Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Honest General

USA's Wilson: Hockey's Honest Abe
When you listen to USA World Junior coach Ron Wilson speak on the record, you notice a distinct difference from him and other high end coaches: he tells the truth, or at least, his truth. He does not rely on cliches or half truths, he will offer his genuine point of view, damn the consequences. Immediately after beating Canada Saturday he was greeted by TSN reporter Mark Masters, one of Toronto's endless supply of barking media dogs. Wilson once again spouted truth. "It felt especially good because I haven't won a game in four years. What better way to get back on the horse; beating Canada meant a lot to me."

For all intents and purposes, Team Canada at the World Juniors is Team TSN. The broadcast giant has devoted all its resources over the last 25 years into building the World Juniors into a major broadcast property, programming thousands of hours to fill the Christmas/New Year's holiday with images of amped up hockey teens draped in red Maple Leafs gleefully conquering hockey nations in Olympic-like settings. Starting in the epicenter of Toronto, Canada's holiday mantra is that Christmas represents World Junior Eve. And for hockey fans on both sides of the border, it's damn good theater.

Wilson: "I'm not what I'm painted by the Toronto media"
At this 2016 event, Wilson is irresistible fodder for the TSN media machine. When TSN is not on its World Junior beat, it is reporting on Canada's other favorite sports subject, the Leafs. And by coverage, we're talking about multi-day reports every day for the entire season and beyond. If you listen to the locals from Canada's hockey-mad Mecca, Wilson was run out of town by the rabid fans and media of Toronto in 2012. Four consecutive losing seasons will do that to you. Wilson's boss with the Leafs, and former college roommate at Providence, Brian Burke could not save him, but he did send him off with a fat contract extension shortly before the firing. And the soft-spoken 57 year old Wilson went quietly into the night, not heard from on the big stage until now, the World Juniors.

He has reappeared as the coach of Team TSN's chief rival, Team USA, who just so happened to be playing Canada on opening day of the tourney. The guy with a penchant for saying exactly how he feels, with no filters, is simply irresistible to TSN. They sent a reporter and a crew down to Boston the week before Christmas to file reports on their rival's last WJC tryout camp, wasting no time before poking the bear in the middle of a press scrum after practice. "Boston says you are laid back guy, have you mellowed?" Wilson took the bait and ran with it. "I'm not really a loud person," said Wilson, and a slow rumble of media laughter began. "You find that hard to believe. I'm not at all what I'm painted by some people in the media, especially, I hate to say it, the people of Toronto painted me all wrong. I probably played right into their hands. I'm not that type of a person."

The first thing Toronto's insatiable hockey universe hears from Wilson four years after riding him out on a rail is that they had it all wrong when it comes to their perceptions of him? It is no wonder TSN covered flights and hotels for their news crew to hustle down to Boston. In Saturday's half hour pre-game show, Masters reported how Wilson was "nervous" about his club's encounter with Canada. Wilson is part of TSN's media circus, but from his veteran perspective, he is busy coaching his squad, a squad that has boldly cut half a dozen high profile players including Leafs premier prospect Jeremy Bracco. Wilson, sporting his middle-aged reading glasses on the bench Saturday, had his charges amped and eager to confront their Canadian counterparts on Boxing Day. And when USA forward Alex DeBrincat got bounced from the game for crossing the line, Wilson dexterously moved his chess pieces, sliding up Brock Boeser and Ryan Donato to create two new lines, which both worked seamlessly. His choice of goaltenders, his biggest call of the day, was a jackpot as Alex Nedeljkovic stole the show.

Wilson and Yanks: Great Day at the Office Nancie Battaglia/USA Hockey.
For USA and Wilson, facing and beating the champs and their media horde on opening day was a supreme outcome; now TSN must turn their cameras inward as USA merely goes about their business with the confidence of having just scalped the best. "It gives us a feather in our cap," said an ebullient Wilson in the post game. Masters squeezed the final bit of news from the the Wilson topic by posting his last win as a hockey coach, February 15, 2012. Then he and his media mates went about the business of mitigating the painful yet not fatal loss to the Yanks.

Wilson's atypical honesty prompted him to reveal his cards as far as where this teen tourney fits on his lengthy resume. "It would mean everything. I have accomplished a lot, especially with the national team: I've won the World Cup, we finished second, silver medal in Vancouver, and we could have won that game. A gold medal here would certainly top my career off, as far as I can see I'm not going to have an opportunity to coach again, so the ultimate goal is try and win the gold medal."

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