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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson watches from the bench during their NHL pre-season exhibition hockey game against Philadelphia Flyers in London, Ontario, September 17, 2009. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill (FRED THORNHILL)
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson watches from the bench during their NHL pre-season exhibition hockey game against Philadelphia Flyers in London, Ontario, September 17, 2009. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill (FRED THORNHILL)

Stephen Brunt

Leafs' boss Ron Wilson dreams the impossible dream Add to ...

Here's how it is to be the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

One day last fall, Ron Wilson is walking through the underground labyrinth of tunnels that connect all of the major points in the city's downtown when his cellphone rings. On the line is Scott Gordon, his assistant coach with the U.S. Olympic hockey team, and they begin talking about issues surrounding the coming Vancouver Whistler Games.

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A shortish fellow in standard business attire walks by, sees a familiar face, and does a bit of a double-take. Then he walks up to Wilson, who is still talking, and hollers the following directly into his ear.

"You're the worst [expletive]coach I've ever seen. You're a [expletive] idiot."

Then the man in the suit walks away, leaving Wilson standing there, with Gordon laughing on the other end of the line.

It doesn't end there. Anyone who knows the way Wilson relishes the cut and thrust, understands that he likes to get the last word, can imagine what comes next.

He sprints through the tunnel - his antagonist has a 50-metre lead, but he quickly catches up - and stops him dead in his tracks.

"You said something back there. Now say it to my face."

His critic is momentarily taken aback, but eventually summons his courage and repeats his critique, complete with f-bombs.

"How can you do that?" Wilson says. "I could have been talking to my wife, or my granddaughter. What do you do for a living? Do people come up to you at work and swear at you?

"You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to follow you all the way home and call you an idiot."

Wilson does just that, or at least he does until the guy finally escapes into the subway. Point made. Perhaps.

Two years ago, over dinner in the same carnivore friendly restaurant, Wilson sat and chatted about his brand new job, about what it meant to come to a franchise with great tradition, great (albeit ancient) history, about how the son of a player whose name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup, and the nephew of another, so valued the opportunity to coach in a traditional hockey market after stops in Anaheim and Washington and San Jose.

The pressure would be great, the expectations crazily out of whack, which Wilson understood. But the grand challenge he had embraced in partnership with his old college roommate Brian Burke would eventually bear fruit, first with a team culture stripped of an unearned sense of entitlement, then with progress on the ice, and finally with a championship. The payoff would be enormous.

So two seasons in - two more seasons wandering the desert for a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 2004 - what do you know about coaching in Toronto now that you didn't know then? Wilson is asked.

"There's a little bit of perspective that you have to keep that you might not even think about if you're coaching in another city," he says. "Everybody has to be reasonable here. We've got a plan and were trying to stick to the plan. Yes, we have at times tried to speed it up a little bit. How we speed it up is that trade Brian was able to pull off last year getting one of the top defencemen in the league [Dion Phaneuf] Sacrificing two first-round picks for a sure-fire 40-goal scorer, and I think if not this year, next year Phil [Kessel]is going to be able to score 50 goals. We've tried to speed up the process there. But things get exaggerated and blown out of proportion. You go 4-0 and after everybody telling you you're the worst coach of all time, you're the best coach of all time."

Even a casual follower of the sports pages will understand where we are in that cycle right now, that 4-0 has given way to 0-7, and Wilson is presumably the worst coach of all time again.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have long been a subject of such obsessive interest, but even by the franchise's unique standards, this fall has been remarkable. It is coming up on 44 years since that last Stanley Cup, the Leafs finished second last in the league in 2009-10, haven't made the postseason since before the lockout, and realistically, competing for the final place in the NHL's Eastern Conference playoff pool this season would represent a great leap forward.

But even during the exhibition games, as daily talk-show debate raged about whether Nazem Kadri, the first-round pick and the franchise's lone blue-chip prospect, would claim a spot with the big club, it was clear that Leafmania has reached new heights/depths. Right now, the roller coaster has crested and is steaming downhill. This week, Burke was asked if the coach's job is safe (it is, apparently), and before Wednesday night's losing effort against the Florida Panthers, there were reports of a players-only meeting to clear the air.

Yes, it is the second week of November.

Operating in the Toronto fishbowl, Wilson is not one to quietly take his lumps. His sparring with the local media, his unwillingness to suffer fools (and, at times, non-fools), his sarcasm, his willingness to publicly criticize players, has naturally made him a lightning rod, even more than Burke, who is hardly a shrinking violet. For a team with problems that defy a quick fix, fire-the-coach automatically becomes the mantra when things go bad.

Wilson, not surprisingly, doesn't believe that's fair.

"You can't turn around and say we have no talent in one sentence, that they can't win, and then in the next sentence say they have to fire the coach because he can't get anything out of nothing," he says. "And then to be asked those questions every other week by the same guy - 'Do you feel safe about your job?' I think that's such an ignorant thing to ask anybody. You don't do that to people."

Well, they do do that to people, at least to people in sports all the time, and they're sure as heck doing that to him right now.

Wilson says that while he shuts out what's said and written about him, hockey players in Toronto "get influenced by the outside here more than any other team" - by that he means the media and the fans - and that some of them might have been a bit swept away by the euphoria that accompanied their unexpectedly strong start. "That's the part we have to manage - what's real and what's not, and keeping the players grounded. That's the biggest part of my job, keeping everybody's feet on the ground when it's going well."

And like now, when it's not going well, he can at least absorb the heat, be the lightning rod. The only question is whether he will also be the ritual sacrifice.

"If you can only win, this will be the best place in the world to be," Wilson says. "That's what keeps me going when it's hard."

He is closing in on 1,300 games coached and 600 games won in the NHL, both numbers that put him in rare company. He has won a World Cup for the United States, has won an Olympic silver medal, is now at what figures to be his last professional stop, and imagines exiting on his own terms.

This is where he and the Leafs fanatics - including that subterranean screamer - share the same fantasy.

As a player, Wilson retired immediately after captaining a group of U.S. Selects to the Spengler Cup in December of 1988. He figured it wasn't going to get any better than that and he wanted to get on with life so he never played another game.

A nice night in Davos it must have been, but nothing to compare with hoisting the sacred chalice in Hogtown, setting off a celebration for the ages, and then immediately walking off into the sunset to spend some quality time with the grandkid. That's the upside of working in a crazy hockey town - imagining how good it could be.

"All I really want to do is win the Stanley Cup," Wilson says. "Then I would be released. If we won, that's the last game I'll ever coach. Honest to God I would have no hesitation. That's all I've ever wanted to do, to have my name on the Cup with my dad and my uncle. That's honest to God how I feel.

"This is the team I grew up with. Punch Imlach was the last coach who won. That would be just the coolest thing in the world. I'm not about coming back the next year and having everybody pat me on the back, knowing I could be the mayor of Toronto. That doesn't interest me at all. I could just quietly go away and have all of this satisfaction, knowing that this was something I dreamed about all of my life, this was something I managed to do, and now I can actually breathe."

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