Wilson is headlining the ultimate hockey show
This is it. The bright lights, the big stage. Henny Youngman in the Catskills. Don Rickles in Las Vegas. Ron Wilson is in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Washington Capitals coach isn't thrilled with the notion that he has gained a reputation as a standup comic during the playoffs. "I don't want people to think I'm Don Rickles," he said. Too late, you hockey puck (this is for my colleague Dan Daly, who pointed out that I have yet to use the word puck in any of my hockey columns). Wilson certainly has made his mark as one of the league's top coaches by taking this team in his first year here in Washington and bringing it to the finals for the first time in franchise history. But it's not his power plays or line changes that have been filling up reporters' notebooks or getting the ESPN sound bites. It has been Wilson's quips and chomping sarcasm (biting sarcasm doesn't measure the depth of his skill) that have made him a headliner. It comes so naturally, he can't help himself. Last week, Wilson got into an argument with a Buffalo reporter because the coach refused to say what sort of injury Mark Tinordi suffered in the previous game and how badly he was hurt. Another reporter complained to the league about Wilson, and NHL officials said they were investigating whether Wilson violated league rules by not disclosing the nature of the injury. The same day that came out, in the news conference after the pre-game morning skate, Wilson joked that while he couldn't talk about the players' injuries, he was at liberty to talk about the injuries to his coaching staff, and went into a comedy routine about their so-called injuries. This is the best part, though. After the Caps clinched the series that night in overtime, Wilson was surrounded by reporters interviewing him in the hallway outside the locker room. The Buffalo reporter who argued with Wilson about the Tinordi injury walked down the hall, along with dozens of other people going back and forth in a chaotic scene. In the middle of all this, Wilson spots him and yells, "Hey Jerry, no injuries." Is this the smartest aleck in the NHL or what? You've got to love a guy who wasn't Disney-enough for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. It's that same sense of humor that comes up with the colorful offbeat comparisons and analogies to illustrate his team's goals and accomplishments. Flesh-eating viruses. Exorcising demons. And then there's the theme of the Caps' success throughout this playoff run - "The Wizard of Oz," Wilson's favorite movie. "I needed a couple of volunteers to go and bring me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the East . . . we needed to spit in her eye," he said after the Boston series. Wilson topped that one, though, after the Buffalo series, comparing the Caps reaching the Stanley Cup finals to putting a man on the moon. "Our team is like Apollo 11, landing on the moon," he said. "The Capitals have never been to the finals, and so the finals is like landing on the moon." There's more to this than just a comedy routine, though. Tony Robbins could take motivational tips from Wilson. He has continued to push all the right emotional buttons for this team, not an easy thing to do given the baggage that came with this franchise. He has used his creative analogies and other devices to successfully motivate a veteran team. Joe Juneau marveled at Wilson's speech the day of Game 6 in Buffalo: "It was really a good story, one of the best ever from a coach, and all the guys really had it in their mind all day long," he said. And he knew what strings to pull to get under the skin of the opposing team, like Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, who sarcastically called Wilson a "genius" after Wilson used Matthew Barnaby's goal-celebrating antics in Game 2 to fire up his team for an overtime win. The best stuff may be yet to come, though, for the Detroit Red Wings and legendary coach Scotty Bowman, who once threw a water bottle at Wilson after a game. At yesterday's news conference, Wilson again tried to downplay the idea that he is a descendant of the Marx brothers. "It is not Comedy Central in there all the time," he said. But Wilson's lounge act has worked in loosening up a very uptight franchise, and his shtick may be more important now than ever. The Caps are going into their first Stanley Cup finals, facing a favored defending champion. On with the show. This is it.