Friday's firing of the Maple Leafs coach might have been nostalgic for him.
Friday’s firing of Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson marked the second time the organization has let Wilson go. The first time was not accompanied by catcalls or media pressure to leave the team—it was barely acknowledged, if at all. Wilson’s first departure was as a player, following a frustrating season that included injuries, limited playing time, and a personal loss.
As the 1979/80 season approached, Leafs publicity director Stan Obadiac penned a coffee table book spotlighting the year to come. While the book was full of hope, the Leafs were descending into chaos. Following poorly executed dismissals of coach Roger Neilson and general manager Jim Gregory, owner Harold Ballard hired Punch Imlach, who had coached Toronto’s Stanley Cup winners during the 1960s, to run the club. Over the next two seasons, Ballard and Imlach dismantled a promising team, as feuds with stars like Darryl Sittler lowered clubhouse morale and resulted in one of the worst trades in team history (dispatching Lanny McDonald and Joel Quenneville to the Colorado Rockies to spite Sittler). Ten straight seasons of sub-.500 play ensued.
Wilson, like his teammates, had a two-page spread in the coffee table book. Entering his third season with the Leafs, he was praised for his smarts. According to new coach Floyd Smith, quoted in the book, Wilson was “a very intelligent hockey player and he moves the puck exceptionally well for a defenceman and he shoots well. If there is a drawback, it’s his size. He has all the natural skills and ability.” Wilson had good hockey genes—his father, Larry, played in the NHL during the 1950s and briefly coached the Detroit Red Wings, while uncle Johnny was an All-Star player with Detroit, then coached the Pittsburgh Penguins during the late 1970s.
Each player responded to a questionnaire. Among Wilson’s responses:
Sports celebrity pro and con: “Celebrity? I kind of like it all. But there’s a lot of pressure put on you by the public to win. Of course you want to, but people do put a lot of pressure on you, especially in Toronto because it’s such a hockey city. Otherwise, I enjoy the attention because I realize that I’m only going to get it here for a few years. When I was growing up, Dave Keon was my hero, then Bobby Orr. Now I wear 14, which was Keon’s number, so that’s a really big thrill for me.”
Are you superstitious as a hockey player? “Yeah, I am a little superstitious. Before each game and period I always whack the goalie three times on the pads. I’ll eat the same meals if I had a good game before, but I’m not like guys who wear the same clothes. Last year I had a four-leaf clover stuffed in my glove for a while, but I lost it.”
Favourite books, films, TV, music: Mystery novels are Wilson’s favourites. Since he was an economics major in college, and hopes to work on an MBA in the next couple of years, he brushes up on that subject by reading texts. “I go to every movie that comes out, especially on the road. I saw The Deer Hunter twice. I’ll go see anything, as long as it’s entertaining.” Quincy is his favourite television show and Ron watches all sporting events. He listens to Doobie Brothers and Beach Boys records and catches the occasional repertory theatre in Providence, Rhode Island [Wilson attended college there with current Leafs GM Brian Burke and pursued post-graduate work in economics during the off-season] .
Personal goals for the 1979-80 season and future in hockey: “I’d like to be able to play a regular shift. I wouldn’t set any goal-scoring or point-scoring goals for myself. I just want to play a lot to give myself a chance to score 15 or 20 goals. As far as the team’s concerned, getting up to first place is a goal. I’ll just play until I stop enjoying it. If I don’t play a lot this year or next year I may hang up the game because it’s no fun sitting on the bench. I like the action.”
Wilson received few shifts with the Leafs in 1979/80. Prior to training camp, his father died of a heart attack. A pre-season knee injury sidelined him during the fall, followed by a cracked cheekbone and cracked thumb. He spent most of the year with the Leafs’ farm in Moncton, New Brunswick, where along with the other prospects he grumbled about lack of playing time and moves by Imlach that blocked call-ups to Toronto, like the signing of 41-year-old defenceman Carl Brewer after half-a-decade of retirement. “I think I’m being phased out,” Wilson told the Star in December 1979. “I haven’t even got a line anymore. I want to be traded like everyone else.”
It was an injury to Brewer, along with other limping defencemen, that led to Wilson’s return to the Leafs on March 28, 1980. “I felt like a little kid again when I got the call,” he told the Star. “After a while in the minors, you start to get the feeling you don’t figure in the big team’s plans, that you’ve been forgotten.” Wilson played five regular season games and three playoff games, scoring one goal and four assists. Following the Leafs’ early exit from the playoffs, Wilson was sent back to the New Brunswick Hawks for a championship run that saw the team lose the Calder Cup final.
With little fanfare, Wilson left the Leafs organization and played several years in Switzerland before returning to the NHL with the Minnesota North Stars during the 1984/85 season. Nearly 30 years passed before he returned to the Leafs as their coach. However his second stint with the team would go, it was certain that it wouldn’t end as quietly as the first one.
Additional material from The Toronto Maple Leafs 1979/1980 by Stan Obodiac (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979), and the December 15, 1979 and March 30 1980, editions of the Toronto Star.