There aren’t many still-active coaches around any level of hockey who can truthfully say they once dropped the gloves in an NHL game with Dave Schultz during “the Hammer’s” Flyers heyday. Add in a subsequent American Hockey League season (1977-78) playing for the long-since defunct Philadelphia Firebirds, and 30+ years of National Hockey League coaching, and the list narrows down to a single man.
That man is Rick Wilson, the new Flyers assistant coach in charge of working with the team’s defense corps. The Flyers officially announced Wilson’s hiring on Tuesday of this week.
Asked to recount his playing days, which included NHL stints with the Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis Blues (with whom he was a member when he fought Schultz in a game against the Flyers on Dec. 15, 1974) and Detroit Red Wings, the 68-year-old Wilson replied with typical self-deprecating humor.
“My goodness. I don’t think my memory goes back that far. The short-term memory is still good. The long-term memory? I’ve let it go,” Wilson said on Wednesday after his first practice with the team.
By reputation, Wilson is a calming voice of experience with perceptive eyes for the game. Players like and respect the hockey lifer. Wilson has coached — either as an assistant, interim head coach (Dallas Stars) or associate coach — more than 2,300 games in the NHL.
“He’s sort of legendary in the NHL,” said Flyers president Paul Holmgren, who played against, coached against and is now on the same side as Wilson. “What he brings to a team, what he brings to a defense, how he handles his defensemen, what he brings to a coaching staff. He’s a highly thought-of guy by everybody.“
Wilson started his NHL coaching career as a New York Islanders assistant in 1988. He was in the league continuously for the next 30 years until announcing his retirement this April after he spent one season back where he’d spent the majority of his coaching career; the Dallas Stars.
“There were some teams that tried to contact me, but I was in retirement. I wasn’t looking,” Wilson said.
Nevertheless, when the Flyers had a vacancy, Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol — who has known Wilson for many years due both to shared connections with the University of North Dakota and to the fact that hockey is a small world in general — reached out to Wilson to gauge his interest in coming to work for the Flyers. The timing was right, as Wilson was starting to miss being around the rink and the opportunity was enticing enough to say yes.
“I was kind of feeling the juices flow a little again,” Wilson said. “The competitive challenge was there with a team that I thought could go where they are now to where they can — or should — be. Hopefully, I can be of some support to them.“
Wilson’s coaching style is quite different from that of Gord Murphy, whom “Wils” replaced as assistant coach. Murphy’s style was more intense and hard-pushing. Either method can work, but all coaches have a shelf life. When a team needs a new coaching voice it is common to seek someone with an opposite approach.
“He just got here but I’m excited to work with him,” Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. “It’s like a fresh start, a new face. It definitely helps. A guy that’s easy to talk to, easy to mesh with. I think it will be pretty good.”
Wilson in unapologetically old-school in his personal coaching style. That does not mean, however, that he is dismissive of newer approaches, such as coaches who do extensive video study or make use of analytics. On the contrary, he feels that these methods have a valuable place within the game, and a combination of his style with those of other coaches who employ them make for a well-rounded approach.
“I love working with these young coaches,” Wilson said. “Everybody’s younger than me. They know the new elements in the game — the video, the computer side of things, the analytics.”
Displaying his trademark wry sense of humor, Wilson then turned back to describing his own style. Pointing to his temple, he quipped, “I’ll come in and bring my computer, which is here. It’s still working. It still goes at 33 [RMP, like an old vinyl record album], unfortunately, but it’s going.”
He then pointed to his eyes.
“My video is here,” Wilson said.
As for using analytics to assess matchups and the effectiveness of different defense pairings together and as segments of five-many units, Wilson leans on his decades of experience within both the old-school and modern NHL.
“I guess my analytics is my gut. To me, a gut feel is from the accumulation of hundreds of thousands of experiences. That’s what I can bring to the coaching staff,” he said.
The longest stint with one organization during Wilson’s decorated career came with the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars (including a stint as interim head coach and then associate coach) over a span of 16 years. Along with head coach Ken Hitchcock, Wilson won a Stanley Cup in 1998-99 and took a subsequent return trip to the Final.
Later, Wilson spent five years as an assistant coach working for general manager Chuck Fletcher’s Minnesota Wild, helping a then-young core of defensemen along their NHL path.
After serving as as a St. Louis Blues assistant under Hitchcock, Wilson accompanied him back to Dallas last season, working with the Stars defense corps during the 2017-18 season before announcing his short-lived retirement.
“I guess I got tired of playing shuffleboard with Hitch,” Wilson joked, in noting that Hitchcock has also stepped back into the NHL coaching ranks as the new head coach of the Edmonton Oilers.
Although he loves to joke around, Wilson also knows when it is time to get serious. Past charges have said he is not one to nitpick on the bench or raise his voice very often, but when Wilson has something to say, players are well-advised to pay attention.
Flyers commentator Chris Therien, who was coached by Wilson in Dallas during the 2003-04 season, confirms Wilson’s reputation is accurate from his own experiences.
“I think he’s going to be good for the Flyers young defensemen. Rick is a good guy — good sense of humor — and he has seen everything in this game. He knows that mistakes happen and are part of the game. He pretty much lets the players play. That can be a good thing. He doesn’t over-coach. When I was in Dallas, we had a veteran group on defense. That probably played into it, too, but I think that’s just his general style. I wasn’t there long but I certainly couldn’t complain. He paired me with [Sergei] Zubov,” Therien recalled.