The phone rang late Wednesday afternoon, Pacific time, just as Randy Carlyle was preparing to head out to Anaheim’s Honda Centre.
Since being ousted as head coach of the team in November, the still-under-contract Carlyle had been doing some scouting, that night he was planning on taking in a game between his employer, the Anaheim Ducks, and the Buffalo Sabres. On the other end was Ducks GM Bob Murray, who told Carlyle that another team had asked permission to speak to him about a coaching position.
“That’s really when the process started,” Carlyle said.
Shortly thereafter, Carlyle spoke to his old friend and former boss with the Ducks, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke.
The Leafs were in Chicago that night, playing a game in which they would blow a 3-1 first period lead and lose for the 10th time in their last 11 games.
By then, Burke had arrived at an uncomfortable decision – he was going to have to fire his friend of nearly 40 years, coach Ron Wilson.
The team had flown out to the Windy City after Tuesday’s home loss to Florida – during which chants of “Fi-re Wil-son” rained down in the Air Canada Centre.
“After the last home game it was clear to me that it would be cruel and unusual punishment to let Ron coach another game at the Air Canada Centre. I wasn’t going to put him through that. And I don’t fault the fans. If you want to buy a ticket and boo, you can boo,” Burke said. “I would obviously prefer that fans not boo, but I think they’re buying the ticket, that’s the right you have. As long as you’re not saying something racist or homophobic or obscene, you can say what you want. I felt at that point, I wasn’t going to put Ron through that again. It was hard to listen to, it was hard to watch, but also to me it was clear at that point that the team wasn’t listening. Watching the bench, they weren’t paying attention, they weren’t buying in and it was time. Every coach has a shelf life, that day comes for every coach.”
So Burke began looking at his options to replace Wilson, who signed a one-year contract extension last December. Carlyle’s name figured prominently on the short list, but he wasn’t alone.
“When you do a change, you shouldn’t just go with a guy you’ve had success with and you’re comfortable with. We went through the process. External candidates – we spent a lot of time on [TSN pundit]Marc Crawford, Marc Crawford worked for me in Vancouver and did just a marvelous job, we spent a lot of time on him,” Burke said. “We spent a lot of time on internal candidates, [Toronto Marlies head coach]Dallas Eakins, [Leaf assistants]Scott Gordon, Greg Cronin, Rob Zettler, we went through the process and this is the guy we all felt gave us the best chance for success.”
The decision was made quickly.
Carlyle, after talking over the situation with his family, decided to accept the job – not that he did so without any misgivings.
“There’s always pressure that comes with being a head coach in the NHL, the hockey part of it is one thing, the media responsibility is another one, and in this market it’s huge. You have to understand that and you have to accept that responsibility. And to say that you haven’t thought about it or I didn’t think about it – I had a consultation with my family,” Carlyle said. “To me that’s the most important thing in this decision, once my family gave me the green light and said ‘dad, if you feel like doing this, if you think this is the right thing for you to do, don’t worry about us, we’ll go where you go’. And that really was the turning point.”
As Burke opened negotiations with Carlyle, the team made its way to Montreal, arriving in a Thursday afternoon snowstorm – Wilson and his assistants were first off the team bus at the Vogue, a hotel a few blocks north of the Bell Centre.
On Friday they practised as scheduled in the Canadiens’ practice facility in suburban Brossard at midday, a relaxed Wilson holding court for the cameras – one of the reporters covering the team joked in hindsight the fact Wilson, whose relationship with the media has soured like a forgotten carton of milk, said nothing sarcastic should have been seen as a sign he knew something was afoot.