Ron Wilson and Brian Burke from their days in Providence. (Providence College Athletics)
In THN’s latest cover story, I examined the rise of American influence on the NHL and the mentorship that has resulted in more U.S. minds in positions of power. The Toronto Maple Leafs were a great example, with GM Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson learning valuable lessons from New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello when he coached the pair at Providence College back in the 1970s.
Because they didn’t fit with the tone of the story I had to leave out some hilarious stories about the decades-long prank war Burke and Wilson have waged against each other. So without further ado…
“I hate practical jokes,” Burke said. “As soon as Ronnie found that out, it’s been non-stop ever since.”
Wilson sees things a bit differently.
“I always feel like I’m the one getting the pranks pulled on me,” he said.
See who you believe.
The first great story in the friendly rivalry harkens back to those Providence College days. The Friars were playing a tournament over the Christmas holidays, so the whole team stayed in the same dorm at school. Providence is a Catholic school and though Burke is part of that denomination, Wilson is not. Burke led a contingent to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and while he was gone, Wilson broke into his room and changed the alarm clock.
To Burke’s credit, he was only five minutes late for practice the next morning, but late is late. Lamoriello’s punishment was for Burke to have an extra on-ice workout at 4 a.m. – under the coach’s personal supervision.
“We thought it would be a one-day punishment,” Wilson said. “But it ended up lasting six or seven days.”
When the Friars did two-a-days, Burke would be on the ice three times – the third always coming at four in the morning.
“He didn’t know it was me who changed his clock,” Wilson said. “But he should have known.”
Wilson waited until the two were out of college before he eventually fessed up.
Perhaps with that in mind, Burke got some pretty good revenge when he hired Wilson to coach with the Vancouver Canucks organization under Pat Quinn. Providence College had an alumni game coming up one year and Burke convinced Wilson that Quinn would have no problem with the former star defenseman returning to his alma mater to play, even though it was during the NHL season.
Wilson started working out and training for the game and even bought his plane ticket before Burke revealed that no, Quinn did not say he could fly across the country to play in an old-timers game.
Even when the two were on opposing teams the prank war continued. Burke was still in Vancouver when Wilson took the head coaching job in San Jose, so when the Sharks came to town, Wilson asked to meet up with his old buddy.
As soon as Wilson came into Burke’s office, he asked his former college roommate if he had any coffee. Burke quickly obliged, ducking out down the hall to grab some for his pal.
“I don’t know why I would ever leave Ronnie alone in my office for two minutes,” Burke said.
After the two chatted, Wilson excused himself and Burke quickly realized his dress shoes had about a one-inch layer of shampoo in them. Old habits die hard with lifelong friends.