Coaching came naturally to RI’s long-time USA Hockey and NHL bench boss.
Ron Wilson vividly remembers the gold-medal game of the men’s hockey tournament at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
Wilson was coaching Team USA as it fought back from a 2-0 deficit against Canada. Ryan Kesler closed the gap to one goal in the second period, but the U.S. trailed by a goal heading into the third.
Then, with just 24.4 seconds left in regulation, Zach Parise netted the game-tying goal to send it into a 4-on-4 overtime period, only to have Canada’s Sidney Crosby spoil it with the game-winner 7:40 into the extra frame.
“Getting that tying goal,” Wilson recalled, “that was a thrill. We had to pull the goalie and Zach Parise scored to tie it up. We went into overtime not knowing it was going to be four-on-four. Had it been five-on-five like in the NHL at the time, we definitely would have won that game.”
That thrill is matched by Wilson’s election into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame this year.
Rhode Island’s Wilson, along with Ben Smith, Jack Parker, Kevin Collins and Scott Young made up the Class of 2017 that was inducted Dec. 13 at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel.
Wilson has been the head coach of eight U.S. hockey teams, winning the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996, the Olympic silver medal in 2010, and the bronze medal at the 1996 IIHF World Championship in Vienna, Austria.
Wilson also played for Team USA in four IIHF World Championships (1975, 1981, 1983, 1987) and served as captain of the 1988 U.S. Men’s Select Team that won the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland.
Wilson coached 1,401 NHL games with a career record of 648-562-101 with 921 overtime losses, serving as the inaugural coach for the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim before stints in Washington, San Jose and Toronto.
“Just everything about my career was a highlight when I look back on it now,” said Wilson. “When I was fired the last time in Toronto [in 2012], I had won the most games of any American coach in the NHL. It’s almost 650, and to be honest with you, I can’t really remember most of those games.”
He does, however, remember Chris Chelios, who gave his all on every shift, and other American legends like Keith Tkachuk, Mike Modano and Bill Guerin.
Wilson was a legendary player in his own right, starring at East Providence High School in Rhode Island and playing defense at Providence College. At PC, he still holds career records for points (250) and assists (172), and single-season records for points (87) and assists (61).
Wilson enjoyed a pro career playing in the NHL, AHL, several other minor leagues and in Switzerland.
“That’s where I got into coaching,” Wilson said of his time playing in Switzerland for Davos and Zurich. “I was coaching and playing in Davos and left to go to Zurich, and halfway through the year, I didn’t like the way things were going in Zurich so I quit playing and became the head coach in Davos for the rest of the season.”
He likes to joke about how he decided coaching became a passion.
“I always tell everybody I didn’t want to work a real job,” he said. “Coaching was something that just came to me. I had always studied when I was playing. When I was playing in Davos, I was coach of their junior team, which was a nice transition for me.”
“As a coach, I’m able to help people in ways I couldn’t as a player. When you’re a player, you think about playing for yourself. When you coach, you’re in charge of the whole game, helping everyone.”
Team USA duties were welcome.
“That’s a natural thing to do when you play on a bunch of national teams in world championships,” he said, then added with a laugh, “I was the only guy coaching in the NHL who was an American, too, so that became the natural thing to do. We had some fun.”
Under Wilson, Team USA changed the focus from merely competing to medaling. In his second season coaching the U.S. Men’s National Team, the Americans won the bronze medal at the 1996 IIHF World Championship, which Wilson called a huge upset.
He went on to coach Team USA to the World Cup of Hockey championship in 1996.
In 2016, USA Hockey’s Director of Hockey Operations Jim Johannson asked Wilson to coach the U.S. National Junior Team, leading a group of young men, including Auston Matthews, to the bronze medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship.
Wilson suffered a stroke in 2017, and while his recovery has prevented him from playing golf, it’s never dampened his enthusiasm for hockey and for life.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc
By Gary R. Blockus