Wilson's Shot at Goal Comes as U.S. Coach
By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 1998; Page D1
NAGANO, Feb. 6 There was a moment in November 1975 when 20-year-old Ron Wilson decided the Olympics just weren't worth it. He was tired, somewhat bored and wanted to go back to college.
So he did. Despite being the leading scorer on the U.S. national team bound for the 1976 Games, Wilson walked away. He returned to Providence College for his sophomore season, becoming the Big East Conference player of the year. Meanwhile, the squad he left behind finished fifth at the Innsbruck Games. Wilson eventually became the NCAA's all-time leading scoring defenseman, and in 1977 he went on to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team he dreamed about as a child.
At that point, leaving the '76 Olympic squad seemed like the right move. Even in 1980, when Wilson was sitting in front of a television in Moncton, New Brunswick, watching some of his former teammates make history in Lake Placid, he didn't feel regret.
"We didn't have what the 1980 and 1984 teams got into, with a pre-Olympic season," Wilson said of the 1976 team. "We were on the traveling bandwagon, playing lower-than-minor league teams, and I didn't feel giving up a year of college was worth the experience.
"I don't think I had any regrets about missing the Olympics as a player until my playing career was close to being over [in 1988]. I understood then that I gave away an opportunity that was there. It's a black mark on me, but I was 20 years old at the time. I don't think I was mature enough for the process."
Now 43 years old and the head coach of the Washington Capitals, Wilson may be more mature, although he is certainly not all grown up. In a few days, he will arrive here as the U.S. coach in the first Olympics to include NHL players. The pressure is intense, with a United States-Canada rivalry dominating headlines for the past few months. But when asked how he intends to handle the most momentous event of his professional career, Wilson could only grin.
"This is sports, it's a game, and you have to have some fun with this," he said. "I want everyone to have that feeling they had as a kid playing the game out there. You can't put too much pressure on yourself you'll fall apart."
Such a statement may not seem particularly bold, but it is certainly different than the words coming out of the Canadian camp. At the All-Star Game in Vancouver last month, Canadian players gathered for a team meeting and were told they were playing for nothing less than the pride of their country.
Wilson seems more concerned with the experience itself, the camaraderie and emotion that can coalesce with such an opportunity. He also believes that in international competition, the most effective coaching strategy can be to create a team environment, outline a simple game plan and then just let talented players go at it.
So far, the tactic has paid off. The United States has not won a medal in Olympic ice hockey since 1980, but Wilson coached the national team to a fourth-place finish at the 1994 world championships and to third at the 1996 worlds. His most significant victory to this point, however, was as coach of the U.S. team that won the 1996 World Cup, widely viewed as a warmup to these Olympics. With NHL players competing, Canada was expected to win the tournament relatively handily but instead fell in the third game of a best-of-three final series, 5-2, at Montreal's Molson Centre.
"Obviously he did a tremendous job at the World Cup of pulling the team together," U.S. right wing Pat LaFontaine said. "He's a great motivator, and he really likes to interact with the players. The guys worked hard under him, but they also enjoyed themselves.
"His attitude is that if you're not enjoying it and having fun, you won't be successful. The atmosphere was always high tempo at practices, and outside of the rink, the coaches had activities and things for us to do that brought us together."
The World Cup lasted for more than a month, so Wilson had time to take his players on golf outings or out to eat as a team during the tournament's training camp. With only three days of three-hour practices before Olympic competition starts, he won't have that opportunity here. But there are other, less time-consuming ways Wilson believes a team of superstars can forge unity.
In 1996, he told players they were not allowed to wear gear from their respective NHL teams, only Team USA paraphernalia. In fact, players weren't even allowed to wear their own clothes to morning skates and games. Instead, they showed up in team-issued slacks, blazers and red-white-and-blue ties.
"When we went somewhere, we looked like a team," Wilson said. "It's funny how little things like that can really make an impression."
Before games, Wilson would blast John Philip Sousa music from the coach's office. But his most inspirational technique may have been video highlight tapes spliced with patriotic scenes from movies and television shows. Sylvester Stallone and George C. Scott may not have realized it, but they played a vital role in the U.S. team's victory with their performances as Rocky and Gen. George S. Patton.
There was one instance in which Wilson's tactics proved a little too stirring. Forward Keith Tkachuk, so pumped up after seeing one of Wilson's tapes and hearing the coach speak, broke Claude Lemieux's nose just 15 seconds after the opening faceoff of the World Cup final and was ejected.
"His speech had something to do with it," Tkachuk said recently. "That, and just being fired up on my own and the adrenaline running.
"He is a player's coach. He just gives us the green light to go out and play. It's a lot of fun on the bench, and it has a big effect on the players. They don't want somebody back there screaming and yelling. Sure, he got mad in some cases, but he is definitely a player's coach. As long as we just go out and work hard and do the job for him, everything is going to be okay."
Most of the players on the U.S. Olympic team played for Wilson in the World Cup, which should be an advantage against a re-tooled Canadian squad and against teams from other countries that will be mixing NHL players with national team regulars. He plans to use similar lines and defensive pairings, with Mike Modano centering Tkachuk and Bill Guerin, and Doug Weight between Brett Hull and Adam Deadmarsh. Jeremy Roenick, who was not on the World Cup squad, will likely play with John LeClair and Tony Amonte.
On defense, Brian Leetch will remain with Derian Hatcher. Chris Chelios worked well with Gary Suter at the World Cup, although Wilson is considered pairing Chelios with Chicago teammate Keith Carney.
"It's starting to feel real; I think about it a lot at night," Wilson said. "I haven't really sat down and X'd and O'd anything except the lines and a few practices. Because of the computer programs I have, it only takes me about five minutes to put a practice together. Plus, I have all the stat sheets made up, all that's been done before, so I just have to put '98 Olympics' on it."
The walls of a room in the basement of Wilson's Maryland home are covered with hockey photos and memorabilia. There is a signed poster from the movie "Slap Shot," and pictures of Wilson as a college star. There is nothing from the 1976 Olympics, but perhaps that void can be filled by a photo taken at the end of these two weeks.
"I remember in 1980, those guys just piling off the bench at the horn," Wilson said. "We had a similar feeling at the World Cup. I've got pictures hanging in my house of us jumping on the bench.
"It's the greatest feeling in the world."
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