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.
Afterward, the team bus returned downtown to the Bell Centre so the players could change out of their equipment – Wilson was the last member of the Leafs to leave the visiting team’s dressing room sometime around 5 p.m.
It was around then that he received an e-mail from Burke, who had been in Boston attending the Sloan Centre Sports Analytics conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was boarding a plane to Montreal.
The message asked him to meet with Burke at 8 p.m.
By the time they talked, Carlyle was already in Montreal – sources say he arrived after midnight on Thursday – and at 10 p.m. the GM and the new coach met with the team in a conference room at the Vogue.
In the interim, Burke ran his decision to fire Wilson and replace him with Carlyle past the board of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment – which is in the process of changing hands from the Ontario teachers’ pension fund to a joint venture involving Bell Media and Rogers.
The same sources said neither Bell nor Rogers was consulted, both companies are said to be wary of becoming involved in decisional matters until regulatory approval is given for the billion-dollar deal.
It’s believed Carlyle signed a deal that will keep him in Toronto for the remainder of this season and the three following years – which is a year longer than Burke’s contract.
Should the team not perform up to expectations, the Leafs could find themselves in the same situation Burke inherited – with a coach, Wilson, who was hired by his predecessor.
The main question, however, is why Burke reached the decision when he did.
Why wait until the team had gone into a 1-9-1 swan dive?
Part of the answer to that question is that Burke has never seen a collapse that bad, and on Saturday he implied that he didn’t quite know how to react.
“Two-and-a-half weeks ago we were sitting in the eighth spot, up comfortably. I don’t know, I’ve never had this before. I’ve never had a team fall off a cliff like this before in my life. I’ve had dips, I’ve had slumps, I’ve had rough patches, but this is akin to an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff. I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life, I don’t know what happened. I’ve never experienced this,” he said. “I was talking to Ned Coletti of the Dodgers yesterday, and I said ‘have you ever had anything like this in all your years in baseball?’ He follows our team very closely, he said, I’ll leave the expletives out, he said ‘I have no idea what’s happening’. I’m bewildered by it, it’s like somebody hit me with a two-by-four. I’ve never had this before, where a team just plain, flat-out, went into free-fall.”
Burke’s clearly betting that by bringing in Carlyle, the 2007 Stanley Cup-winning coach when the two worked together in Anaheim, that the ship can be righted quickly.
The odds are stacked against the Leafs – they remain five points out of the running and according to a statistical modeling website have a 12 per cent chance of reaching the post-season.
At minimum, they’ll need to put together something close to an 11-5-2 run in their final 18 games, because of the complicating factor of overtime points, that might still not be enough.
And this is a team that has issues that will need to be ironed out urgently.
While Carlyle, a former Norris Trophy-winning defenceman whose long playing career included stops in Winnipeg and Toronto, can surely help address the team’s defensive-zone shortcomings.
But it’s an open question whether he can help sort out the Leafs’ spotty goaltending, which has been a source of consternation for fans and the subject of countless television panel shows over the past two weeks.
It’s an article of faith in pro hockey that inconsistent goaltending is a huge drain on confidence – and Carlyle observed that after his initial meeting with the team, his main priority is to restore some semblance of confidence.
“We have to find a way to re-energize the group. It’s not that they have lost their skills, it’s just that we have to rekindle their spirit,” said Carlyle.
For his part, Burke brushed aside the concerns over goaltending, insisting that “the reason we’re still alive statistically is because of [goalie]Jonas Gustavsson saving our ass twice during this season.”
Even in the final home game of Wilson’s tenure – a critical loss to the Florida Panthers in which the Leafs gave up goals on their first two shots – it’s unfair to point the finger at goalie James Reimer.
“What’s the goalie supposed to do about those two shots? Is there a goalie in the league that makes one of those saves? I don’t think so. It’s not just the goaltending in my mind, I think the goaltending is bearing a disproportionate and unfair share of the blame for where we are. I don’t think the goaltending’s been as bad as people think,” he said.
Either way, Burke clearly felt that the immediate prescription to stop the rot was to dismiss Wilson – and as to why he wouldn’t wait until the end of the season, Burke said he preferred to install someone now to impose new systems and philosophies rather than make the transition at training camp.
“If we’re going to miss, we’re going to miss with a coach who gives us a better chance next fall. We have control over the playoff spot with the schedule we have and the teams we play if we win our games. It’s still a realistic, difficult road with the opponents we have, but it’s still a realistic thing,” he said.
And in Carlyle, who is known as a taskmaster, Burke has precisely the kind of coach he loves.
“I don’t like coaches who are warm and fuzzy. The games shouldn’t be fun, I tell players this all the time, the fun part of the game is winning. The game itself should be a difficult contest filled with hard decisions and hard battles, and most of the reinforcement a player gets during the game is negative. The coach can’t go around and say ‘you just had a great shift.’ He’s correcting somebody else who was on that shift,” Burke said. “I don’t want it any other way, I like coaches who are hard on players. Look at coaches who are successful in our league, they’re not warm and fuzzy guys. John Tortorella used to work for me, coached for me in the Olympics, this is not a guy that you’re going to have on the bench who’s going to friendly and warm and fuzzy with the players. It’s not the hockey player’s way, he’s demanding on players.”
Burke also said that he and Carlyle are even more attuned than he was with his old friend Wilson, who he first met when the two were freshmen on the Providence College hockey team – New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello was the coach.
“If there’s one philosophical commitment that Randy and I share, it’s I like a rough team. And I think if you can point to one thing where Ron and I were on a different page, slightly, it would be that. I like it a little rougher than Ron does. But that’s the only part we were in disagreement on,” Burke said.
In Carlyle, he said the Leafs will also have a coach who defines each player’s task in stark and unmistakable terms.
“One, on Randy’s team there’s blue-collar guys and there’s white-collar guys who know their jobs. Two, he’s demanding, he’s hard on players. And three, he likes a physical game, he likes a crude game. Same as I do,” said Burke.
With reports from Steve Ladurantaye and Tara Perkins