Changing course, Caps fire Wilson

GM: Coach had lost support of key players


May 11, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee, saying the team's players had tuned out their head coach, fired Ron Wilson yesterday.

"I never believed that could happen," McPhee said. "I don't think it has to happen. But, in the course of going through exit interviews with players at the end of the season, it became clear that at some point players need a new message."

McPhee, a close friend of Wilson's, struggled with his emotions through the afternoon news conference that ended Wilson's five-year tenure with the Capitals.

Wilson, 46, driving with his family to his daughter Lauren's graduation at the University of South Carolina, was not available for comment.

During his five years with the team, Wilson compiled a 192-159-51-8 record. He took the Caps to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first year in Washington in 1997-98, and led them to consecutive Southeast Division titles in 1999-2000 and 2000-2001.

But, after the Stanley Cup run, the Caps did not win another playoff series, and in two of the following four years -- including this past regular season -- they did not make the postseason.

The Caps finished this season 36-33-11-2 and their inability to make the playoffs this season was particularly hard to take. McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis had acquired superstar Jaromir Jagr from the nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins last summer and felt they had the offense in place to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup.

McPhee said that while he has someone in mind for the job, he will take his time in pursuing him. The purpose of announcing a coaching change now is to give the Caps time to get the right man for the position.

Before Wilson's ouster was an hour old, speculation was Jagr, who is known not to get along with many coaches, had had a hand in it. But McPhee denied it and Leonsis said Jagr was, in fact, one of the players who gave positive feedback on Wilson.

Others wondered if Wilson had pressed for a resolution about his future -- which Leonsis said would be at risk next season if the Caps did not have a strong start -- because he was being pursued for other jobs.

But McPhee, in obvious distress, shook his head.

"He had no idea," said McPhee, who called Wilson and broke the news yesterday morning. "It was good that he was sitting down. We spoke for half an hour and there wasn't any bitterness."

Both McPhee and Leonsis said it wasn't the number of players who voiced discontent but the fact that a couple of players, "who you would never expect," joined in with the "usual" negative voices that made the difference. But team co-captain Brendan Witt said later by phone, "It was at least 90 percent of the team" who wanted a change.

"I'm not going to lie about it," Witt said. "Toward the end of the season we tuned [Wilson] out and decided to play for each other. I think players just didn't want to listen. It was like a revolt on a ship and the coach is the captain. You can't have that."

But because Leonsis said Wilson would not be fired, Witt said he experienced a bit of a shock at the news.

"But I think everyone had something about Ron," said Witt. "His personality just rubbed people wrong and a couple butted heads directly. I think there were games where he panicked on the bench. I think we want a coach who will treat everyone equally and hold everyone to the same standard. You want to know a guy is going to sit on the bench when he plays bad no matter who he is."

It was only about a month ago that Leonsis said Wilson's job was safe until at least Christmas. Leonsis said yesterday the statement was based on McPhee's recommendation.

"Near the end of the season people asked me how the coach stands and I said he stands good, and then we started playing good," Leonsis said. "And that's the way it was. We looked at everything at the end of the season; George did the exit interviews [with the players]. He wanted to rest and get away from everything for a little while and he did and then he went to Sweden for the World Hockey Championships. We didn't hear from him for two weeks.

"He got back Wednesday and we had a conference call Thursday and he said he thought it was time to let Ron go. I was surprised, but not shocked. We pressed him hard to make sure that was really the decision he wanted to make. George is a very deliberate man and he and Ron are very close. For him to make that decision was very difficult."

McPhee said he believes Wilson is one of the best coaches in the game and expects to see him coaching in the NHL next season. Leonsis said he is grateful to Wilson for what he accomplished, but added that he trusts his GM and is comfortable with the decision.

Wilson stats

Regular season

Year W L T OTL

1997-98 40 30 12

1998-99 31 45 6

1999-00 44 24 12 2

2000-01 41 27 10 4

2001-02 36 33 11 2

Totals 192 165 51 8

Post season

Year W L

1997-98 12 9

1999-00 1 4

2000-01 2 4

Totals 15 17

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