By David Elfin
Washington Times Staff Writer
Saturday, 11 May 2002
It happens all the time in today's player-centered era of pro sports. The players get tired of the coach's message and stop listening. That's what Washington general manager George McPhee ultimately decided happened with the underachieving Capitals this season and that's why McPhee surprisingly fired his coach and friend Ron Wilson yesterday.
Caps owner Ted Leonsis had said on April 8 that the jobs of Wilson and McPhee were both safe. But after distancing himself from the disappointing ending of the season, McPhee told Leonsis and team president Dick Patrick in a conference call Thursday afternoon that a coaching change was in order. They concurred. McPhee broke the news yesterday morning to Wilson, who was in Hilton Head, S.C., preparing for daughter Lauren's graduation today from the University of South Carolina. Wilson couldn't be reached for comment.
"I thought [Wilson´s effectiveness] had run its course," said McPhee, whose first major decision when he became the Caps' GM five years ago was hiring Wilson, with whom he had worked in Vancouver. "Ron's a very good coach, but at some point, the players sort of tuned things out and that's why the change was made. It's not based on a hunch but on the best information available and on my instincts. We were certainly comprehensive in talking about this. Ted and Dick were very supportive. This hasn't been easy to do. Ron and I have worked together for a long time. But I have to separate the personal from the professional. Ron's certainly disappointed, but I didn't sense any bitterness."
Wilson's successor will inherit the NHL's top goal-scorers of the past nine years in Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra, the best goalie of 2000 in Olie Kolzig, and this season's leading goal-scorer among defensemen in Sergei Gonchar. McPhee would encourage the retention of assistants Tim Army, Tim Hunter and Dave Prior but said that would be up to the coach.
McPhee refused to put a timetable on hiring a new coach even though the big-spending New York Rangers and Philadelphia also are in the market along with Anaheim. McPhee said he has identified a top candidate but hadn't contacted him, leading to speculation that his favorite is involved in the playoffs and subject to tampering rules.
A logical choice would be Colorado assistant Bryan Trottier, who helped the New York Islanders win four Stanley Cups and the Pittsburgh Penguins two during his Hall of Fame playing career. Trottier served as a mentor to the young Jagr in Pittsburgh and coached Washington's top minor league team in Portland (Maine) in 1997-98. The 45-year-old Trottier won a seventh Cup with the Avalanche last June as an assistant coach.
St. Louis' Joel Quenneville, the 2000 Coach of the Year, could be out of a job if the Blues lose their Western Conference semifinal series to the Red Wings. Former Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock, who wore out his welcome with his players this year after guiding them to the title in 1999 and the finals in 2000, is a less likely hire since his personality is comparable to that of the intelligent and often acerbic Wilson, who battled at times with Bondra and ex-captain Adam Oates and who didn't initially mesh well with Jagr. Current Portland coach Glen Hanlon is also well-regarded although the Pirates missed the playoffs.
McPhee would only speak in generalities about what he would like in a coach, citing the abilities to read and react during games, prepare a team in practice, communicate with the players and maintain poise under pressure.
The 46-year-old Wilson, who was 192-159-51-8 in five seasons in Washington, had been on the job longer than the coaches of all but four NHL teams (Detroit, Carolina, Ottawa and St. Louis, all of which are still in the playoffs). Taking over a team that had missed the playoffs in 1997, Wilson guided the Caps all the way to their first Stanley Cup finals in 1998. After a non-playoff season in 1999, Wilson produced a team-record 34-point turnaround and a division title in 2000. Another Southeast crown followed in 2001, but Washington was bounced from the playoffs in the first round by Pittsburgh for the second straight year.
The July 11 blockbuster trade with the Penguins for five-time scoring champion Jagr was supposed to guarantee a long playoff run this year. Instead, the Caps were devastated by major injuries to defenseman Calle Johansson and forwards Steve Konowalchuk and Jeff Halpern. And Jagr missed 13 games. Washington started 6-11-2 and didn't get back to .500 until March 29. A 9-3-1 finishing kick wasn't enough to grab the last Eastern playoff spot.
"We let everybody down, each other, the fans, not just Ron," co-captain Brendan Witt said yesterday. "We didn't really start to play well until it was too late. We had come from behind the previous two years and we thought we could do it again. Ron's very smart. He's great at the X's and O's. But I can see where he could rub some people the wrong way. I think a lot of guys did tune him out. I hope that whoever takes over demands accountability, but a coach can only do so much. It's really up to us."