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Wilson Gets Chance to Wing It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What did the Detroit Red Wings ever do to Ron Wilson?

Well, they fired his father, Larry Wilson, as coach in 1977.

They fired his Uncle Johnny too, in 1973.

Then there was the time they told Ron’s father he’d be playing in the minors for a few games.

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“Two weeks of conditioning,” Ron remembers, still incredulous. “It ended up being 13 years.”

And all that was long before the Red Wings beat the Mighty Ducks in the first game in franchise history--smoking the Ducks, 7-2, on Oct. 8, 1993, in Ron’s debut as an NHL coach.

Now the only coach the Ducks have ever had--Larry’s son and Johnny’s nephew--is fairly chortling at the opportunity that fate and the Stanley Cup playoffs have handed him: a best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series against the Red Wings beginning Friday in Detroit.

“Who knows? Maybe it’s destiny that I come back and avenge my dad’s and my uncle’s firings,” Wilson said. “Maybe I can come to the rescue and save my family’s name in Detroit.

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“My uncles are going to come. My cousins are going to come. Who knows, I may even take my grandmother out of the nursing home for one of the games.”

No, Wilson has never much liked the Red Wings, and if you thought there was some good back-and-forth in the Ducks-Phoenix series, there probably will be better between Wilson and Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman.

They already have had a hilarious towel-throwing snit after a 1995 game in Anaheim, and the other day, Wilson laughed and called it “bush” that Bowman has painted the visitors’ dressing rooms at Joe Louis Arena during the playoffs the past two seasons. (Isn’t it time for that second coat?)

Wilson has always been at once irritated and invigorated by the Red Wings. They dominated the Ducks for their first three years, never losing to them until this season, when the Ducks went 3-0-1 against them.

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“This is special because of what the Red Wings mean to my family--only they mean a lot more to the rest of the family than they do to me,” Wilson said.

Even as a youngster, Wilson didn’t pull for the Red Wings, despite the fact his father and uncle both etched their names on the Stanley Cup for Detroit.

“Just contrary, I guess,” he said.

Instead, Ron was a Toronto Maple Leaf fan. It was at a Leafs-Red Wings game that 8-year-old Ron was taken into the Detroit dressing room for the rare privilege of being plopped on Gordie Howe’s lap.

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All Wilson wanted to do was squirm out of Howe’s reach and run to the Maple Leaf dressing room along with his brothers.

“I was miserable,” Wilson remembers. “I hated Gordie Howe.”

His emotions are partly bound up in his childhood--he was born just across the U.S.-Canada border in Windsor and spent summers and vacations there while growing up near Buffalo, N.Y.

But more than anything, it is about his father, who died in 1979 of a heart attack at 49, an early loss that has a profound emotional effect on Wilson’s approach to the game, even now.

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It’s one reason too, that Wilson, who turns 42 this month, says he can’t imagine coaching past 50, saying there are other things he’d like to do.

Still, he thinks about the opportunities his father didn’t get--how he spent most of his career in the minors before being tapped to finish out the season in 1977. He coached the final 36 games, but didn’t get another chance.

Ron was away at Providence College and never saw his dad behind an NHL bench.

“You grow up in a family like that, and it doesn’t seem like a big deal until you’re older and can put it in perspective,” he said. “That was just my dad, not Larry Wilson, or my Uncle Johnny, not Johnny Wilson.

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“Unfortunately, you don’t look at those things until the person’s not here anymore. I never said to my dad, ‘What was it like to play in those first couple of games, centering Gordie Howe in 1949?’

“It’s just special as you get older. I never realized, I don’t think, until I was a teenager that my dad played on a Stanley Cup winner. I didn’t think about what my dad did.”

Wilson’s uncle, Johnny Wilson, got a little bit longer chance with the Red Wings than his father, coaching them for 147 games from 1971-73.

He still lives in the Detroit area, and is involved with the Red Wing alumni group. But blood is thicker than frozen water, and Ron has always planned that when he made it to a playoff series against the Red Wings, he would ask his Uncle Johnny to speak to his team.

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Johnny is a relic by one standard: He played on the last Red Wing team to win the Stanley Cup, in 1955, and he is on the Ducks’ side.

There will have to be a Game 5 for it to happen, though, because Uncle Johnny, like many others, figured the Ducks would be playing Colorado if they made it to the second round, and he is vacationing in Florida.

“From a personal and emotional point of view, this is really exciting,” Wilson said. “It seems like I’m chasing my own dreams, but I’m chasing my dad’s too, because they’re the same.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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DUCKS vs. RED WINGS

* WHEN: 4:30 p.m. Friday

* WHERE: at Detroit

* TELEVISION: ESPN

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Times staff writers Bill Plaschke and Elliott Teaford contributed to this story.


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