Perhaps you recall, as I did, the near universal reaction to the announcement of Ron Wilson as head coach of the 2010 United States Olympic hockey team last April: a collective yawn. By the spring of 2009 Wilson had accumulated a Larry Brown-like pedigree of mediocre coaching journeyman, as well as perceived failure with talented rosters: stud-laden San Jose, with whom he never lost more than 27 regular season games, and Washington with Jaromir Jagr wearing the Capitals’ crest, but largely doomed in the postseason in both stints. He guided the Anaheim Mighty Ducks through their first four years in the league, and after more than 15 years in the NHL he had a lone Stanley Cup finals as his calling card. He was “sentenced” to bench duty in Toronto in 2008 by virtue of sticking around in the NHL as a well-traveled bench boss, never quite good enough to stick around any one locale very long, never enough a failure to be out of work long.
Wilson enjoyed a lone instance of success in international hockey — quite notably, in the 1996 World Cup — but that amazing victory seemed an outlier relative to the rest of his coaching work, and most particularly relative to the flameout by his Americans in the Nagano Olympics in 1998. The Americans in ’98 played four games and lost three of them, defeating only Belarus, and were at their most aggressive in Japanese bars in the middle of the night during the Games before embarking on a rampage of their lodgings in the Olympic village. Fairly or unfairly, Wilson was scapegoated.
The American entry in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympic Games would be a rebuilding roster, a transition team of promise but conspicuous inexperience, a marked contrast from the legacy veterans who had well-served the Red, White, and Blue for a decade-plus. So why not consign them to a grizzled disciplinarian of whom no one would reasonably expect much?
This morning Ron Wilson is potentially 30 hours away from staking claim alongside Herb Brooks as the most accomplished American coach in international competition of the past 50 years. Take down the Canucks on their home ice on Sunday afternoon, add a gold medal to his World Cup winning effort of ’96, and Ron Wilson needn’t apologize to anyone for the achievements of his coaching career. And lest we forget, he guided the Capitals to their lone Stanley Cup finals appearance, in 1998.
The postscript for such success surely would read: in short durations, Wils is an able and effective leader, but alas he wears his welcome out relatively fast. After all, the Cup finals appearance with the Caps occurred in Wilson’s first season in D.C., nothing notable achieved in a postseason here thereafter.
Perhaps it is so. But you can’t ignore what Wilson has done in what are arguably two of the most star-studded tournaments in hockey history. The Americans’ victory over Canada in a best-of-three finals format in the ’96 World Cup — again on Canadian ice — stunned the entire hockey world. Go back over the rosters for that tournament and you appreciate the enormity of the American achievement. This month, no one had this American team pegged for the finals on Sunday. And the Canadians left Canada Hockey Place ice late Friday night with something less than the swagger the Americans did six hours earlier. This really could happen.
To no small extent these are Ryan Miller’s Olympic Games as American hero, much as 1980′s were for Jim Craig. But Ron Wilson’s imprint, much as Herb Brooks’ 30 years ago, is on this team too. Brooks had six months of preparation with his Miracle-workers. Wilson had about 48 hours early last week. He was still fine-tuning his forward line combinations against Switzerland last week, trying to find chemistry on the fly. In the most important game of this tournament, last Sunday night against Canada, Wilson had his American skaters prepared mentally and physically from the puck-drop.
His team in these Games has played disciplined (13 penalties — all minors — in five games), cohesively, and tenaciously. They’ve also never trailed in these Games. They also appear to be getting stronger as the tournament progresses. The shock at this stage would be if the Americans under Ron Wilson didn’t give the favored Canadians the fight of their lives on Sunday.
The most passionate of American hockey fans likely didn’t realize how strong this American hockey team assembled for Vancouver was. It’s even more certain they didn’t realize how ably they’d be led behind the bench.