Players jump to Wilson's side

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:29 PM ET

TORONTO - The Maple Leafs were not required to sign a blood oath to Ron Wilson upon returning from the all-star break.

But general manager Brian Burke and a number of them did stand up for the absent coach on Monday after his name and methods were sullied in a Hockey Night In Canada- NHL Players Association poll. Of 318 players who participated, 24% named Wilson as the coach they’d least like to play for, compared to 15% for the next closest pick, John Tortorella of the New York Rangers. Toronto as a job destination also ranked fourth-worst behind Long Island, Edmonton and Atlanta, at 5%.

“Eight veteran free agents have signed here in the last two years,” Burke shot back in an e-mail, “and virtually every high-profile entry level free agent. Toronto is the hockey capital of the world.”

The Leafs have not made the playoffs for five years and are close to missing a third straight year under Wilson. But though the coach often does little to dispel his nettlesome reputation, the Leafs rarely show the classic symptoms of a team that quits on its coach. With solid goalkeeping, they could just as likely reel off a three-game winning streak as their current three- game losing skid.

Whether Wison is around next September is another matter, but Burke has been in his corner all this season and a discouraging word could not be found at the MasterCard Centre on Monday afternoon when the poll was re-hashed in the dressing room.

“He’s given me all the opportunity,” said free agent Tyler Bozak, who was plucked from the undrafted NCAA ranks and made the No. 1 centre for stretches last year and early this year. “I love it here and I love playing for him. I definitely didn’t put him (on the poll). I can’t say who voted that way,

“Every coach is different and every player handles it differently. I was coached by my Dad growing up and I was probably the one he was hardest on. I’ve also had coaches who are hard on you, coaches who are light on you. You just have to listen to them, A lot have their own ways of getting through to you.”

Goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere also expressed surprise the results reflected so badly on Wilson.

“I like Ron, he has been super nice to me and I wasn’t one of the guys who voted against him. That’s all I can say. I don’t know what other people think.

“You can learn a lot from different coaches. Some guys are better communicators, some are better at pushing guys. Some are better at X’s and O’s. Everyone has their different style.”

“I don’t mind anything that goes on here,” added new winger Mike Brown said. “I heard a little bit about the poll, but I can’t say who voted that way.”

The staunchest defence, not surprisingly, came from assistant coach Tim Hunter, who has been with Wilson since the 1990s with the Washington Capitals.

“It was a poll, three hundred and some odd players and not the whole league,” Hunter said. “Ron’s record speaks for iteslf, 600 wins, 1,300 games coached, a Canada Cup, an Olympic silver medal.”

“Last I checked,” he added, “coaching is not a popularity contest.”

Hunter also tried to put the negativity towards Toronto in perspective, saying times can change.

“If we were to put ourselves back in the 1980s, if you were a player, where would you want to play? Edmonton or the New York Islanders (two dynasties that now rank 1-2 in undesirable locales).”

Giguere can understand where the doubts about playing in Toronto originate.

“There are two factors. We haven’t made the playoffs in six years and that’s not very appealing to some players.

“The other part, you guys (the omnipresent Toronto media) could ask yourselves. But everyone sees it in a different way. At the end of the day, you treat people with respect and they will treat you back the same way.”


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