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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

Dream job accepted

Wilson assumes Toronto helm with invincible gratitude

What exactly did Ron Wilson get himself into when he formally accepted the Toronto Maple Leafs' coaching job on Tuesday?

The Maple Leafs' website proclaims itself to be not the site of a mere team/franchise/organization, but rather "The official site of Leafs Nation." Within the heading for the site sits a twinkly blue Toronto skyline and to the far right reads the tagline: "The passion that unites us all."

Sound familiar? It ought to for any sport-loving, binational North American. If you follow with enough interest, the parallels between the Leafs and such illustrious baseball franchises as the Red Sox, Yankees, and Cubs.

More often than not, Bob Cole and Harry Neale, the elder statesmen of Hockey Night In Canada announcers, carry out their weekly duty from the nosebleed nest of Air Canada Centre -a mansion which has all but always logged standing-room only audiences. When they aren't there, the team plays under the watchful HD cameras of a full-time Southern Ontario sports network known as Leafs-TV.

Those outlets, together with a relentless array of newspapers and radio personnel serve to percolate Toronto's and the hockey world's collective love/hate relationship with a team going on 42 years without a Stanley Cup and four seasons without a playoff berth.

And on Wilson's first day, they kept him talking for a good 37-plus minutes.

Make no mistake, though. Wilson was way ahead in this game. Rough estimates say he's been at least four decades ahead. He noted during Tuesday's conference that he had "lived and died with the Maple Leafs" during his pre-adolescent years in Ontario and kept a grip on his allegiances even as he shuffled here to leave his everlasting skatemarks on Riverside and the PC campus.

As for Toronto's often prickly puck paparrazzi, he was so far ahead that, in his opening remarks, he said, "I know one of your questions may be 'Why did (the hiring process) take so long'? Well, when you've gone through the rollercoaster I've been through over the last month, you wanna make sure you keep emotions out of the decision-making process and make your decisions with your head...and I think that, talking with my friends around the league who agree that I would be a good fit for Toronto, I decided to accept their offer."

A while later, addressing the pen-and-paper horde more directly, he acceptingly predicted, "You guys know that I wear my heart on my sleeve. So occasionally, we're gonna have, I don't know, some duels. But that's the fun part of it."

For any uptight scribes who just want to do tell it like it is, those are the words of a godsend. But Wilson's unimaginably jovial and amiable kickstart to his Toronto tenure is the conspicuous result of his own send of blessing.

"I'm the happiest person in the National Hockey League today. I'm fulfilling a dream. I'm kind of completing the circle. When I was growing up in (Toronto suburb) Fort Erie, I dreamed of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs as long as I can remember.

"I lived and died with the Maple Leafs through the 60s and eventually got an opportunity to play for the Leafs and actually wear #14, my hero's (Hall of Famer Dave Keon) jersey. And today to be able to come back and be a part of the Maple Leafs again is basically a dream fulfilled that I never thought I'd get to experience."

He will get to experience it, though, primarily because of the lengthy, well-saturated resume that was laid before interim GM Cliff Fletcher, who incidentally is occupying the former chair of PC graduate John Ferguson, Jr.

Apparently, Wilson's assurances aside, one reporter wasn't ready to plunge all the way into potentially sensitive inquiries. The question was simply what Wilson thought of Fletcher's giving way to a whole other permanent GM. Furthermore, might he have somebody in mind? (Hint, hint.)

"There's nothing at all like that," the coach answered in the same chill tone that he used all day. "I work for Cliff right now and I'm looking forward to that whether it's for two weeks or five years."

Several minutes and several topics later, another reporter was finally blunt about it. Is Wilson's former classmate, Brian Burke, ditching Anaheim for Toronto -as was being speculated even while Wilson's sand was still running out in San Jose?

"I can't deny that Brian Burke is one of my best friends and it's logical," Wilson began in a good two-and-a-half minute response.

"Brian and I are in contact because we're friends. We do alumni things for Providence College, we help them raise money. This will be my 15th year coaching in the National Hockey League as a head coach and I have never once worked for Brian Burke. So if we're this tight as all of you people assume we are, somewhere along the line Brian would have hired me as his head coach and he's never done that."

And the speculation should taper off for now with Friday's reports that Fletcher's GM position had been cemented for at least the next full season. Still, Wilson has at least left a mousehole-sized opening to the ultimate possibility of working with Burke, if there's any fertile ice to it whatsoever.

"If you just rely on your friends, I probably wouldn't have a job," he said. "But Brian is a good friend and he's someone I would go to war with anytime."

Rheault Unful-Philled
The Philadelphia Flyers reportedly had until June 1 to decide whether they would sign a couple of uncertain draftees, among them newly graduated Providence captain Jon Rheault.
When the moment of truth came and went, no pens brushed across Rheault's prospective contract. Just tumbleweeds. As a result, the gravity guiding the course of Rheault's pro career is -for the moment- off.

The collective data, especially from a Friartown fan perspective, makes a puzzler out of this. After all, Rheault had only just finished a third season as team MVP highlighted by his cracking the 100-point plateau. And by the looks of the output of his remaining understudies, he'll likely be the last triple-digit magician the PC program will see for some time.

But it's simply an alien game once one morphs from a junior or collegian to the pros. As far as a stable position in the Flyers organization goes, the puck has been on Rheault's slippery stick for a good two years (he was picked deep in the fifth round in the 2006 draft). That's offered plenty of time for the dynamics in Philadelphia to literally sway from one extreme to the other; and a couple of times at that.

Bill Meltzer, a Philadelphia-based nhl.com correspondent, explained the situation dead-on to an inquisitive Hockey Buzz forum of Flyer fanatics. He granted that Rheault has been a "Good college player, marginal NHL upside, and several players already blocking him on the Phantoms (the Flyers' neighboring AHL affiliate)."

The Flyers' youth movement has been in the making ever since the NHL's return from the lockout, and they have already surged from a 29th overall finish in 2006-07 to reaching the Eastern Conference Finals this past spring. Heck, even the constellatory James vanRiemsdyk -Philly's #2 pick a short year ago- has not been hurried into the pro ranks, even after an as-promised brilliant freshman campaign at New Hampshire.

For Rheault, meanwhile, this may mean starting simpler with an independent ECHL team or perhaps venturing abroad.

Four More Aboard
The PC women's team recently confirmed the addition of four additional NLI signees -forwards Lauren Covell and Arianna Rigano and blueliners Christie Jensen and Breanna Schwarz- thus sealing a rather sizeable 10-member freshman class to flow into Schneider Arena this autumn.
Barring any further fluctuation, the Friars' 2008-09 positional distribution should read as follows: 13 forwards, eight defenders, four goaltenders. This would mean an increase of two players in the defense department and one more member of the goaltenders' guild.

On the whole, coach Bob Deraney is slated to have a far more auspicious total of 25 bodies at his disposal versus the sometimes unreliable 22 he had to work with this past season. PC found itself reduced to a fractionary game roster at times last season -particularly for six weeks in the stretch drive when co-captain Rachel Crissy was sidelined by a battered knee. One evening, in a road loss to Boston University, they were also without the services of Jenna Keilch and could only employ ten forwards.

This season, though his number of desginated forwards (13) remains unchanged, Deraney, if need be, will at least have the option of bumping up the quintessential two-way connoisseur Erin Normore and/or mimic Amber Yung now that he has two more defensive players than the minimum requirement. (And recent history says it's bound to happen given that Finnish flare Mari Pehkonen sacrificed five collegiate games to represent her country in two different tournaments last year).

As far as netminding goes, Deraney should figure it safe to redshirt the incoming Genevieve LaCasse. After all, he suited up the three goalies he already has for much of last season, though only Danielle Ciarletta and Jen Smith logged any tangible playing credit (rising sophomore Christina England was the odd woman out).

Quick Feeds: Pro Ambitions, the camp founded by former Friar and P-Bruin Jeff Serowik has delved into its 18th summer of action and will make its first regional stop at BU June 22. A series of camps will be held at URI's Boss Arena starting July 6 and running as late as July 18...Closer to campus -actually, right on campus- the first of two Bob Deraney girl's hockey camp sessions kicks off June 22 at Schneider Arena...Look for the names of incoming Friar defensemen Danny New -#141 amongst the Central Scouting Service's top North American skaters- and Bryce Aneloski -#157 on the same leaderboard- in next weekend's NHL Draft. If both are selected, PC's 2008-09 roster will tentatively field five NHL prospects, already boasting Mark Fayne (New Jersey), Joe Lavin (Chicago), and Pierce Norton (Toronto). Out of 87 current or committed collegians mentioned by this year's CSS, 22 have Hockey East ties...RIP Tim Russert, a noted Buffalo Sabres fan, a recent Boston College parent (which, it's been said, made him an automatic Superfan), and more importantly a quintessential role model for any aspirant journalist, regardless of what breed of journalism or topic of coverage one shoots for.

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