THE CANADIAN PRESS
TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs are looking to a face from their past to lead them into the future.
After weeks of speculation and rumours, the NHL club finally fired GM John Ferguson on Tuesday and hired Cliff Fletcher, whose years of front-office experience include a stint as GM of the Leafs in the 1990s.
"After full consideration of the Leafs’ situation, it has become clear that change and a new direction is needed," Richard Peddie, president and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, said during a news conference at the Air Canada Centre. "Regrettably, we did not win enough games to reach our goal, winning the Stanley Cup.
"Our team performance has fallen short of what is to be expected. Today, we need to forge the start of a new beginning for (the) Toronto Maple Leafs. And we begin with the man seated next to me, a man with Hall of Fame credentials, who is highly regarded by Leafs fans and by hockey people around the globe. We have reached out to Cliff Fletcher and his 50-plus years of hockey management experience to serve as general manager of the Leafs on an interim basis."
Ferguson told reporters afterwards he respected the board’s right to make the front-office shuffle.
"I’m proud of my record here, I’ve learned a tremendous amount," he said. "There’s been somewhere in the neighbourhood of 11 general managers hired since I’ve been here and I am excited about my next opportunity."
Ferguson also dismissed suggestions he was a lame-duck general manager who was restricted in making any moves he figured were necessary during his tenure in Toronto.
"I have had all the duties typically reserved for the general manager," he said. "Everyone reports to superiors, to boards and our club is no different.
"I sought the responsibility and accountability as general manager and I acted accordingly."
Fletcher, 72, has been given a 19-month contract. He will initially work as interim GM until a full-time replacement is found. He will then serve as a consultant for the balance of the contract.
Fletcher first served as GM of the Maple Leafs from 1991 to 1997, twice leading the team to the Western Conference final.
But he has no interest in becoming the team’s full-time GM this time, saying it’s a job for a younger man.
Peddie says the length of Fletcher’s contract will give the team plenty of time to find the right man for the job.
"It gives us the luxury of conducting an absolutely thorough search," said Peddie.
Peddie recently admitted that he may have made a mistake by hiring a GM as inexperienced as Ferguson to run a team in this hockey-mad market.
Ferguson, who was hired as Leafs’ GM in August 2003, was informed of the news by Peddie on Tuesday morning.
When reached by e-mail Tuesday, Ferguson declined to comment.
He was scheduled to meet with the media later in the day.
Fletcher takes over a Leafs team that has missed the playoffs the past two years and is in 14th place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference standings with a 19-22-5-3 record. But they have won three of their last four games.
"I know here in Toronto the expectations are high," Fletcher said. "I look forward to the challenge and a few tough months ahead.
"The key here is to initially start the process to move the club ahead to the next level so that it can compete with all the top teams in the league, which will eventually lead to the playoff success."
The MLSE board of directors met Monday and decided to make the change.
Fletcher said he couldn’t offer an assessment of the Leafs. Instead, he will immediately begin consulting with the club’s hockey operations officials and accumulating information on what path to take the struggling franchise.
"The first step will be to meet with all the people involved in the hockey department here," Fletcher said. "I’m looking forward to their input on how they see the internal operation of the hockey team here and how they see the club moving forward.
"Out of that, a plan will developed on how we’re going to pursue the next few weeks. There are 35 days to the trade deadline and within two weeks we should be prepared to philosophically at least know what direction we’ve chosen to go."
Leafs head coach Paul Maurice left the ice during practice Tuesday morning and was seen huddling with Peddie before returning to practice.
Maurice was visibly downcast when he met reporters later in the afternoon.
"A very, very difficult day both professionally and personally," he said. "You try desperately to find the positives and for me it was John’s example and leadership through difficult times was clearly something to see.
"He was always there with support and open with his convictions and what he believed in about the hockey team. An absolute pleasure to work for, completely and totally."
Peddie said Maurice’s future with the Leafs will be decided by either Fletcher or whoever becomes the club’s full-time general manager. But Fletcher added Maurice and his staff will remain with the club until season’s end.
"Paul Maurice is the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs," he said. "He will be the coach for the balance of this year as will the assistant coaches that work with him."
Leafs forward Jason Blake said the players have to take some responsibility for Ferguson’s firing.
"I’ve only been here for a few months and there are certain things you can’t control," he said. "We weren’t getting the job done.
"There’s a change a made and I think it’s the players that have to be accountable to make sure we’re ready to play. We’re trying to turn this thing around and move in the right direction. I guess as players you can’t control it so you’ve got to make sure you’re ready to play."
Speculation about Ferguson’s future with the club has been swirling recently as the club has struggled in January.
It’s been a tough year for the 40-year-old native of Montreal. Ferguson Jr. lost his father in July, when the former NHL player, coach and manager succumbed to cancer.
Ferguson and Maurice both stated during training camp in September that the Leafs would be a playoff team and contend for the Stanley Cup.
There were several questionable moves during the off-season. Critics turned thumbs down on the rationale of giving mistake-prone defenceman Bryan McCabe a long-term deal and making him the team’s highest-paid player at US$7 million this season. Signing free-agent Blake was a gamble that hasn’t reaped any dividends. Blake scored 40 goals for the New York Islanders last season but has only nine goals this year after signing a five-year, $20-million contract.
Blake divulged early in the season that he has a treatable form of leukemia.
Prior to becoming the 12th general manager in Leafs history, Ferguson Jr. had been vice-president and director of hockey operations for the St. Louis Blues since February 2001. There he earned a reputation of being one of the brightest young executives in the sport.
Ferguson’s first season at the controls in Toronto went well. With Pat Quinn behind the bench, the Leafs knocked off Ottawa in a seven-game first round before being ousted by Philadelphia in six in the second round.
The lost lockout season followed, and Quinn was let go when the Leafs failed to make the playoffs in the spring of 2006 despite finishing with a winning record and 90 points.
Ferguson hired Maurice to take over May 12, 2006, and the Leafs finished with a winning record again but their 91 points w##as one short of qualifying for the 2007 playoffs.
Ferguson was assistant GM of the Blues for five years before being promoted by the team. He was a member of the Ottawa Senators scouting staff from 1993 to 1996. He played in the AHL for four years, 1989 through 1993, in the Montreal and Ottawa organizations after playing U.S. college hockey at Providence.