Programmed for Success
Under Wilson, Sharks Thriving With Technical Support
By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2004; Page E01
SAN JOSE -- One of the most valuable players for the surprising San Jose Sharks is a 60-pound trunk known as "The Backbreaker" to the team's trainers, who have to lug it all over North America for the better part of eight months.
The black trunk sat upright at the Sharks' practice facility last week, looking entirely innocuous until assistant coach Tim Hunter cracked it open to reveal its contents: two DVD burners, two VCRs, a flip-up screen, cables, wires, adapters and a vast digital library of recent NHL action.
The trunk was designed by the coaches as the latest manifestation of Coach Ron Wilson's technological fanaticism. Wilson was already a self-described "techno freak" when he coached the Washington Capitals from 1997 to 2002, but he is completely in his element here in the Silicon Valley, where the software he employs in team meetings is produced down the street.
"I use FileMaker Pro," said Wilson, referring to a database software program. "FileMaker Pro is right here in Santa Clara. They can't believe the stuff I do with it. They think it's cool that instead of an accounting program or a banking program a sport like hockey is actually using it."
The application of Wilson's innovation has propelled the Sharks into the Western Conference finals, with the series against the No. 6 seed Calgary Flames starting here Sunday afternoon. A franchise that last year fired its head coach (Darryl Sutter, now, coincidentally, with Calgary), and missed the playoffs has built a Stanley Cup contender around a group of defensive-minded scrappers, none with the status of, say, Jaromir Jagr. The Sharks' 104 regular season points were second in the Western Conference only to Detroit's 109 and had them tied with Boston for third overall.
Wilson's expanding technological inventory includes a computer database he designed and multidimensional scouting reports that come to life with video. Wilson conducts team meetings around an interactive SMART Board that uses streaming video and a telestrator and allows him to move player templates with his finger. In addition to a "bench monitor," which he employed in Washington, Wilson carries a tablet PC during games to capture statistics in real time.
Wilson said the Sharks spent a six-figure sum upgrading their technology this year. It includes streaming video software for himself, two assistants and a video coordinator, software that Hunter said can run up to $20,000. Wilson and his assistants sometimes splice inspirational movie clips -- a coliseum scene from "Gladiator" was one example this season -- into customized video, sometimes cut for individual players. He uses his growing database to "break the game into our own numbers and come up with some stuff that basically supports my own crazy theories about winning," said Wilson.
The Backbreaker trunk is for "portability," explained Hunter. "We wanted to be able -- on the bus, on the plane, in our hotel room -- to watch our games, and watch the opposition and analyze it."
"People ask if you need all this stuff, isn't a chalkboard good enough," added Hunter, who coached with Wilson in Washington. "But if you were to go to a company meeting at IBM or at Microsoft, they're not using a chalkboard to show their presentations. They're using the latest and greatest technology. We're a professional operation. That's the way we approach things."
The result is a kind of "Moneypuck" -- the NHL's version of another Bay Area team up Interstate 880: the Oakland Athletics. That team, lacking both a big television contract and the kind of revenue-producing palace that dominates Major League Baseball these days, relies heavily on statistical analysis to mine previously unrecognized talent. The philosophy was made famous last year by the Michael Lewis bestseller "Moneyball." Wilson said he found Lewis's book "interesting, because I've been doing something similar for 10 years in hockey."
Wilson's method worked initially in Washington, where he took the Caps to the Stanley Cup finals in his first season. His tenure ended five years later after the team failed to reach the playoffs after acquiring Jagr. Wilson was just one of the casualties of the heightened expectations that came with Jagr's arrival. The winger was traded to the New York Rangers in January.
Wilson said Caps owner Ted Leonsis "did the right thing in the sense of going after a player of Jaromir Jagr's magnitude." But Wilson said the move turned the Caps into a dysfunctional "sad sack family" that exalted Jagr to the detriment of the rest of the team.
"Jaromir Jagr has got a reputation for being a coach-killer, and it's quite accurate," said Wilson. "I mean, I'm not going to mince words there. I think he's gone through a coach or two a year, and he made the job very difficult not only for me but for the guy [Bruce Cassidy] who came after me and the organization as a whole. When you end up with a player who's bigger than the team, you're going to be in serious trouble."
Wilson and the Capitals remain on good terms. Leonsis said in an e-mail that he recommended Wilson for the San Jose job. "I told ownership there that he was a great coach -- a fine man -- and a great hockey leader," said Leonsis, a longtime America Online executive. He added: "Ron was always way ahead of his peer group in terms of his use of technology to gain competitive advantage. . . . I am sure he is in hog heaven working in Silicon Valley and applying technology to his team's benefit."
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