The entire Washington Capitals organization sat before him, everyone from 18-year-old prospects to scouts to new owners Ted Leonsis and Jonathan Ledecky. All of them awaited Coach Ron Wilson's address at the team's annual pre-training camp meeting. None of them expected what followed.
Wilson, a man who has canceled practices for team bowling trips and once used "The Wizard of Oz" as a motivational theme, pulled three beanbags from his pocket and began juggling.
"Last year I took a lot of heat for not being able to juggle my lines with all the guys out with injuries," Wilson said to the gathering. "So I practiced over the summer."
The room erupted with laughter. Wilson did a few more juggling tricks to display how simple it would be to drop a struggling player from one of the lines--juggling one bag in one hand, two in the other--then he cued up a videotape of what he said were clips of last year's training camp. Scenes of death and destruction from "Spartacus" flashed on the screen. More laughter. Chalk up another one for the most fun-loving coach in the NHL.
The task for Wilson and his players this season--trying to erase a dismal 1998-99 season, the franchise's worst since 1981-82--will not necessarily be fun, but they will have fun doing it.
"I can't juggle, but to have a coach who can is a bonus," defenseman Joe Reekie said. "It just shows the kind of person he is, to get in front of that many people and do something like that. He creates a relaxed atmosphere, but a positive one.
"When he comes in front of us and makes us laugh, it makes the guys want to go out and work a little harder for him. It's refreshing to have someone who wants things done right but he's not cracking this whip. It's, 'Come on, let's do this and let's have fun doing it.' That's what makes it enjoyable."
Most teams conduct a training camp meeting to set goals; few are as unpredictable as Washington's. Sure, the Capitals talked about all the usual stuff, but Wilson actively involved players, presenting an idea then asking certain team leaders for their opinions. Leonsis, a billionaire executive with America Online, knew his coach was a character from the moment he met him (Wilson's first words: "I don't know how to tell you this, but I canceled my AOL account."), and left the team meeting liking him even more.
"It was an impressive performance," Leonsis said. "What I was most pleased with was he did not lay the blame for last year on the players. He said, 'I screwed up and I didn't do a good job coaching.' A lot of people, their ego gets in the way. So my take on him is he'd rather win than be right, and that's exactly what you want in your organization: people who really don't care about how they look--they care about what the results are."
Wilson's approach won't change despite the heavy burden of this season, with a new ownership group in place and the chore of revitalizing the franchise ahead of them. Expectations are high. The Capitals are confident they can win the Southeast Division and secure a top playoff seed in the process.
Wilson expects improvement from his players, but is also demanding more from himself. Besides teaching himself to juggle, the 44-year-old read several books this summer by successful coaches and an array of World War II materials, focusing on the differences between generals and soldiers.
He did more work in the offseason to prepare for camp and is using handouts to explain his system early on. He readily admits coaching is something that is perfected by trial and error. There's no manual to consult in case of emergency, and that's just what the Capitals faced last season, racking up a record 511 man-games lost to injury.
"Last year I didn't have a Plan B," Wilson said. "I didn't prepare for the worst. I didn't prepare for everybody being hurt. One thing I learned in all the reading I did this summer, specifically from [former San Francisco 49ers coach] Bill Walsh's book, is you have to have a total disaster plan there to refer to so you're not in a state of panic."
Wilson also is critical of the way he handled slumping players last season, most notably star winger Peter Bondra.
"We didn't do a good enough job of rebuilding his confidence," Wilson said. "And that's what our job is as coaches this year. You can't score goals if you don't feel good about yourself and you're doubting your abilities. And we're going to remove those doubts this year, or we're going to try to anyway. I'm going to do the best I can to get these guys playing up to their potential."
CAPTION: Capitals Coach Ron Wilson, who addressed players and staff at a pre-training camp meeting, will try to juggle his responsibilities better this season.