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Zaugg: Welcome home, Wilson

USA coach first impacted Swiss hockey in the 1980s

25-04-09
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Ron Wilson is back in Switzerland where he was playing in the 80s. Photo: Toronto Maple Leafs

BERNE - Ron Wilson is well known as one of the most respected coaches in the National Hockey League and international hockey too. He coached the U.S .national team to a bronze medal at the 1996 IIHF World Championship in Vienna, which marked the nation's first IIHF medal since the "Miracle on Ice" at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. And of course, he also won the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996 with Team USA.

But the current bench boss of the Toronto Maple Leafs and this year's Team USA has also got a lot to do with the renaissance of Swiss hockey on the international level. He played from 1981 to 1986 as an import in Switzerland for Kloten and Davos. And he was far more than an ordinary import. He was cool, and he rocked.

He had a bigger influence on the development of Swiss hockey, both on and off the ice, than even he may realize. On Swiss ice, he represented on a smaller scale what Bobby Orr was in the NHL. He changed the game.

Wilson was the first defenceman to win the scoring title in the Swiss League in 1985, racking up 72 points in 36 games. The next to accomplish that feat was the Flying Finn, Petteri Nummelin, in 2003 with 57 points in 43 games. Before Wilson, defencemen in Switzerland just stuck to playing defence. After Wilson, the most talented ones incorporated an offensive dimension into their game, and I don't think we would have Mark Streit today without the changes Ron Wilson initiated in Swiss hockey.

But Wilson also gave a generation of players a taste of a new way of thinking. He was cool. He rocked Swiss hockey with his confident approach, and, just as Ralph Krueger has done as the Swiss national team coach, he created a spirit of "Yes, we can" a long time before Barack Obama. He also entertained the media with his statements.

I will always remember a story from his days with Davos, where he won Swiss titles in 1984 and 1985. In one game, he and national team forward Jacques Soguel created a great scoring opportunity. Wilson rushed down alongside the boards and outplayed a defencemen, and the goalie left his net to cut down the angle. In the slot, Soguel was alone in front of the almost-empty net and ready to score an easy goal.

But Wilson shot the puck into the goalie's pads. An angry Soguel asked Wilson why on earth he didn’t pass the puck to him. And Wilson said: "Take a look at the the scoring stats and shut up." Wilson was the league's top scorer. Soguel, by far, was not.

Wilson is well-remembered and highly respected in Swiss hockey. Now, he is coming home to Switzerland, and no other coach besides Ralph Krueger will have so many fans in the arena.

KLAUS ZAUGG

Klaus Zaugg is a Swiss hockey journalist who has covered the IIHF World Championship since 1981. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.

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