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Team Unaware Ax About to Fall

Reaction: Players caught off guard, some question fairness of decision.

May 21, 1997|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After all those dark days when it seemed as if Mighty Duck Coach Ron Wilson might get fired at any moment, it happened on a sunny day when he and his players were basking in the aftermath of their most successful season.

"Unbelievable. I'm kind of shocked," said Joe Sacco, one of the three players--and until now, one head coach--who had been with the Ducks since Day 1.

"They stuck with Ron for four years, and after the success we had this year. . . . I just think guys are going to be surprised," Sacco said.

Guy Hebert was tarpon fishing in Florida and Teemu Selanne was vacationing in Hawaii, but a group of players still in Orange County were on the golf course Tuesday morning, unaware of a press conference to announce Wilson's firing less than two weeks after their first playoff appearance.

"I don't know if you'd say it's fair. This was our best season by far," said defenseman Bobby Dollas, who concedes he conflicted with Wilson this season.

"I think maybe the [organization] had a game plan. He had been here four years, and I think maybe they want to go get someone more experienced.

"Sometimes change is good. It might be good for him too."

Don Baizley, the agent for the Ducks' biggest stars, Paul Kariya and Selanne, said he was finding the news "hard to believe" and hadn't been able to reach either of his clients. "I think Paul always assumed Ron would be back," Baizley said. "Absolutely, they got along well. Ron and Teemu got along well too. I think Paul's first reaction will be surprise, and given the relationship Paul has with Ron, I think he'll be disappointed."

As for how Wilson's dismissal might affect Kariya's thinking as a restricted free agent this summer--though the Ducks have the right to match any offer--Baizley said that will be a good question.

"I don't really know. At one level, coaches move around so much it's hard to be counting on a coach no matter where you go. I'd like to talk to Paul and think about it."

Wilson's contract situation has been an issue for two seasons, with the Ducks periodically insisting they were trying to re-sign him, and both sides blaming the other for the slow process before Wilson said he wanted to shelve it until after the playoffs.

"I had called last week to get the ball rolling and never heard back. I guess that makes sense now," said Wilson's agent, Harry Radomski, who said the Ducks' only offer was a multiyear extension at the same salary: $350,000.

"That's absurd and insulting," Radomski said. "In hindsight, maybe that was the game plan all along. . . . Either it was an opening offer, in which case that's fine. Or it was a way of making it appear they were in a negotiation to buy them time to do what they did today.

"It's pretty odd to hear for two years they've been bugged about Ron Wilson and still were trying to re-sign him. But if not, this brewed in the last six weeks. All of a sudden, he's too outspoken?"

The reaction around the NHL was one of surprise.

"You make it by the first round of the playoffs and into the second round, it doesn't sound like [the firing was based on] merit," said Bill Clement, an ESPN commentator and former Philadelphia Flyer. "It has to be personality-oriented. . . . I don't think Ronnie will have any difficulty finding work. He's well-respected around the league."

Sometimes Wilson's popularity among his players tends to depend on how much they played, but goalie Mikhail Shtalenkov backed him anyway.

"I think he did a great job this year. It was a team effort, and it was his success too," Shtalenkov said. "Sometimes I didn't play much during the season and I was kind of maybe angry at him sometimes."

Times staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Wilson With the Mighty Ducks

* 1993-94: 33-46-5--The Ducks finish their first season with 33 victories, tying the Florida Panthers for most wins by a first-year team.

* 1994-95: 16-27-5*--In strike-shortened season, the Ducks finish last in Western Conference but stay in playoff race until final two games.

* 1995-96: 35-39-8--The Ducks tie for eighth place in the Western Conference but lose a playoff berth on a tiebreaker with Winnipeg.

* 1996-97: 36-33-13--Wilson leads the Ducks to their first playoff berth. They defeat Phoenix in the first round, then lose to Detroit.

* OVERALL: 120-145-31

* Strike-shortened season

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