The End of Old Yeller; He Had to Go

by Tony Kornheiser
The Washington Post
Saturday, May 11, 2002; Page D01

Just a few days before the Capitals began their 1998-99 season there was a media dinner at MCI Center at which Ron Wilson, heady with his success after coaching the Capitals to the Stanley Cup finals right out of the box, took the microphone and sketched his blueprint for the upcoming season. Brimming with confidence and swagger, Wilson boldly said the Caps would start fast, maybe hit a small slump in January or February, but rally and end the season in perfect position to win the Stanley Cup. Wilson said he wanted the Caps to finish the regular season in third place in the conference -- because he had done research, and found the team that finished third in the regular season most often won the Cup.

Everybody applauded Wilson's presentation.

One of his last hurrahs, as it turned out.

The Caps started the '98-99 season terribly; they were 11-19-3 by January. They never even made the playoffs, a stinging humiliation for the defending conference champions.

They made the playoffs in 1999-2000 as the second seed, but were quickly eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins -- after finishing 14 points ahead of Pittsburgh in the standings!

The next season was almost a mirror image. The Caps went into the playoffs a higher seed than the Penguins. And the Penguins ushered them out in the first round.

This past season the Capitals assumed they finally had Pittsburgh's number -- because they'd stolen Pittsburgh's luminescent Jaromir Jagr. The day Jagr was traded to the Capitals, Wilson exulted: "This is what you live for as a coach -- to have a player who can play like this. We've landed if not the best player, certainly one of the top five players in the world. This makes us a legitimate contender."

Clearly, with goal scorers Jagr and Peter Bondra, the league leader in assists, Adam Oates, the superb goalie, Olaf Kolzig, and the sharpshooting defenseman, Sergei Gonchar, the Capitals loomed as a favorite to get to the Stanley Cup.

But the Caps didn't even get to the playoffs. It looked like the kiss of death for Wilson: four straight seasons of failing to advance to the second round of the playoffs. And missing the show entirely with Jagr, who had never missed the playoffs before in 11 seasons.

"It's an absolute failure not to make the playoffs with Jagr," said ESPN's hockey analyst, Bill Clement. "You can't chalk it up to: 'We're just adjusting to each other.' " (It should be pointed out Clement was quite critical of Jagr, calling Jagr "an energy vampire," and saying, "Jagr shut down the first half of the season, and threw the franchise into turmoil.")

Yet, Wilson wasn't fired. Only last month Ted Leonsis insisted Wilson would return. "There shouldn't be any speculation," Teddy Log On said. "Ron will be here next year."

But Ron didn't even make June. (

Where was Leonsis when George McPhee announced Wilson was fired? I heard McPhee say this was all his doing; that he, McPhee, became convinced that Wilson had to go, and pressed that case on Leonsis. I heard McPhee say Leonsis "was echoing what I said" when Leonsis proclaimed Wilson would be back. McPhee tried to take all the heat himself. But why would anybody trust Leonsis's guarantees after this? Leonsis has been a very good owner; very accessible and enthusiastic; he spends money on players; he markets aggressively and impressively; the Caps have more fans now than ever. But shouldn't Leonsis have been on the podium for a change of this magnitude? Or was this a sign he doesn't fully support his GM?)

My feeling was that Wilson should have been dismissed after the 2001 season. His abrasive personality had worn the sheen off his relationships with some key players. For example, I'd heard from two players and a team executive that between periods of one of the playoff games Wilson launched into one of his typical browbeating tirades. And some of the players were so sick of this approach that one angry player told Wilson, "Enough! Either you shut up and get out, or I'll fight you right here." One team executive told me, "Ron's a great coach. But he has a very rough needle."

From all reports Wilson made a big effort to tone down his needle this season. He was more protective of his players in print; there was nothing like the ugly scapegoating of Adam Oates that happened during the 2001 playoffs. But the results weren't there. McPhee said, "At some point the players sort of tune things out." Maybe the players thought Wilson was yelling even when he wasn't.

What was confusing about Leonsis's announcement last month wasn't so much the decision to bring Wilson back, but that sources were saying Wilson would be on a short leash -- and he could lose his job quickly if the Capitals started slowly. When did the Caps not start slowly under Wilson? The last four seasons Wilson's record in October and November was 33-44-16. Why bet on that horse? T

he annual problem facing the Caps was they started so poorly that Wilson had to go to the whip hand too early. The Caps were often superb in January, February and March, because they needed to be to storm back into the playoff race. But by April they were out of gas. After that first glorious year Wilson never got to coast along in neutral.

McPhee said the Caps "need a new message." One of the reasons Wilson always had to deliver his message screaming was because it was hard for the Capitals to hear him when they were so far back of the pack by January.

Having said all this, it must also be said that Ron Wilson was the most successful coach the Caps ever had. No other coach -- and the Caps have had 11 -- guided the team to the Stanley Cup finals. No other coach won a game in the Eastern Conference finals. You could see the pain on McPhee's face when he let his friend go.

But hockey coaches come and go like cars on the Beltway. Every few weeks some 36-year-old is getting a head coaching job, and some 41-year-old is out on the street. Hockey coaches are dumped even when their teams are winning, sometimes when their teams are in first place!

McPhee said he has his eye on someone already. Sometimes change for the sake of change -- and that's what this looks like -- is good. They have had addition by subtraction in Boston with the Red Sox. Last year the tension in that clubhouse was knee-deep. Then in spring training this year a virtual unknown named Grady Little walked in with a calm disposition, and the Red Sox are playing lights out. The right guy with the right personality can do that here.

2002 The Washington Post Company


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