Reluctant taskmaster

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson isn't about to change his outspoken, gruff style now....

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson isn't about to change his outspoken, gruff style now. (Greg Henkenhaf/Toronto Sun)

STEVE SIMMONS

, Last Updated: 1:02 PM ET

Ron Wilson isn't about to change -- not for you, not for me, certainly not for Don Cherry.

He will continue to be caustic, outspoken, combative, demanding, whatever it takes for him to succeed as coach of the Maple Leafs, and he let us in on a little secret in an hour-long interview yesterday: He actually enjoys the sometimes nasty game of give-and-take with the Toronto media.

"I really don't care about the feuds, the fights," said Wilson, just days away from the opening of the Leafs rookie camp.

"I'm not going to back away from that. If anything, Brian (Burke) and I are cut from the same cloth. We have our opinions and you have to have the strength of character to back them up. But if that means having some moments that get a little frosty, that's actually a somewhat fun part of the job."

In his second season with the Leafs, Wilson has yet to be easily defined. He isn't always what he seems from afar. He isn't, in private, sarcastic or abrasive. He is thoughtful and anecdotal.

"I had to come across harder and more stern than I was comfortable with," Wilson said. "I had to make a point last year. I had to come across a lot harder than I was actually comfortable with being."

It was all part of a plan. His way of beginning the culture change for the Maple Leafs.

"I didn't think we had good leadership in the room," Wilson said. "We had a lot of followers and there's nothing wrong with that. I had to be a lot more assertive and demanding because there wasn't anybody in the room capable of doing that."

His methods ignited a rather one-sided battle with Cherry, the Hockey Night In Canada voice, who no longer refers to Wilson by name. Cherry calls him "The Genius" in mocking terms. He has taken Wilson to task on numerous occasions, both on television and radio, questioning the way he singles out players, points fingers, places blame, direspects those he coaches.

"I have no idea what that's all about," Wilson said of Cherry. "But I'm not about to compromise my methods just to please Don Cherry. It seemed no matter what I did, he was all over me. Things get a little blown out of proportion here. Last year, I sat out Matt Stajan once and I sat out Jason Blake twice and I got the impression, if you listened to Don Cherry, I was sitting out three or four guys a night. I sat two guys a total of three nights. That's all.

"(Tomas) Kaberle was sat down for one period. One period? That was the funny part for me. There was this assumption that I was doing this all the time. And you had the feeling I was sitting out superstars.

"I'll use Stajan as an example. He had, like, one point or something in 33 games and I sat him out one game. And the issues were different with Jason Blake. It was the length of shifts he was taking. I clearly said to him: 'This is unacceptable.' If you want to dare me, watch what I'll do. He did it again and he sat out -- and I never had an issue with him again.

"Last year, I sat out two guys and both players responded. Blake had as many points and he's ever had and Stajan had his best season, almost doubling his production, while playing less minutes. At the end of the day, what we did was necessary and judicious."

Wilson doesn't think he'll have to be as heavy handed this season. "We've brought in different types of people. The (Mike) Komisareks, (Garnet) Exelbys, (Colton) Orrs, (Wayne) Primeaus bring a hard and solid work ethic. I believe we will have better leadership. It means I won't have to yell as much. Sometimes that can be confusing for a young player. You're laughing and joking with them and then 20 minutes later you're hammering away at them for not working hard enough. Some had a difficult time coming to grips with that."

Wilson believes the Cherry image of him, and the image portrayed by much of the media, paints a stereotypical picture of him as a coach, rather than a more-rounded image.

"In our world, we have images of what coaches are supposed to be. We see that in the movies. But I'm not about to be anybody's stereotype and I'm not about to compromise because it fouls up somebody else's view of what a coach is supposed to be or act like. At the end of the day, I'll be measured by how many wins and how many losses."

Like Burke, Wilson likes the improvement the Leafs have made in the off-season. He especially is excited about an improved defence with Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin and Exelby and what he believes will be a large improvement in goal.

"How do I define success for the year?" said Wilson, repeating the question. "Our essential goal is to try and make the playoffs. I think our goaltending will be much better. Tosk (Vesa Toskala) will be healthy and (Jonas) Gustvasson will help. And I think the competition of Tosk, being pushed hard by (coach) Francois Allaire and by Gustavsson, will make us better."

This is one of Wilson's largest challenges: The Leafs were the worst in the NHL in penalty-killing last season and worst in goals against. They can't get better in one area without getting better in the other. And the problem deepens when you consider that the new tough Leafs will take more penalties than they did last year, and will want to reduce goals against by at least 60 to get themselves into a competitive position.

"Can you reasonably go from 30th in the league to 10th (in goals against and penalty killing)? That's a huge jump," Wilson said. "We could trap and be a really dull team but it's not our attitude to do so. We want to be a fun team to watch.

"If we accomplished anything last year, it was that and having a never-say-die attitude. To make the playoffs, we need 93 points. We have to find a way to win five more games. It's my job to figure that out."

STEVE.SIMMONS@SUNMEDIA.CA


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