Last week, Ron Wilson showed the Leafs a clip from In Living Color.
The sketch comedy series, which ran on Fox in the early 90s, featured a recurring segment titled "Fire Marshal Bill." The character, played by Jim Carrey, was a combustible mix of good intentions and self-destructive actions.
In the 4-minute clip Wilson selected for airing behind closed doors, Bill takes his maniacal grin to a classroom. But while teaching the kids about fire safety, he electrocutes himself, rolls his face across thumbtacks, sets his hand ablaze, torches a wall mural and, eventually, blows up the entire school.
The Leafs beat St. Louis last night in a shootout. But during a 7-minute clip in the third – in which the Blues scored three unanswered goals to obliterate a 5-2 Toronto lead – the bumbling spectre of Fire Marshal Bill was raised yet again.
As Wilson told his players last week:
"He's trying to do all the right things to teach the kids, but he ends up sabotaging the whole thing and blowing himself up. And that's what we have to get over. We've got guys who are trying to do three or four people's jobs, as an example, and you're not even doing your job well. Concentrate on doing your job.
"Don't become Fire Marshal Bill."
It's Wednesday morning and Etobicoke is bathed in winter sunlight.
As I pull into the parking lot of the MCC, the song playing on boom 97.3 is Colin James' cover of "Into The Mystic."
Inside the rink, a 55-year-old man with a conservative haircut and weary expression hovers on the ice. He watches his young players scrimmage the way a parent watches his children at a playground. A whistle dangles around his neck. His eyes dart from side to side, as if attempting to keep track of several different storylines, all of which are tethered inexorably to his future.
Now in his third season as Toronto's head coach, Ronald Lawrence Wilson is a man under siege.
The "Fire Wilson!" chants started weeks ago, ricocheting around the Air Canada Centre as his team tumbled into a self-made abyss. The radio shows and message boards crackle with blistering censure from fans demanding his head on a platter. His boss and longtime friend, general manager Brian Burke, has been asked repeatedly about a "possible coaching change" – a possibility he has repeatedly denied.
What many fail to understand, though, is that Wilson is philosophical about his own fate. If this is a siege, he's not afraid to come out with his hands up. After nearly two decades in the churning maelstrom that is NHL coaching, he has reached a twilight point in his career where, truth be told, the shine of balanced life is more alluring than the heat of the chase.
Ron Wilson has gone Into The Mystic.
Why hasn't your team met expectations from this summer?
This is one of the questions I ask Wilson as we sit inside his second-floor office at the MCC later that afternoon. For a nanosecond, he eyes me suspiciously. Then he sits forward in his chair.
"I guess even my own expectations were a little bit higher," he says. "But in looking back, maybe unrealistically so."
Wilson talks about sophomore jinxes, free agents struggling to blend together, inconsistent play and the death-rattle panic that can disfigure the trajectory of a game when a young team makes a mistake that leads to more mistakes. (See last night's third period.)
When people take aim at Wilson, one of the sharpest arrows in their critical quiver is special teams: Why has the power play and penalty kill lagged for much of his tenure in Toronto?
"Our special teams were great the first month of the season, especially our penalty killing," he says. "We didn't change anything but a couple of people got hurt. Dion got hurt and Colby Armstrong got hurt. And we had a period of about three weeks where we lost all confidence in our penalty kill and the things that we were doing. We were expecting bad things to happen.
"I think we're over the hump there but, you know, in our league you have one disastrous month and the overall picture of your special teams gets a little bit out of whack."
Contrary to what his detractors say, Wilson defends his special teams with a stat.
"If I told you now that the other team has only scored two more goals on their power play than we have, you wouldn't believe that. We've given up 28 and scored 26. So the difference in our power play and penalty kill is only two.
"So our power play has actually been better than we get credit for, especially with the type of team we have. And our penalty killing on most nights has been adequate. But on some nights, if it goes south, it goes completely south and it ends up skewing our numbers."
The trade rumours are now swirling. Burke says he is open for business. But transactions in the new NHL are easier said than done. So I ask Wilson a simple question: Do you have confidence you can win with this team without player personnel moves?
There is a pause.
"Well, I don't look at this like we've got to win 30 games in a row," he says. "We've got a young team that we're building for the future. And there's where all the misconceptions come from about our team.
"We are the youngest team in the league. The second youngest is below us in the standings and that’'s Edmonton. And Edmonton is looked at as being totally young, all these rookies in the lineup, yet we're younger than Edmonton.
"So Edmonton's expectations are rock bottom – to suffer with a young team and let them grow. Our expectations appear to be we have to make the playoffs even though we have the youngest team in the league.
"I think we can win. I'm perfectly content with our team as long as it's showing signs of growth. And I think most of our young players are showing signs of growth. The Grabovskis and the Kulemins, Luke Schenn on defence. We're getting some real good goaltending from young, inexperienced people. Reimer has played really well."
He talks about inconsistency and how difficult it is for a young team to deal with adversity: "A bad moment happens in a game and it turns into a bad four or five moments."
He talks about how veteran teams can block out these bad moments and carry forth, a quality he strongly believes his team will eventually learn. (See last night's final score.)
But all of this raises another question: Were expectations too high at the start of the season?
"No, no," he says. "No. What I am saying is, did everybody have us going from the second worst team in the league to Stanley Cup champion? By actually going from (average age of) 28 years old down to 25 years old?
"Our goal is still to try and make the playoffs and put together a string of games where we can climb back in. But the only expectations I have are to try and improve every day."
And you're satisfied with this improvement?
"Well, to an extent. I'm a very competitive person and I would prefer to win every single game. Period. That's what you're in this business to do. Try and win every single game. If you get frustrated, you get frustrated because you are doing everything you can and some nights you can't win a game."
The downside to being a competitive person, the downside to hyper-fixating on a career in a demanding, public realm such as the NHL is that, at some point, you end up with personal regrets.
Not about the game. But about what the game has cost you.
"Early on, your priorities are so focused on your career," says Wilson. "As you get a little bit older, you start to realize how many things you have missed in your life."
Ken Hitchcock once said to be a coach during the season is to traipse around life with a 50-pound backpack you can never remove. Wilson says it's like being in school your entire life. There is little to very little downtime and, when there is, you are still trapped on the ice.
"I know I'll sit around when my family is around sometimes and I'm in another world," says Wilson. "They are discussing something and I don't hear a damn word. That's just the way it is. I'm sitting there thinking about the Leafs or how do I get this player going or what's wrong with our penalty kill and you're sitting there, everybody is having a conversation, but you're just a piece of furniture.
"I am having my own conversation in my mind."
In another soliloquy inside his mind, Ron Wilson is looking back at his journey so far. And he is alarmed by the sheer number of domestic milestones he missed as his hockey life rode roughshod over his family life.
"You can't get those days back," says Wilson. "Once that's gone, it's gone. I can't go back to high school graduations because my kids aren't going to go through that any more."
And so you end up with regrets.
"You have to live with it. I have a great family that has always stood by me and understood. But, yeah, those are personal things that you certainly regret. At the time, for your kids, those are the biggest moments in their lives and you're absent from them.
"My God, all my memories, it seems, are hockey and they are not my family. A lot of the things that should be important have been erased by this tape recorder in your mind that is recording all the hockey moments because that is where your focus is.
"In certain areas, I have recorded over my family moments with my kids, if that makes any sense."
It makes perfect sense.
It also explains why Wilson is now determined to spend as much time as he can with his two granddaughters, who are 4-years-old and 6 months of age. It explains why he is an intensely private person who is quick to erect an emotional guard.
And it explains why he is philosophical about his future.
On Tuesday night, Wilson sat in front of his flat-screen TV, fired up his Blu-Ray player and watched Dinner For Schmucks. A few days earlier, he went to see Barney’s Version at a Yorkville theatre. Before that, it was True Grit.
Wilson watches movies. This is his escape from the grind of coaching, his refuge from the siege. With his wife spending most of her time at their home in South Carolina, where she has more friends and more peace, film has become a sort of companion for Wilson, a comfort when he needs to decompress.
Sometimes, he watches alone at home. Other times, he will put on his jeans, pull the hood up on his Canada Goose jacket and venture, also alone, into a megaplex. It's a jarring image to consider: The head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs sitting alone inside a darkened theatre.
But even during these moments of planned escape, even as he attempts to strike a more balanced existence between the two solitudes of professional hockey and family life, a scene or character will yank him back onto the ice.
"Often there is something that happens in the movie – oh, that character is going through something that we've got three players going through. And then it all comes right back and you're like, 'Get out of here! Get out of here!' I need two hours to flush stuff out of my head so I can think clearly."
I ask if he's recognized when he's strolling around town.
"You'd be shocked," he says. "I do not get recognized as much as you think, especially in the Yorkville area."
When he is, the encounters are mostly pleasant. When the stranger is too exuberant, too determined to talk about matters that will yank him back onto the ice, Ron Wilson simply denies that he is Ron Wilson.
"Ninety-nine per cent of the people I bump into are very supportive. And the other people who aren’t supportive do not say anything to your face, wait until you are a block down the road and then curse at you or call you an idiot."
What is the biggest misconception about Ron Wilson?
"I seriously don't read the papers. I don't watch TV. I don't listen to the radio. So I really don't even know what anybody's perception of me is, nor do I care. Because I've been doing this for almost 20 years and I'd like to think that I have a pretty good idea of what I'm doing or I wouldn't have been around this long."
How does coaching in this market compare to coaching in Anaheim or San Jose or Washington?
"The interest in some of the other cities wouldn't be, I suppose, as intense as it is here. There are so many media outlets here and it's very competitive amongst the outlets. So everybody here analyzes everything that goes on with the Maple Leafs and has an opinion about it without really a lot of inside information.
"So, therefore, I don't regard those opinions as very important because the people aren't sitting in here, they don't know what you deal with on a day-to-day basis."
What comes next for Ron Wilson?
"What comes next for me? Well, hopefully nothing!"
I try again.
At some point, whenever that point arrives, Ron Wilson will not be coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs. What happens when this happens?
"My dad died when he was 48 years old and he was a hockey coach. And I'm 55 going on 56. You work. You have a nice home. You have other hobbies. I boat and I golf a lot in the summertime. I want to be able to be healthy enough to enjoy all those things.
"I have no plans on coaching until I'm 70 years old or even, I don't think in the back of my mind, until I'm 60 years old."
Here's the thing: Siege or no siege, win or lose, compete today or rebuild tomorrow, Wilson is already mentally prepared for his final lap. He has no interest in becoming a general manager. Advising may be an option, but only if it does not suffocate his family life as coaching has done.
"I was built to coach," says Wilson. "I've put everything into it. And when somebody tells me I'm not going to coach any more, or I'm done with the Leafs, I'm probably done as a coach. How long can you keep on coaching? How healthy is this kind of business?
"A lot of people don't even realize I'm like sixth all-time in games coached and games won. For all the heat that I seem to take, I've been around a long time and seen a lot of things and been relatively successful.
"So I'm content with my coaching career. I would like to win a Stanley Cup more than anything. But if it's not to be, it's not to be. You've done the best that you could. That's how I look at it."
"I want to be healthy enough to live my life and see my granddaughters graduate from high school, college, hopefully see them get married one day. At the end of the day, you want to have something left over so that when you're not coaching you can actually live your life and smell the roses that you planted all the way along."
PHOTO: VINAY MENON/TORONTO STAR