Cast Away…(Ron Wilson at sea)

If you remember the Tom Hanks film in which a FedEx executive finds himself having to scratch out a pitiful, primitive existence on a tiny deserted island, and bonding with a Wilson brand volleyball, you can perhaps understand why that flat-faced, expressionless sphere comes to mind as I ponder the present quandaries of Ron Wilson.

Not the most spirited fellow, is he? Yet our hero develops a complex relationship with his friend Wilson, and mourns his loss at sea with a pathos that seems quite real.

 Ah, Ron Wilson. The face only a 200 year old Galapagos turtle or a lonely castaway doomed to decades of yammering to himself could love.

The man is not a charmer, and his persistent hate-on for all things media-related has not endeared him to the hockey castaways of Leafs Nation.  The Globe recently reported that Wilson’s “rants are losing their bite,” observing that the “cranky fellow” now goes off and blames the media for the most contradictory, illogical reasons.  When reporters ask prodding, dificult questions, Wilson has been known to snap like his reptilian look-alike, and bark some snarky, rude challenges and rhetorical questions (“How do YOU think we’re feeling? What KIND of question is that supposed to be?”).  Recently, however, he has blamed the media for being ready to “build a statue” of unwarranted praise in honour of young rookie goaltender James Reimer, after only one good game.  In other words, dear journalist, you lose or you lose.

Even his good friend and boss Burke, who had been rumoured last year to be on the verge of firing the dismally ineffective coach (and, many believed, was getting ready to do so as soon as the Olympic games were over), has recently damned his beleaguered buddy with faint praise.

“I think Ron brushes some people the wrong way with his mannerisms when in fact he’s a great guy and a great teacher and a great coach,” said Burke in a December interview with the Star’s Vinay Menon. “But I think his mannerisms with the media – which, by the way, have been developed over a very frustrating period of time – have led some people to turn on Ron unfairly.”

I’m not sure when throwing hissy-fits and flipping your wig at a legitimate, though admittedly boring boilerplate question about the team, the score, the star player’s performance, and so forth, came to be considered simple “mannerisms.”  Snarling and spitting like a snake, while refusing to utter the simple answers that provide the bread-and-butter for unassuming sports scribes and talking heads–and, incidently and indirectly, that also put the bread on Ron Wilson’s table–can only be termed a “mannerism” by someone who was raised by screaming Macaques on a deserted island, with only a volleyball to teach him manners without the “ism.”

As I recall, Ron Wilson was thrilled to come to Toronto, a self-proclaimed Mecca of hockey (by the locals only, mind you), and to escape a warm Southern American climate where hockey is less popular and receives less coverage than drag-boat racing (whatever that is).  I was recently in California, in fact, not far from Wilson’s old haunts, and was completely unable to hunt down a single hockey game to watch over a 10-day period.

Wilson could not have been unaware that his days of quiet anonymity and immunity were ending.  He knew what mercurial fans and overheated configurations of frustrated expectation, growing shame and pent-up impatience awaited him.  Yet always he hisses, and whines, and snaps and barks, a veritable jungle book of rude and uncanny sounds aimed at guys would simply like to get their work done for the day and go home.  Let us not forget that behind these media folks, demonized and ridiculed by Wilson with his famous “mannerisms,” stand the fans, those who read the headlines, buy the papers, the merchandise, the Leafs Hockey cable games, the tickets (after a couple of years on some Kafkaesque waiting list)…in other words, the people who make MLSE as decadently rich as it is.

It seems to me that Ron Wilson owes his living to these fans, and that he not only owes them a better effort from the team he is ultimately responsible for preparing, but also an appropriately polite, heartfelt, decent and humble account of what is going wrong.

Think media pressure is high in Toronto, Ron? I suggest you spend a couple of weeks in Montreal and talk to “mon Ron” over at the sports radio station there (Ron Fournier, of course) about what it’s like for players to have gaggles of nosy sports reporters to talk to, TIMES TWO: the French press AND the English press.  Think it’s rough for a young goalie in Toronto, Wilson? Have a chat with Carey Price, who was booed profusely by his home crowd during his first pre-season game this year!

Your days are not happy here, Wilson, and the day may come soon for you to be cast away upon the waves of change.  For now, the enduring impression you leave is one steeped in rudeness, contempt, entitlement and lack of class.  I say we toss you overboard.

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