Wilson hits the right note

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

Ron Wilson swears that his deal to coach the Maple Leafs has nothing to do with Brian Burke eventually becoming general manager of the hockey club.

And frankly, we believe him.

Maybe, this summer Burke will become general manager. Or maybe, the coming hockey season will be filled with more Burke-to-Toronto stories. Or maybe -- and more likely -- Cliff Fletcher will operate the Leafs throughout the coming National Hockey League season with the intent of handing the baton to Burke next summer.

PURE FLETCHER

But make no mistake: The hiring of Wilson as the 27th coach of the Maple Leafs (26 if you count that John Brophy never really coached much) was pure Fletcher. It wasn't done because Burke happens to be the godfather of Wilson's daughter. It wasn't done because Burke got Wilson his first job or that the two still raise money together for Providence College.

It was done for a simple reason. Fletcher figured he was the only choice for the job. "I told (CEO) Richard Peddie and (board chairman) Larry Tanenbaum that he was the one I was zeroing in on," Fletcher said. "They said 'Who else are you going to interview?'

"I said nobody.

"In the 25 years I've been running hockey teams I've never conducted an interview process for coaches. I had it in my mind who I wanted to hire. And I went after him."

Laugh, if you want, but this is how Fletcher operates. The man does know coaches.

When he needed to change the culture of a fat-cat, lazy team in Calgary, he brought in this little-known college coach named Badger Bob Johnson. "I remember thinking 'Bob Johnson? Where'd that one come from?'" Wilson said.

And when he needed to change the culture of a rather desperate and pathetic Maple Leafs team he inherited in 1991, he snatched Pat Burns from the Montreal Canadiens.

This is another of those challenges. This is Wilson's turn to live up to his own -- and someone else's -- expectations.

He says he doesn't care who is running the Leafs so long as Fletcher is around. We may doubt the man in his second time around: Wilson doesn't. "I can't imagine working for anyone better in the game," Wilson said.

So even when it seems that up is often down with the Leafs, the fact that Fletcher said he wouldn't hire a coach, would give way to the incoming general manager and play the part of caretaker and then did just about the opposite -- doesn't mean any of this is problematic.

Wilson can coach. Ask anyone who has ever played for him. Calle Johansson, who played defence for him in Washington, called him the best coach he ever played for. Jim Nill, who is everybody's choice to be the next GM hired somewhere down the line, said the hiring of Wilson brings "instant credibility" to the Leafs.

The Leafs need someone who can coach. They need someone to do what Badger Bob did in Calgary -- take an ordinary roster and make it more than that.

Johnson did that masterfully with Al MacInnis, with Joel Otto, with Jamie Macoun, with so many players who weren't expected to be any good.

"I understand the cupboard may be a little bare," said Wilson, who isn't predicting big things in his first year. He isn't making many promises, only that the Leafs will be better prepared, better trained, and more defensive than they were in recent seasons.

"I'm not the anti-Christ I've been painted out to be," said Wilson, who was well into his third hour of media interviews yesterday on his first official day as head coach. He answered every question asked and some that weren't. He made eye contract. He tried to call people by their names. He shook hands, would have kissed babies if they were there. He even flashed his Canadian passport to demonstrate citizenship.

ONLY ONE CHANCE

There's only one chance to make a good first impression and Wilson did just that.

Near as we can figure, he made only one mistake yesterday. He told the story about being born in the same Windsor hospital as Peddie. He said it with a certain reverence. Guess he hasn't been around long enough to know that nobody in the sports world wants their name associated with Peddie.

He'll learn. The coaching part he already knows.

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WILSON SAYS

"I'm not the anti-Christ."

-- on his reputation as a confrontational coach.

"Mark has shown remorse, he's paid his debt to society and done it like a pro. It's more important to take care of Mark Bell the person."

-- on bringing back his ex-Shark to the lineup.

"It was easy to play an 18-year-old defenceman in San Jose. You have one camera, one beat reporter, once a month."

-- on the pressure a young Leafs draft pick will face.

"We'll have more good days than bad. We'll have some duels, but that's the fun part. I laugh at some of the things I've (supposedly) said and did. If I did, I'd be a Sybil-type coach with different personalities."

-- on relating to the media.

"Roger Neilson was Captain Video, so I could certainly become Captain Computer."

-- on his use of technology.

"I believe the top four teams in the league are in the West, but the East has better travel and more quality practice time. That matters if you have a younger team."

-- on changing conferences.


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