Tavares Wanted Wilson Fired on Spot

At long last we can say for certain why Ron Wilson was fired without warning as coach of the Mighty Ducks four years ago.

Of course, there was the well-chronicled personality conflict between Wilson and Anaheim Sports Inc. Chairman Tony Tavares. But you probably know all about that by now.

What you don't know is that Tavares wanted Wilson fired immediately after Wilson told a Detroit reporter that coaching the Red Wings would some day be his "dream job." Tavares didn't want to wait until the Ducks bowed out of the playoffs.

Imagine the scene at the Arrowhead Pond on the breathless night of April 29, 1997. The Ducks had just won Game 7 of their hard-fought opening-round playoff series against the Phoenix Coyotes, becoming only the seventh team in NHL history to win its inaugural playoff series. The Ducks were set to face the Red Wings in the second round in a few days. Wilson's father and uncle were former Red Wings. Their names are engraved on the Stanley Cup. And a reporter suddenly was asking Wilson about returning to Detroit, his boyhood home.

"You could say, in a perfect world, the Detroit Red Wings would be a dream job for me because of my family background, but it's not something I covet right now," he said. "I'm only concerned with the Ducks."

To everyone in the room that night, they were innocuous, but heart-felt words, which was to be expected from the honest, opinionated Wilson.

Tavares, reading a much shorter version of the quote in the Orange County Register the next morning, evidently saw only the words "dream job" and "Detroit Red Wings" and demanded that Wilson be fired mere hours after the Ducks' greatest triumph. Tavares apparently was willing to let assistants Tim Army and Walt Kyle coach the team in the second-round series against the Red Wings.

Meanwhile, as cooler heads worked behind the scenes to calm Tavares, the Ducks traveled to Detroit for Game 1. The Ducks practiced at Joe Louis Arena the day before the opener May 2.

Eager to get to the rink well before the players arrived for practice May 1, Wilson bumped into a friend in the lobby of the team's hotel and asked if he cared to share a taxi. Upon entering the taxi, Wilson instructed the driver to take a tour of his old neighborhood.

Wilson pointed out landmark after landmark during a 30-minute ride. There was his old house, his old school, his best friend's house. There was his uncle's house. At one point, before the taxi at last turned for the arena, Wilson became misty-eyed.

Clearly, Detroit meant a great deal to him. The 1996-97 Red Wings meant nothing to him, however. According to the passenger, who related the story to a reporter not long ago, Wilson said something to the effect that he wanted to "kick their . . ." in the upcoming series.

Tavares held off on his order to fire Wilson, but it finally was carried out May 20, 1997. The Ducks, mired today in last place in the Western Conference, haven't been the same since that fateful day.

After Wilson's Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals defeated the Ducks, 4-3, Friday for his first victory at the Pond since Game 7, somebody asked if he felt vindicated at long last.

"I don't look at it as vindication," he said. "The vindication was going to the Stanley Cup finals the next year [Washington lost to the Red Wings in the 1998 finals], if you need vindication."

Earlier in the day, he made it clear that the past was in the past.

"The first or second time coming back here, it pulls at your heart strings a little bit," he said. "The first year, I think I watched every one of their games. I was just drawn to watch them on TV. Now I only watch a period if they're on when I get home after a game. I watched the Chicago game the other night on ESPN2. It was surprising how empty and quiet it sounded in the arena."

NO CONTEST IN SAN JOSE

The San Jose Sharks' decision Saturday to appeal an 11-game suspension given to captain Owen Nolan for his forearm to the head of Dallas Star forward Grant Marshall smacks of the worst kind of arrogance.

The Sharks are not above the law. Nolan was lucky to get only 11 games. He will be eligible to play again March 1 against the Ottawa Senators.

Colin Campbell, NHL punishment czar, said it best in announcing the suspension: "The hit occurred away from the play against an unsuspecting opponent about to leave the ice on a line change."

You can't blame San Jose General Manager Dean Lombardi for being upset about losing his team's emotional leader, but that's the price you pay for a mindless action such as Nolan's.

There's simply no excuse for it. It must be punished.

VANCOUVER GOALIE SHUFFLE

No question the Vancouver Canucks needed a change in goal if they expected to remain in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. But did they give away too much last week when they sent superb young defenseman Adrian Aucoin to the Tampa Bay Lightning for unproven goalie Dan Cloutier?

If nothing else, it showed General Manager Brian Burke's frustration. In recent seasons, Burke has traded Kevin Weekes, dumped Garth Snow and lost faith in Felix Potvin.

Potvin agreed Sunday to be assigned to Kansas City of the International Hockey League. Despite a 3-13-3 record and 3.52 goals-against average with Tampa Bay, Cloutier will be given a shot at earning the No. 1 job in Vancouver. Bob Essensa's 14-6-2 record and 2.44 goals-against average apparently will keep him in the backup role.

"We don't need to anoint anybody," Vancouver Coach Marc Crawford said when asked about the pecking order of his goalies. "We don't need to let anybody know who our goaltender of record will be before the next game until they make us do it, which is 15 minutes before the game."

MARTY THE MENACE RETURNS

Marty McSorley surprised no one by getting kicked out of his first game with the IHL's Grand Rapids Griffins last week. McSorley, whose suspension for whacking Vancouver's Donald Brashear in the head last year ends Feb. 20, behaved in his second game.

Apparently, McSorley expects to be recalled by the Ottawa Senators when his suspension ends. We think he's dreaming. McSorley is the sort of distraction the Senators do not need as they continue their quest for the best record in the Eastern Conference.

McSorley belongs in a beer league somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. The idea of him positioning himself to play again in the NHL makes us ill.

KICK SAVES

Don't be surprised if the St. Louis Blues' deal to get veteran forward Scott Mellanby from the Florida Panthers last week pays off in the postseason. The Blues, although supremely talented at all positions, were short on grizzled veterans until getting Mellanby, a key figure in the Panthers' 1996 run to the Stanley Cup finals. The Blues' inexperience led to their first-round exit in last season's playoffs.

Speedy Chicago Blackhawk winger Steve Sullivan was cut by a high stick in a recent game against the Colorado Avalanche in Denver. A heckler gave Sullivan a rough time as he headed to the dressing room for repairs, but Sullivan gained a measure of revenge, scoring twice. Plus, Colorado goalie Patrick Roy cleared a loose puck into the stands and off the heckler's forehead, opening a gash. Now that's funny.

Stop if you've read these words before. The sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to Steve Ellman and Wayne Gretzky is expected to be finalized soon, which will clear the way for the team to soar to new heights. Yeah, right. Whatever. You can keep calling them the Choking Dogs.

Props to Disney for scheduling a private, grand-opening party for the new Anaheim theme park on the same night its struggling hockey team played the Blackhawks on one of its all-sports networks. Surprise! Only 11,682 showed up at the Pond to see the Ducks lose, 3-2. What's worse, the nation's hockey fans got an up-close look at the Ducks' attendance woes.

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