Wilson Becomes an Olympic Coaching Favorite

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By at least one measurement, Mighty Duck Coach Ron Wilson, who has guided the U.S. team to a 3-0 record in the World Cup of Hockey, is uniquely qualified to coach the 1998 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

"If you get a job because you beat the Russians, I'm three times better than anyone else at the moment," Wilson joked.

The World Cup is considered a rehearsal for the 1998 Nagano Games, which for the first time will showcase NHL stars playing for their homelands. It may also feature Wilson reprising his role behind the bench.

In leading the U.S. past Canada and Russia and into the semifinals Sunday at Ottawa, Wilson enhanced his resume and became the overwhelming favorite for the Olympic coaching job. It's not a huge field, because American coaches remain a minority in the NHL, but his success at handling NHL players' talent and egos in international competition gives him an edge.

"I'm not really looking at it that way," Wilson said Tuesday, before Team USA routed Slovakia, 9-3, before an announced 18,200 at Madison Square Garden. "But on the other hand, I'm not a fool. I know if we have some success I certainly have a chance. It certainly would be an honor. . . .

"It doesn't have the significance of the Olympics but I think the hockey here is going to be better than the hockey played at the Olympics. There's going to be only two, three days to get ready for that. We've had time to prepare and stay together as a team."

Wilson coached the U.S. to fourth place in the 1994 World Championships and last May led the team to a bronze medal, its first in "A" level play since 1962. In the World Cup, he has molded a confident team around a strong defense and enterprising offense.

Lou Lamoriello, general manager of the New Jersey Devils and Team USA, said he wouldn't hesitate to back Wilson for the Olympic job. That's crucial, because Lamoriello is likely to be the Olympic team's general manager. The general manager will be appointed next spring and will pick the coach after consulting with officials of USA Hockey, the sport's national administrative body.

"There's no question in my mind, at this time and under the present situation, I would have to give him a recommendation," said Lamoriello, who was Wilson's coach two decades ago at Providence College. "Who couldn't, given what he's done at this tournament?

Wilson said he has many other concerns before the Olympics, such as getting Team USA ready to meet the winner of Friday's quarterfinal between Finland and Russia, and after that, preparing the Ducks for their fourth season.

"I'll be like a diver suffering from the bends," he said of going back to a less-talented team. "I'll need to be in a decompression chamber to make the adjustment. In Anaheim, the players have always worked hard. It was a matter of execution. These guys always execute."

World Cup Notes

Keith Tkachuk of the Phoenix Coyotes had a had trick and Mike Modano of the Dallas Stars had two goals and an assist to help the U.S. remain undefeated. Mighty Duck goalie Guy Hebert made 28 saves and said, "It was a real thrill for me to play. To watch the best players in the world is great, and getting out there tonight is a bonus that's going to help me this season."

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