USA Hockey has come a long way since Ron Wilson was a Bantam player in the Dayton (Ohio) Amateur Hockey Association. For one thing, fielding a competitive team in international competitions is no longer a “miracle.” It’s more of an expectation.
So when Wilson stopped by last week’s Annual Congress in Colorado Springs, he was not surprised to see how far the organization has come over the years.
“When you came to a meeting like this in the past you’d get a standing ovation if you finished fourth in a world tournament. Now you’re talking about gold and silver medals at every level that we participate in,” said Wilson, who coached the U.S. National Team to a fourth-place finish at the 2009 IIHF World Championship.
“That’s a real positive. It’s gratifying to see all the hours that have been put in by all the volunteers as well as the people who run USA Hockey are starting to come to fruition after all these years.”
Now back for his second kick at the Olympic can, the 54-year-old Wilson joins Dave Peterson, Murray Williamson and Herb Brooks as the only American coaches to take the reins of multiple U.S. Olympic Teams.
In his first foray into the international arena since coaching in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, Wilson used the recent World Championships as a steppingstone to reacquaint himself with the international game and a new generation of American hockey players.
“I wanted to familiarize myself with some of the methods or tactics that some of European teams use or watch how they coach their teams, and to reacquaint myself with the European game because I’ve been away from it for so long,” said Wilson, who completed his first season behind the bench of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
If the results are any indication, it all came back to Wilson pretty quickly. The Americans advanced to the semifinals before losing to the eventual champions from Russia on a deflected shot with less than two minutes left to play.
“I think we did pretty well. We were a bounce or two from winning a gold medal,” says Wilson, who played in four World Championships in addition to coaching the 1996 U.S. Team.
“I’m very proud of the team and the way they played. We were one of the least penalized teams, which is new for an American team. A lot of people thought that we played a more European style than some European teams themselves. We tried to be creative and score a lot of goals and have fun at the same time.”
Call it a dress rehearsal for the big Olympic dance, which will leave Wilson and his soon-to-be-named coaching staff with little time to mesh players from various NHL clubs into a cohesive unit before their first game on Feb. 16 against Switzerland.
“Unlike coaching a team in the NHL, you don’t have the time to concentrate on all those little details when you’re coaching a team in such a short tournament,” says Wilson, who ranks seventh all-time in NHL history in both wins and games coached. “You have to eliminate the fluff and concentrate on the six or seven things that you really have to work on to be successful.”
Throughout most of his coaching tenure with USA Hockey, Wilson has enjoyed working with a nucleus of players that many consider to be the greatest generation in USA Hockey history. While several of the players that Wilson coached to victory at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey are still going strong, the tide seems to have turned toward a new generation of American stars.
Still, Wilson is not ready to put them out to pasture just yet, and says these veteran players still have a lot to offer.
“They’re all valuable assets who can help me as a coach or Brian Burke as a manager or help the players as players,” Wilson says. “I think we’d be fools not to use those assets.”
Before he gets to the point where hard decisions need to be made, Wilson must first assemble a coaching staff and prepare for a three-day orientation camp in mid-August.
With only three days together on the ice in Chicago, there are no preconceived plans to delve too deeply into the X’s and O’s of what style the U.S. squad will play when it hits the ice in Vancouver. Moreover, this camp is seen as a chance to build team chemistry that is vital in a short tournament.
“What’s important about this summer is creating relationships and laying the foundation so that we can communicate with these guys throughout the year as we watch them perform for their NHL teams,” says Wilson.
While the final number of camp invitees has not been set, Wilson cautions fans not to read too much into who makes the guest list.
“The camp we have this summer doesn’t necessarily mean anything when it comes to picking the team,” Wilson says. “There’s obviously a core of guys that you can pretty much name right now, but there will be a lot of guys who will be battling, and how well they do during their season next year will determine who’s on the team when we name it at the end of December.”
Regardless of who make the final cut, Wilson knows the Americans won’t top many lists among gold-medal hopefuls.
“We’re probably going to be a pretty big underdog going in [Vancouver], a very young team with a tough mountain to climb because obviously the gold medal is going to go through the Canadian team, and more than likely on paper the Russian team as well,” says Wilson.
“I want us to be a fun team to watch, an attacking team. We’re going to be a fast team; I know that. And what we lack in experience we’ll make up for with enthusiasm.”