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Monday, August 23, 2004
Wilson out to recapture '96 magic

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- He's got the lucky stars and stripes tie. And, of course, his father's hockey card.

But U.S. head coach Ron Wilson makes this promise on the eve of the World Cup of Hockey training camp -- no shaving of the head. And the hockey world rejoices.

Ron Wilson
Ron Wilson has 11 players back from his World Cup championship team in 1996.
"The one thing I'm not going to do is shave my head this time," Wilson told reporters as the Americans began their initial preparations in defending their championship in the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996. "It didn't work in the Olympics. That was my go-to move, and it failed miserably."

A master of motivation whose tactics sometimes stray dangerously close to gimmickry, Wilson helped inspire his 1996 team with an impassioned speech about the team's rightful place on hockey's bus.

Wilson's words were backed up visually with a vivid stars and stripes tie he proudly wore behind the bench.

"I busted it out when I was packing for this trip," Wilson said of the cravat. "And yes, I'm like everybody else in sports; I'm superstitious. At a big moment I might bust it out."

Still, don't be surprised if Wilson's tie stays in the suitcase.

There are 11 players returning from the 1996 squad (it was 12 until Derian Hatcher's last-minute withdrawal), but it is foolish to assume the team will have the same personality, that the same dynamics will exist.

Similarly, it's short-sighted to believe the same larger-than-life Wilson will appear behind the bench.

"It's only natural you're going to evolve," Wilson said. "They're all different people now. That's eight years ago. That's a lot of experience."

Take Keith Tkachuk. In 1996, the power forward was coming off his fourth NHL season, looking to make his mark with a veteran U.S. team, to prove he belonged.

"Well, he's made his mark," Wilson said. "He's going to be different now. I think the same holds true for a coach."

And so, the time for the tie may have passed. In its place, who knows?

"We'll have to try and find some more magic," Wilson said.

Because of his personality, his penchant for the sharp retort, the symbolic gesture or statement (after the 1996 tournament, Wilson took great glee in asking Canadian players he encountered around the NHL how they liked silver), Wilson's impact on the tournament's outcome may be more pronounced than any of the other eight coaches.

He must strike the right chord with veteran stars, some of whom may be asked to adopt smaller roles to which they're accustomed. And he must adeptly handle three raw goaltenders.

"The team that will be the most successful in an event like this is the team that comes together the quickest and plays as a team," said Wilson, whose father Larry won a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 1950 and whose uncle Johnny won four rings with the Wings.

"It is so difficult if guys don't buy into a kind of a team concept and play that way. If it's a group of individuals on their own programs, you lose in a hurry. ... What you don't want to do is over-coach a team like this. Or stifle anyone's creativity." Although the Team USA management team did a lot of soul-searching in naming a replacement for the much-loved Herb Brooks, Wilson seemed in the end to be the logical and perhaps the only choice.

"Just because you're a good NHL coach doesn't mean you'll be a good international coach," said Don Waddell, Team USA's assistant general manager.

Coaching against Russians playing on an opposing NHL team is vastly different than coaching against a Russian team, said Waddell, who has a longtime connection with USA Hockey.

Not only has Wilson had experience in that kind of situation, he's had success there.

"Their homework has to be done prior to the games," Waddell said of the coaching staff that also includes longtime Detroit assistant Barry Smith and Peter Laviolette, head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes.

"There's not going to be enough ice time for all the guys. We can't have unhappy guys walking around the room."

Players are going to be disappointed; it's up to the coaching staff to make sure they direct that emotion in a positive way, that they stay sharp for when their turn comes, Waddell said.

"Ron's had experience with all these guys. He knows what makes players tick."

It's that personal rapport with the players that will be crucial to the team's success. For many, the last coaching memory they have of Wilson is the 1998 Olympics in Nagano where Wilson arrived with a big cowboy hat perched on top of his freshly shaved dome.

The Americans played poorly, finished without a medal and then topped off the experience by trashing a dorm room in the athletes' village.

" He's not afraid of putting his head out there. He makes himself vulnerable, and it makes you pumped up and he's great about that. He's a great motivator. "
 Doug Weight about coach Ron Wilson

"There are some things that you can't explain about Ron. I'll give you a quote and you can put it down and you can explain it. But you like to play for him," veteran forward Doug Weight said. "You like to want to win for the guy. You like to play well for Ron because he makes you feel good as a team. He says the right things. He knows the game.

"I like Ron because he's stern with you. He lets you know when you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing out there. He lets you know when you're dogging it in practice. He lets you know when he wants more. And he certainly lets you know when you're playing well. But also he can suck up his ego and ask you questions about how you feel we should play the game."

In 1996, Wilson, who played internationally in the mid-1970s when the Americans were barely a pinprick on the hockey map, challenged his players to seize the moment, to stop being content with sitting at the back of the hockey bus.

"Most of the things I ever talk about are relatively spontaneous," Wilson said of the speech. "That's how I really felt."

The words still resonate now eight years later for goaltender Mike Richter, MVP of that 1996 tournament.

"It wasn't just tug on a nose hair to try and get you up there to play," Richter said. "He said it wasn't a miracle to win this tournament, but it's an opportunity we have to capitalize on. I like his management style a lot. I remember looking at Brian Leetch as we were getting on the elevator after that meeting. We were both going, 'whoa!' You were pretty much ready to play. I remember them all from Ron and they're all jumbled up."

The Wilson speeches are all "jumbled up" for Weight, but he remembers the emotional charge from his words.

"He's not afraid of putting his head out there," Weight said. "He makes himself vulnerable, and it makes you pumped up and he's great about that. He's a great motivator."

Shortly after he was named head coach of the U.S. team midway through the NHL season, Wilson said he'd mellowed, that he was more in control. Longtime associates agreed that he was less manic or uptight about the job of coaching in the NHL.

Far from seeing the World Cup of Hockey job as a chance at redemption or to make another point, Wilson instead seems humbled by his return to the scene of his greatest coaching triumph.

"It's a tremendous honor that you get to do this eight years later, to defend this championship," he said. "I'm just grateful for the opportunity."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.