DALLAS - Every time Rick Wilson walks into American Airlines Center, the hockey lifer is greeted by smiling security guards and ushers.
Other than them, there are few remaining from Wilson’s 15 years as a Dallas Stars assistant coach, interim coach and associate coach.
“All the players, coaches, managers, there isn’t a lot of things left from when I left,” Wilson, the five-year Wild assistant coach, said before Game 1 of the Wild-Stars series Thursday. “The building is familiar, the security people and all those things are familiar, but other than that, it’s a new organization.”
There’s something disarming about Wilson, the former University of North Dakota player and assistant coach who has been an NHL assistant with several teams since 1988. He’s supremely loyal to whichever head coach he’s working with and has been wholeheartedly respected by them all.
In a sport where trust is everything and head coaches surround themselves with pals or folks they’ve worked with before, just look at two of Wilson’s last three stints.
In Dallas, Wilson was an assistant under Bob Gainey, Ken Hitchcock and Dave Tippett, the last retaining him even after he temporarily replaced Hitchcock as coach in 2002. That usually never happens.
In Minnesota, Wilson was brought in to work with Todd Richards, was kept on by Mike Yeo and now is alongside John Torchetti.
“I suppose it’s become my history in the league,” said Wilson, 65, who has also worked with the Islanders, Kings and Lightning. “I like to think I’m a team player. I guess I was a player and that’s how I evolved in coaching. I like to think I can play a part and whether you’re the head coach or an assistant or an associate, you have a part to play. Maybe that’s how it works. Maybe history has proved or shown to other people as they come into my life that I can be counted on or valuable in some way.”
Like all the Wild assistants, Wilson is in a state of flux after this season, and not just because Torchetti has an interim tag and there could be a coaching search.
It’s believed most, if not all, the Wild assistants — that includes Wilson, Darryl Sydor, Andrew Brunette, Darby Hendrickson and goalie coach Bob Mason — are in the last year of their contracts.
“Haven’t thought about it,” Wilson said. “We have a game [Thursday] and we have a series in front of us. That’s all I’m thinking about.”
Fair enough from the former Prince Albert coach who played integral parts in the careers of hundreds of NHLers, including some greats like Hall of Famer Mike Modano and terrific defensemen like Sydor, Sergei Zubov, Rob Blake, Ryan Suter and a host of others.
Wilson understands how significant this series is to Minnesota fans. Wilson was Gainey’s assistant during the North Stars’ final year in 1992-93 and moved with the team to Dallas.
“We kind of knew even halfway through that year or maybe even before that, that we were moving somewhere,” Wilson said.
He was on Dallas’ bench when the Stars returned to Minnesota on Dec. 17, 2000. The Stars were destroyed 6-zip by the Wild during a raucous atmosphere.
“I remember the crowd being very vocal to Mr. [Norm] Green,” Wilson said, laughing, of the former North Stars owner who moved the team to Dallas. “It was an impressive place to come to the first time we came in here; the arena, the facility, the crowd, just the whole atmosphere in here was extremely impressive.
“It was like, ‘This is good, this is all good.’ I could tell the difference [between that final year of the North Stars and first year of the Wild] was dramatic.
"You could just sense that this franchise, this place, the way they put it together, the way they were making it work, this was going to be a special place and it has become that.”
Wilson’s fondest memory in Dallas was winning the Stanley Cup in 1999, and he hopes to accomplish something special with the Wild after five seasons and an uncertain future.
Wilson’s role on the Wild bench is to switch the defensemen, and those six will play a huge part in this series against a lethal Dallas attack led by Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza.
“It doesn’t matter what team you’re playing, you’re going to have to shut down top people, or try to minimize their affect, and that’s very difficult to do,” Wilson said. “That’s a huge challenge with this particular team, but we’re capable of rising to that challenge and that’ll be exciting to watch.”