Dear Doug Wilson: WTF?

If you check down in the quicklinks area you’ll find the links to the current brouhaha, but in quick summary, in the last ten days or so, Doug Wilson went in front of the season ticket holders like he does every year, and this year, for reasons that nobody can explain rationally, he decided to throw Joe Thornton under a very big bus driving by at full speed.

Wilson explained that the reason Thornton had the ‘C’ removed was that at times he cared too much and not everyone in the locker room appreciated his commentary. Okay, I can see that. Thornton’s sense of humor is pretty legendary (and R rated) and if it’s aimed at you, it can be tough. This actually sounds like a good, rational explanation, especially if Wilson and Thornton had sat down and hashed everything out and both sides were cool about it being talked about.

Unfortunately, Wilson was. Thornton wasn’t, and his response was to tell his GM in no uncertain terms to shut up.

Oops. Double oops: Wilson’s initial response was to say — through the press — that Thornton knew where to find him if he wanted to talk, and basically to put his big boy pants on and live with it.

And this threatened to spin seriously out of control, but saner (or at least quieter) views prevailed, and Hasso Blatner, the owner of the team stepped in and talked to everyone, got Wilson and Thorton talking to each other instead of the press, and it looks like, at least in public, that this spat has settled down.

Reading between the lines

Here’s how I view this. To nobody’s surprise, there are some raw emotions left over after last summer’s comments by Wilson, the public discussion about possibly trading Thornton and Marleau, both of them refusing to waive their no trade clauses, and going into this season with both on the roster but nobody named captain. There has been a lot of speculation about why a captain’s never been named (including my own) but at least part of it is pretty clearly to limit the embarrassment to Joe for losing the C.

Here’s the thing about the Sharks organization. it doesn’t leak. You get very few rumors. The team is always very careful what it says and how it says it, to the point that the team is almost boring to follow — which in a way is good, because it limits controversies and fights in the press. This organization has a strong commitment to “what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room” and I respect that.

So when Wilson goes before the season ticket holders and says something like this about Joe Thornton, the first assumption has to be that Thornton knows and is cool with it being said. And then Thornton comes out and makes it clear he’s not cool with it, and…

Doug, really? How did a brain cramp this big and smelly come out of a brain that is typically so composed and calculated? You’re smarter than this. Or are you?

Look, I’ve been a strong supporter of Wilson since he was a player. But after last season’s collapse he lashed out at the team in public, and he clearly let his emotions take charge for a while, a very non-Wilson-like reaction, no matter how much we as fans agreed with him (and how correct he was…). That led to the rift with Thornton and Marleau and that rift indirectly has contributed to some of the challenges we’ve seen this year, because as much as they’ve kept it in the locker room, it’s pretty clear this year’s locker room hasn’t been the happiest.

And you can tie that back to what Wilson said and did at the end of last season and over the summer.

Looking back in time

Let’s remember that the reason that Doug Wilson is the GM of the Sharks is because Dean Lombardi is not. The reasons Dean Lombardi was ultimately fired was over a locker room split that blew up  when it wasn’t handled well. Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter named Owen Nolan captain. Nolan could be — abrupt — to others in the room, which wasn’t always appreciated — and ultimately the locker room broke into a couple of factions that didn’t like each other, and that ultimately tore the team apart, leading to a surprising and sudden collapse.

Sound vaguely familiar? Back in the Lombardi day, Lombardi assumed Sutter would handle it, Sutter assumed the locker room would figure it out, nobody did, and that led to the 2002-2003 season where Darryl Sutter was fired, Dean Lombardi was fired, Owen Nolan was traded to Toronto, and the Sharks missed the playoffs (the last time that’s happened until, maybe, this season)

So I can see where Wilson looked at the collapse last season and saw in it an echo of the problems that led up to the 2002-3 collapse. I can see him making changes to make sure that doesn’t happen again, and over-reacting in another direction that creates instead a new set of painful problems.

What bothers me

What bothers me about all of this is that Wilson seems to have lost his perspective. This has gotten emotional. It’s gotten personal. It makes me call into question his ability to make judgements about the situation, just as Lombardi in that last season ended up making decisions that were driven by stress and emotion as opposed to more rational judgment. By the accounts given to me at the time, the atmosphere around Lombardi in the team offices were described with words like “bunker” and “hostile”.

Are we seeing that same situation build now with Wilson? Has he lost his perspective? Has the stress of building this team finally gotten to him?

If so, the Sharks have a big problem they need to deal with. The signs I see, frankly, are worrisome. I’ve been a strong backer of Wilson, but I’ve also said that if a change needs to be made, it needs to be made with Wilson before any thought of replacing the coach is made — but where I was considering booting Wilson upstairs and bringing in a new GM to work under him. Now I’m not so sure.

Dean Lombardi got fired, had to step back and spent time working with other teams and learning from his mistakes before ending up in LA where he and Sutter have won some cups. Is Wilson at that point where he needs to take that step away and then circle back through another organization before another try? it’s hard to think of many GMs who’ve won cups in their first GM gig. Perhaps we’re at that point with the Sharks.

I’m not well plugged into the back office or locker room these days, so I can’t judge what’s happening behind the scenes as well as a decade ago. Until this latest faceplant by Wilson I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now I’m not so sure. Perhaps it is time for a change in the organization.

I wondered after last season if Wilson had let his emotions take over — much as I mostly agreed with his view that some changes were needed (and I still feel that way — this team has missed its window for the run).  But we’re almost a full season past that point, and I’m now unconvinced he’d gotten past that emotional break point, and if I’m correct, that’s a very dangerous position for the GM to be in for the organization.

However you want to view it, what he said at the season ticket holder’s meeting was unacceptable and unprofessional, and that the owner had to step in to defuse the situation also is a bad sign. Wilson’s response to Thornton’s “shut up” bothers me more, I think, than the initial comments.

However you look at it, this was a huge mistake by Wilson and an indication that there are bigger problems within the organization than we’ve really seen this season — and that one of them might be Doug Wilson himself.

For now, consider my support of Wilson downgrade from “strongly supportive” to “not so sure”. We’ll see how things go from here, but right now, I have to admit to being worried about what I’ve seen the last two weeks.