Ron Wilson talks to Mike Ricci of the San Jose Sharks and Brett Hull of the Dallas Stars during the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
Sometimes you receive little gifts in this job. For me, one of them is the chance to engage some smart people on a variety of topics – and that’s what I did Friday morning with new Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
The initial purpose of the call was for a story on Vesa Toskala that will run in THN’s 2008-09 Yearbook. Wilson had some great insights on his new No. 1 goaltender (and onetime platoon-duty backstopper when both were with the San Jose Sharks organization), as well as a couple hilarious anecdotes about the Finnish netminder.
Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait a few weeks until the Yearbook arrives to read them. But the news isn’t all bad. Wilson and I drifted away from Toskala as the topic of conversation and turned to his thoughts on a few different hockey-related issues. Below are the highlights.
On the constraining effect conservative, Canadian nationalism has had on the NHL and growth of the game:
“I think the only thing that ever truly matters is when you have World Cups. That’s the only time nationality really counts.
I’m a global-thinking person, because I’ve played in Europe and been in all of these ‘Super-matches’; and I think it’s arrogant of anybody to not understand that, although there might not be as much passion for hockey in the United States, if you go to Finland, Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic, even Switzerland, there’s an incredible amount of passion for the game.
I don’t think anybody really cares where the game was invented, or that you have to hold onto it in that larger sense. I don’t know why there’s so much anxiety about what the makeup is of a team in terms of leadership, or assuming a Swede can’t lead a team to a championship.
You can’t say that kind of stuff if you’re talking about basketball or football or baseball; you can’t get into that, because you’re crossing boundaries that can get you in all kinds of trouble. And I don’t think we should be looking at hockey any differently.
I almost chuckle now, because I was part of Anaheim when Disney came in to own the team, and I was made fun of in Canada…because we were what was referred to as the ‘Disney-fication’ of the NHL. And that was at a time when most of the games in Canada were played in a library-like atmosphere. Especially in places like Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton; Vancouver’s a little different, Montreal, I think culturally is a little more accepting of being loud and rowdy, more European in their acceptance of that.
But now you go to a game in Toronto, and Toronto probably does more (off-ice entertainment during games) than the Mighty Ducks ever did. It’s entertainment, and it’s nothing more than that. I think there’s more and more people becoming accepting of that, but I do think there’s a core of an older generation that doesn’t want to let go of the way it used to be – a very regional, provincial mindset that (believes) ‘it’s ours and nobody else can touch it.’
That’s the Don Cherry (effect). Don says things on Canadian TV you couldn’t possibly say in the United States. If you said some of the things he’s said, you’re gone; you don’t even get to the end of your show, you’re off the air. But I view it as entertainment, and that’s cool. Don’s got his shtick and is entitled to his opinions.
But god, I’m both Canadian and American. I’ve lived both sides of this debate. I’d rather be more global in terms of my thinking than be so narrow minded that I believe hockey should only be played north of the border.
Most people would tell you that if you didn’t have the game in the United States, there’s not all that much interest. I mean, you can argue numbers that basketball is almost as popular as hockey up here (in Toronto). I’ve seen those polls way back when, when Michael Jordan was a more recognized athlete in Canada than Wayne Gretzky was. And if you do say that, that’s heresy, blasphemy.”
On the need to keep himself and his new team grounded in the face of the usual Toronto hype:
“I’m around (Toronto) now, and I go into a store to buy something; you go in other places and everybody knows who you are, but in this particular store, the guy asked what I did, I told him I was coach of the Leafs. And he says, ‘oh, the hockey team?’ and you’re shocked – there’s people here in Toronto who don’t know about the hockey team! But that’s cool with me, too. The guy was all apologetic, and I told him, ‘hey, you don’t have anything to be sorry about.’
It’s funny, I’ve been riding the subway looking for places to live, and people see me and go, ‘Oh my god, you’re riding the subway?’ As if that’s somehow beneath me.
That’s not the way I look at it. Back in the day, I remember my dad (former NHL player and coach Larry Wilson), the few times we came up when he wasn’t playing, would take me to a Leaf game, and we’d bump into a couple of guys he played with before the game, just going into Maple Leaf Gardens.
They were just regular people, the players, and we’ve kind of got away from that. I really hope more people realize that, a team like the Leafs, we are all just regular guys. And I want to make sure our players understand they’re just regular people and they’re going to be a lot more open with the media, and integrate themselves a little bit more with the fans; none of this hiding or protection.
I personally believe that will make us a better team, more accountable to ourselves, and more accountable to the people who cheer us on all the time.”
On Joe Thornton’s resemblance to a certain Hollywood comic actor:
“I think Will Ferrell could play Joe Thornton. He’s goofy enough to pull it off, and I think it’d be a brilliant movie. Certainly, it’d sell in Canada.
I’d bust Joe’s balls (about the resemblance) all the time, because when (Ferrell) did Semi Pro, there was a poster of him where he was nude on a training table with a basketball covering his private area.
And I just kept saying, ‘Hey Joe, that’s your body.’
He’d say, ‘It’s not that bad, is it?’
And I’d say, ‘Well, there’s all the hair, the general softness, that dumb look on his face –that’s you.”
Finally, Wilson – a movie aficionado whose father passed away suddenly in 1979 of a heart attack at age 39 – on his all-time favorite film:
“My favorite, in a goofy way, is The Wizard of Oz. I remember it used to come on around Easter time, and you’d watch it every year as a kid.
And other than that, probably a toss-up between The Godfather and Field of Dreams.
You want to make me cry, you show me Field of Dreams. Because, you know, your dad dies when you’re young, you don’t say things, and then when you see Kevin Costner play catch with his dad’s ghost at the end of the movie, that just breaks me up.”
Adam Proteau is The Hockey News' online columnist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his Ask Adam feature appears Tuesdays and Fridays, and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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