Wilson Turns to Washington Politics

J.A. Adande is a columnist for the Orange County edition of The Times

Washington Capital General Manager George McPhee approached his new coach and made his point clear.

"We're counting on you, Ron," McPhee said to Ron Wilson.

Bring a Stanley Cup to Washington? That task will come later. On this day, earlier this week, McPhee's faith in Wilson related only to their grouping in a foursome for the team's annual charity golf outing. Wilson is a terrific golfer, a one handicap, and in the best-ball format it became clear from the first hole that the foursome would spend the day playing from wherever Wilson's ball landed.

It was easy to tell their bags apart once they secured them to the golf cart. McPhee's last job was as general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, and there's a Canuck logo on his bag, his golf towel, his club head covers and his glove.

Wilson's bag has his name, but you won't find the billed goalie mask of the Mighty Ducks anywhere. All his Duck paraphernalia is in a box somewhere. He started to throw it away after the Ducks fired him in May, then realized it might make for some good collectors' items one day and decided to keep it.

That cooler, calmer rationale was the prevailing mode of thinking as Wilson made his way around the golf course. He can mix the highs and lows of his four years as Anaheim's coach quite easily. The longtime New York Yankee fan tells of one benefit of working for Disney: the time he mingled with the Yankees during batting practice at Anaheim Stadium this year and Joe Torre gave him the cap off his head. Wilson ends the story by saying, with a laugh, "Two days later, I got fired."

Let enough time pass and you can laugh at just about anything. But you never really get over the pain, the indignity, the abruptness of being fired.

"The hardest thing when something like that happens is not to take it all personally," Wilson said. "Different things have reasons why. Things happen and things get said in the newspaper or just won't seem to go away. In this case, I just can't take things personally. Other people have jobs they have to do and reasons they have to say things, and I have to understand that a lot of the things I've read aren't true. But it's easy to get caught up in that after a while. I prefer, in my mind, to try to keep everything as positive as possible about the experience."

Yet, how can he not take it personally when his bosses say his dismissal was about philosophical differences, when they go so far, as Duck General Manager Jack Ferreira did, as to say, "This decision has nothing to do with wins and losses?"

That's the only thing that brings a hint of anger to Wilson's voice.

"For four years, that's all it was, was wins and losses, and now all of a sudden it isn't," Wilson said. "So, people have to justify decisions at times. If that's what they have to say for themselves, great. I want to keep my memories of Anaheim intact and in a positive way. It was a great group of guys, a great organization, and I grew. I guess I hate to look at it that you have to move on somewhere else to take the next step. I didn't want that to happen, but in professional sports, it does."

He's trying to adjust to his new surroundings. He sees things he'd like to change, like getting more Capitals' apparel in airport gift shops and sporting good stores. He'd like to get a chance to meet with one of the area's most prominent sports figures and a fellow Providence College alum, Georgetown basketball Coach John Thompson.

It's hard to forget Anaheim, though, when the reminders are just an Internet log-on away.

"The thing is, reading things that people say about you that they never ever said to your face or even thought of before. . . ." Wilson said. "But in today's society, where you can read just about anything you want, anywhere, that's the only disappointing part. I won't sink to those levels. I'll stay above it all."

And, for the most part, he did, refraining from firing any direct shots at Ferreira or team president Tony Tavares or his most overtly critical former player, Bobby Dollas.

But at the 13th hole there was one opportunity too good to pass up. It sat there like a gimme putt.

As a member of Wilson's foursome prepared to tee off, a persistent, loud group of water fowl kept quacking.

"I tell ya, those [bleeping] ducks will drive you crazy," Wilson said.

He had a devilish grin that made it clear he was joking and enjoying his little pun.

Wilson saw Ferreira's comment that if Pierre Page had been available at the franchise's inception in 1993, he would have been the coach. It probably was meant more as a compliment to Page than a slight against Wilson, but Wilson viewed it as "just a way of trying to build support for Pierre in a very unpopular decision."

Wilson said he considers Page a friend and wishes him well.

"I'm not sitting here on the East Coast with my fingers crossed that the Ducks suffer a meltdown," Wilson said. "I hope they do well enough that we have the opportunity of playing them in the finals."

Don't look for them to meet in June. Last year, for the first time since 1982, the Capitals missed the playoffs. Before that, the Capitals had become part of an annual spring ritual in Washington: The cherry blossoms would brighten the Tidal Basin with a breathtaking display of pink and white; shortly thereafter, the Capitals would make an early departure from the playoffs.

However, there's a feeling things are starting to change. The Capitals will have Adam Oates, acquired in a late trade last season, for a full season. In December, the team will leave its morgue-like arena in suburban Maryland and move into the new MCI Center in downtown Washington. Wilson thinks the new arena will be "the nicest building in the country. I think it's going to be a real source of pride for the team."

But the team also will need to keep the seats filled. The Capitals always have been an afterthought in Washington. They came into existence only so Abe Pollin could justify building a new arena for his NBA team, which has changed its name from Bullets to Wizards this season. Now that the Capitals are moving to Washington, they'll need to attract new fans to replace the portion of their suburban fan base that is overly paranoid and afraid to come downtown.

Wilson promises a departure from former coach Jim Schoenfeld's defensive-oriented approach that made the Capitals one of the least potent and least exciting teams in the NHL. Wilson also says he won't be as physically demanding of the players, many of whom believed that Schoenfeld's grueling training camp and practices contributed to the team-record 369 man-games missed because of injuries last season.

Wilson thinks back to a summer phone call he received from Disney Chief Executive Officer Michael Eisner ("He thanked me for four years of hard work. I really appreciated that," Wilson said), and some of Eisner's words begin to make more sense. Eisner said he had some tough times too, and Wilson thought to himself, "Look where he's at now."

Wilson is in a pretty good place himself. He has doubled his salary and he has a chance to start anew.

"I think it's going to be cathartic to me," Wilson said. "As soon as we start, I'll have something else to focus on other than keep on answering 'Why?' or stuff like that. I'll start talking about how much fun it is to be here in Washington, and everything was positive in Anaheim, as far as I was concerned."

We'll leave Wilson here for now, on the 14th fairway after yet another great tee shot. We'll see him again in Anaheim, before too long.

"Dec. 11," Wilson said, referring to the date the Capitals come to town. They play the Ducks the next night. "Mark it on your calendar."

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