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Wilson’s Mind, Wit Still Sharp : Hockey: Lockout didn’t stop Ducks’ coach from devising ways to challenge others.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ron Wilson can probably go weeks without being recognized in a crowd.

Sometimes he even puts on the Coach Bombay jacket that Emilio Estevez wore in the movie from which the Mighty Ducks took their name. Still nothing. “People think I got it in a store,” he said.

When he’s in the stands at his two daughters’ high school games, he’s just another dad with sandy-colored hair and wire-rimmed glasses.

“I can sit there at a basketball game at University or somewhere and they don’t know who I am, I’m just another Joe,” he said.

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But Wilson will be in the middle of a crowd that knows who he is tonight, when he takes his place behind the bench at The Pond--even if it is nearly four months late. After starting the shortened NHL season with a two-game trip to western Canada, the Mighty Ducks play their first home game in more than nine months tonight.

“This is what you live for. It’s what I live for,” he said after the lockout ended. “You’re going to bed later and getting up earlier. It’s a big difference in sleep, but it’s a good feeling because you’re thinking about hockey again.”

While the NHL and the NHLPA were arguing about the CBA that was TBA, Wilson’s restless mind looked for somewhere to light. One player too many did an interview in an NHL Players Assn. cap, and Wilson had his concept.

The imaginary NHLCA--the NHL Coaches Assn.--and its very own slogan, “Who Cares?”

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The lockout gave him a chance to spend more time with his family, a chance to hand out the candy at Halloween, a chance to be home and unhurried at Christmas. But when he was in the stands at high school games, he couldn’t help being a coach. And it wasn’t the coaches Wilson thought needed some tips.

“I get so upset at parents who go to high school games and some of them are yelling and berating the kids,” he said. “Too often, the parents think they’re helping the kids.”

Wilson would take it as long as he could.

“Then at some point I’d go over and say, ‘Will you please shut up?’ Then they’d say, ‘Mind your own business.’

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“And I’d say ‘This is my business.’ ”

While management and players drew and redrew lines in the ice in New York and Toronto and Boston, Wilson sat in his office at the arena and challenged players to debates.

“He was pretty disgusted with both sides, but he was always expressing his viewpoints,” said center Bob Corkum, who as the union representative for the Ducks was deeply involved in the issues during the labor dispute and was widely quoted by the Associated Press and ESPN.

Wilson sometimes switched sides, but in a way he was still coaching. He wanted his players to be able to argue their cases. “If you can’t, it’s like kindergartners who just say, ‘Because,’ ” he said.

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So in the middle of a labor dispute that sometimes didn’t budge for days, players and their immediate boss were visiting in the dressing room--the office, if you will.

“What really helped was the open-door policy,” forward Todd Ewen said. “You could walk in the room and not feel differently all throughout the lockout. It was nice to be able to know the rink was still your home.”

He didn’t agree with all of Wilson’s positions, but he understands how precarious a coach’s seat is. The coach technically is management, but if he doesn’t have the players’ confidence when all is said and done, his job will be all said and done.

“There has to be as much fence-sitting as possible,” Ewen said.

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Now that it’s over, Wilson is very much the same coach who led the Ducks through a first season in which they shared an expansion record with Florida by winning 33 games and set one with 19 road victories.

“I think at this stage he hasn’t changed one bit,” said goalie Guy Hebert. “He’s intense, he’s got enthusiasm, he’s competitive, he wants everyone to have fun out there.”

Wilson had never been a head coach on any level when General Manager Jack Ferreira interviewed the young Vancouver Canuck assistant, but Ferreira saw things he liked and hired him. The choice was met with skepticism in some corners of the hockey world, but Wilson proved to be the perfect blend of cerebral coach and positive-thinking companion for a bunch of players who needed to be led through what could have been a very trying year.

On the franchise’s opening night, Oct. 8, 1993, the Ducks took part in an over-the-top $480,000 production to commemorate the event, then promptly got smoked by Detroit, 7-2.

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There’s another show tonight, though not on quite the same overwrought scale. This one is designed to thank the fans for coming back--and not demanding their money back during the lockout.

Wilson still had to go to an entertainment meeting Sunday afternoon, but at least this time it wasn’t necessary for him to explain that the second show--the hockey game--was important too. And this time, he says, he’s not worried about his players getting overwhelmed by the scene.

“Last year it wasn’t the show so much as it being the first team, starting the first season, and starting the season in the NHL, which for a lot of our guys was a stretch,” he said.

“I don’t think it will be the same.”

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Duck Notes

The team’s 25-game sellout streak had not yet been extended to 26 as of Sunday evening. Scattered single tickets and club seats were still available. . . . Right wing John Lilley, who made the team in September but broke his jaw in December while playing for San Diego during the lockout, will rejoin the team sometime this week, Coach Ron Wilson said. Left wing Garry Valk is still about a week and a half from resuming skating after spraining a ligament in his left knee last week. Center Stephan Lebeau participated in a full practice for the first time since spraining his left ankle last week and said he hopes to play Wednesday or Friday.


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