Seeking the promised land

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:06 AM ET

Ron Wilson "lived and died" with the Maple Leafs as a young fan in the 1960s and thrived on four Stanley Cups.

But as their new coach, saddled with a bare-bones' roster, nine players under 25 and a 41-year Cup drought, he'll need all of his famous humour, bravado and hockey smarts to survive the next few seasons.

Wilson officially came aboard yesterday, four years at $6.5 million US, the highest salary for a Leafs coach and one he'll no doubt have to earn. His mandate is clear, to change the losing culture, even if it means taking a step backward with a green lineup.

"You can't build Rome in a day, but you can peel it back and decide who stays and who goes," Wilson said. "Your players have to be given the right amount of sunshine and you've got to get rid of the weeds."

Best case scenario, the Leafs take a page from the Philadelphia Flyers, who went from last in the NHL two years ago to 95 points.

"I won't say in two years that it will be 1967 again. But you want to put yourself in position where you're knocking on the door. Then we'll be in position to knock it down."

Wilson goes from a Cup contender in San Jose to a team that has missed the playoff boat three straight years. That was under the watch of two coaches, Pat Quinn and Paul Maurice, whom Wilson greatly admired, which underlines just how tough his task will be.

"Maybe I'm the guy who can bring a new perspective," Wilson said. "I get pleasure out of helping young guys reach their potential. I'll go down swinging, making sure young guys will buy what I'm selling.

"You look at where I came from, every year we were putting three and four (rookies) into the lineup."

But this team carries an additional burden, decades of failure in the world's most heavily scrutinized hockey city. Wilson, who joked that his move to the United States in '67 was the root of the Cup hex, will have to steel his team's psyche for the years ahead.

"I don't worry about curses," Wilson said. "The New York Rangers buried their curse (54 years ending in 1994). The New York Yankees are my team and one of the worst days of my life was when the Red Sox came back from 3-0 and that Babe Ruth curse went out the window.

"Everyone seems to think the Leafs have sucked for 41 years. But a couple of times, they were a bounce away here and there. (In the late '70s when he played), they had a great team that was dismantled. You have to be patient. If the Red Wings don't win a Cup next year, they won't fire Mike Babcock and trade six guys."

Interim general manager Cliff Fletcher, beaming like a proud papa yesterday, firmly believes he has got the right man at the right time, just as he did with Pat Burns in 1992.

"Where Ron has really done well is putting young players in a situation where they'll have success, and that's critical," Fletcher said. "Look at the way he introduced Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo into the lineup and those young defencemen, Matthew Carle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

"None of those (nine young Leafs) may be 'A' players right now, but hopefully under Ron's coaching, we can develop some of them. I recall back in Calgary when we brought Bob Johnson in, he made Al MacInnis into a hockey player and he became a hall of famer."


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