, underwhelming players, many fans would gladly approve of such tough-love tactics.

Wilson belongs to Quinn's Vancouver mafia, made up of coaches and execs who owe their break in the NHL to the ex-Leaf GM /coach when he was president of the Canucks. Wilson was assistant coach there from 1990-93. The crew includes Burke, whose successor as Canucks' GM, Dave Nonis, has been courted by the Leafs as either GM or Burke's eventual associate, plus

Washington Capitals' GM George McPhee, who hired Wilson to coach after his first job with the expansion Anaheim Ducks.

Wilson took the Caps to the 1998 Cup final, losing to Detroit.

When Quinn gave up the GM's post in Toronto, he wanted Burke's assistant Steve Tambellini as his replacement, but had to settle for compromise candidate John Ferguson Jr.

Ex-Leafs captain Darryl Sittler recalls Wilson the teammate had excellent vision on the ice, was a pin-point passer with no lack of confidence in his abilities.

"It's said he has a (harder) personality than a lot of coaches, but if you look at the NBA and the NFL, a lot of them are like that," Sittler said yesterday. "I've watched his career from a distance; he chose a path and worked hard at it.

"People want to measure success in Stanley Cups, but there are 30 teams after it these days. The coach needs skilled and talented players to work with, but the true measure of a coach is whether he gets the most out of every man on the team.

"That he's an American should be no more an issue than teams in the U.S. who've found success with Canadians as their GMs and coaches. You just want to win."

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WILSON FILE

- Father Larry and uncle Johnny both won Stanley Cups with the Red Wings.

- Picked 132nd overall in the 1975 draft by the Leafs. Toronto's crop that year included future NHL GM Ken Holland (Detroit), coach Bruce Boudreau (Washington) and assistant coach Doug Jarvis (Montreal).

Other Leafs draft picks who went on to coach: Rick Ley, Ron Low, Rick Kehoe and Joel Quenneville, plus Gerry Meehan as GM.

- Ron wore No. 11 for the Leafs and briefly, 14, his favourite Leaf being Dave Keon.

- His first Leafs game was March 4, 1978, a 4-3 win over Vancouver. He played 70 regular season and playoff games, ending his career with Minnesota.

- A scratch golfer, he almost qualified for the 2005 U.S. Open.

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THE QUOTABLE WILSON

"We put an end to what people have said openly and in hushed tones even now, that Americans don't have the grit."

-- on winning the

1996 World Cup

"Our motto was 'the 15th round.' Apollo (Creed) says to Rocky, 'I'm going to knock you out,' Rocky says, 'No way.' At the end they both collapse to the mat. If Apollo gets up, he wins. But Rocky does, just like we did tonight."

-- at the World Cup

"The Hoti Indians have a saying: 'One finger can't lift a pebble but

five can.'

-- on teamwork

"What bugs you is that people who aren't in the know do this stuff to act like they're in the know. But people who are in the know, know that those guys aren't in the know. Know what I mean?"

-- on the hype surrounding the NHL trade deadline

"We feel Nabokov is a top-5 goalie in this league and we think Vesa is not far behind that ... He will be very good. You just watch."

-- supporting ex-Shark Vesa Toskala after his slow start as a Leaf


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