At around noon on Friday, Ron Wilson was in his familiar track suit, running a brisk practice, putting the fast-fading Toronto Maple Leafs through their paces in suburban Montreal.
Afterward, he held forth for the cameras in a spartan dressing room typically populated by recreational hockey players.
Asked whether he was concerned over the mounting speculation he might soon be relieved of his duties, Wilson calmly said: “The talk in town doesn’t really matter.”
Within a few hours, he was the Leafs’ former coach.
On the heels of a miserable 1-9-1 slide that has seen Toronto tumble out of the playoff picture, the Leafs brain trust has evidently decided a change was in order.
And so they now turn to former Anaheim Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, another head man who also suddenly found himself without a mount on the NHL’s coaching carousel earlier this season.
The no-nonsense Carlyle, who just wrapped up a trip scouting Eastern Conference teams for Anaheim, is expected to be behind the Maple Leafs bench when they play the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, in what has to count as a pivotal game.
The 55-year-old former Winnipeg Jets standout spent more than six seasons as Ducks boss, and has previously worked for Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who hired the former Norris Trophy winner when he ran the Anaheim franchise. The pair won a Stanley Cup in 2007.
In a 2007 interview discussing his coaching philosophy, Carlyle said that while he never imagined that he would ever become an NHL coach, he hasn’t forgotten what was important to him as a player.
“I don’t spend a heck of a lot of time in the dressing room,” said Carlyle, a defensive-minded coach and a notorious taskmaster. “I think that’s the players’ area. As a player, I didn’t want our coach always in the dressing room, so I don’t go into the dressing room very often. I go in, deliver whatever I have to do, and come out.”
The decision to fire Wilson will have been a traumatic one for Burke, he and Wilson have known since their university days at Providence College and are close friends – as such Burke will be able to commiserate with Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier on Saturday. Gauthier made a similarly painful move in December, firing long-time pal Jacques Martin.
Burke was steadfast in his support for Wilson last week when disgruntled fans in the Air Canada Centre voiced their displeasure with lusty chants of “Fi-re, Wil-son!”
But ultimately the team’s disconcerting slide made considerations of loyalty and friendship moot.
“This was not an easy decision for me to make,” said Burke, who thanked Wilson “for all of his hard work and dedication to our organization over the past four seasons.”
Earlier Friday, Wilson’s former players said the coach wasn’t to blame for the team’s current wretchedness.
“There’s only so much the coach can do,” centre David Steckel said. “We’re the ones who play the games.”
Added winger Joffrey Lupul: “It’s not fun for anyone, it’s not fun for the coach, it’s not fun for the goalies, it’s not fun for the fans. This is kind of the time when it’s easy to start pointing fingers and blaming people and that’s something we’ve talked about in here we don’t want to do.”
Historians will note Wilson, who signed a one-year contract extension over the Christmas holidays, was done in by spotty goaltending and inconsistent defensive play, both of which will need to improve drastically over the final five weeks of the regular season if the Leafs are to avoid extending their playoff drought to seven seasons.
The players believe it can be done, as Steckel said: “The reality is there’s still 18 games left, there’s still plenty of time to make up ground.”
The 56-year-old Wilson leaves Toronto fourth on the all-time NHL list for games coached, his record in Toronto was 130-135-45.
In 1,401 career games with Anaheim, Washington, San Jose and Toronto, he has a 648-561-91 record with 101 ties.