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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 ...

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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