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Faced with a potential public-relations minefield when it came to naming the head coach of the U.S. Olympic hockey team, Brian Burke chose to wade right in by naming Ron Wilson to lead an American team that will be long shots to medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver next February.
It's not that Wilson isn't a good coach. He is generally considered one of the best prepared, most innovative coaches in the NHL, having had at least a measure of success in Anaheim, Washington and San Jose. Even during this season, his first with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Wilson has been credited with getting far more than expected out of an injury-prone, talent-challenged team.
|Ron Wilson, left, is head coach of the Maple Leafs, working under Toronto GM and president Brian Burke.|
But there's the rub.
Wilson is the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And Burke, along with being the GM of the U.S. Olympic effort, is the GM and president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
See where we're going with this?
Wilson is a good coach; he just isn't the best coach available for this team. Not by virtually any meaningful measuring stick.
There were three clear-cut candidates for the United States, which is looking to erase the sting of a disappointing turn at the 2006 Torino Games, where an aging American squad won just one game.
John Tortorella, currently the coach of the New York Rangers; Peter Laviolette, former coach of the Carolina Hurricanes; and Wilson. It's not like Burke ignored a Scotty Bowman type in naming Wilson, but it's difficult not to put Wilson at the bottom of this list in assessing worthiness for this post.
Let's take recent successes.
Laviolette guided the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup in 2006.
Tortorella guided the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Cup in 2004 and led the Bolts to four straight playoff appearances before they fell off the map last season and he was fired in the offseason. (He was hired by the Rangers in February.)
Both Laviolette and Tortorella favor an up-tempo, offensive style, which would mesh well with the type of team Burke is going to put together for the Vancouver Games. Wilson, on the other hand, was fired at the end of last season after failing to get a talented San Jose team over the hump in five seasons behind the Sharks' bench. After Wilson guided the Sharks to a surprise Western Conference finals appearance in 2004, they bowed out in the second round three straight times. In each of those seasons, the Sharks were among the favorites to win the Cup.
Internationally, there hasn't been much success for the Americans since Herb Brooks coached the U.S. team to silver in a thrilling gold-medal match against Canada in Salt Lake City in 2002. What remains curious about the Wilson choice is that, while Burke promises that a new generation of American players will take the ice in 2010, he has chosen to go retro with his coach, and it's a coach whose international experience is not recent and largely disappointing.
It was Wilson who coached the U.S. to the World Cup of Hockey championship in 1996, arguably the most important moment in U.S. hockey history outside of the "Miracle on Ice" victory at the 1980 Olympics. But that World Cup victory might as well have been in 1886 for all the relevance it has to 2010.
After 1996, Wilson's American Olympic team embarrassed themselves in Nagano in 1998, when the NHL first allowed its players to take part in the Olympics. They underachieved on the ice and behaved like drunken frat boys off it, destroying furniture in the athletes village after being knocked out of the competition.
Given another chance when the World Cup of Hockey returned in 2004, Wilson couldn't coax much emotion out of his team, which lost to Finland on home ice in the semifinal of a tournament won by Canada. (The defining moment for Wilson's squad in that tournament was Brett Hull's famously telling reporters he didn't care what fans thought as he stalked away from the arena after Wilson scratched him from the lineup.)
It's possible, if not likely, that both Laviolette and Tortorella will find their way onto Wilson's coaching staff. They should.
Regardless, when Wilson is formally announced as head coach Monday, this Olympic team will move forward under the not insignificant question of why he was chosen for this job: Was it because of his coaching acumen or his current position?
Did Burke tab Wilson for the job to keep peace at home in Toronto, where Burke is trying to rebuild an Original Six franchise that hasn't won a Cup since, well, there was an Original Six?
Burke will no doubt explain Monday that he believes Wilson's strategic savvy and motivational abilities are perfectly suited for a short tournament in which the U.S. will play the underdog to all the other hockey powers. He will also note, perhaps, he touted Wilson as a strong candidate earlier this year before he took over the post in Toronto.
But until Wilson can prove on the ice in Vancouver that he was the right choice on merit alone, until Wilson can maneuver the U.S. team into medal contention, this will be a decision that just doesn't seem right.Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.