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The Wilson boys: Johnny, Larry and Maple Leaf coach Ron

Some of the younger Leaf fans may not be aware that current Leaf coach Ron Wilson played most of his professional career in Europe, after spending his university years at Providence College under Hall-of-Famer Lou Lamoriello.

Though Ron played with the Leafs a bit in the late ‘70s, I remember him very little. He played in the minors with Dallas for a year, was with the big team through much of the 1978-’79 season when they lost to Montreal in the playoffs. I have surface recollection of him as an offensive-minded defenseman. (I should remember him more, he apparently picked up 17 points in 46 regular-season games that year. I do recall that he put up some points with Minnesota in the mid-to-later ‘80s, after playing in Europe for a few seasons.)

I actually better remember his uncle Johnny Wilson as an NHL’er when I was a kid in the late 1950s. That said, I mostly recall Johnny as the Detroit Red Wings coach in the early 1970s, during the ill-fated Ned Harkness era. (Harkness, like Lamoriello, was a U.S. college hockey legend. But the NHL wasn’t ready for a college guy in 1970 when Harkness joined the Wings, first as coach, later as General Manager.)

So, with uncle Johnny a former NHL’er and coach, Ron Wilson came to coaching naturally. But there is even more to it than that. Ron’s father Larry, who played over 1,000 minor league games and about two seasons worth of NHL games in a career than ran through the 1950s and ‘60s, was a successful minor-league coach. Larry, like his brother John before him, also coached the Red Wings, albeit briefly, in 1976-’77—about a year after son Ron was drafted by the Leafs.

Johnny Wilson was well-regarded as a solid NHL’er. The unique thing that stood out for me about Wilson, and what I remember most about his playing career (in addition to the fact that he played with the Leafs in 1959-’60) is that he was, for a long time, the NHL “ironman”. His record was playing 580 NHL regular-season games in a row. I think Andy Hebenton of the Rangers (and later the Bruins) beat his record, who in turn was passed by ex-Leaf Garry Unger and then Doug Jarvis, if I’m not mistaken. (I have a feeling I’m missing somebody between Hebenton and Unger.)

The Leafs have had some larger-than-life coaches in their history—Conn Smythe, Dick Irvin Sr., Hap Day, Punch Imlach, Pat Burns and Pat Quinn—but Ron Wilson certainly comes from great hockey bloodlines. He’ll need that attribute and a lot more, in his quest to make the Leafs champions.

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