SUN Hockey Pool

An eye for excellence

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:46 PM ET

On the morning after the biggest heartbreak in post expansion Maple Leafs history, Cliff Fletcher called his staff and the Toronto media to his Gardens office to commiserate.

Even the most cynical of newsmen there that day in 1993 couldn't hide their disappointment that such a good story had ended -- the Leafs were one win away from meeting the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup final.

Fletcher endured the whole city's hangover after the 5-4 defeat to the Los Angeles Kings in the conference final, looking like U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry must have after getting the final returns from Ohio. From hiring a kick-ass new coach in Pat Burns, to the Doug Gilmour trade, to touching up the team sweaters, not to mention the team's 99 points in the regular season and three seven-game playoff series, the president's finger prints were everywhere on that team.

"The hardest things about getting this far," Fletcher said that day, "is that you never know when you'll be back."

Indeed, almost 12 years later, the Leafs have never returned to that point, despite three more visits to the conference championships.

"Just the thought of playing Montreal for the Cup if we'd won ... ," Fletcher said last week. "You could feel the whole city building up for it and I'd have loved to live that."

But the Fletcher story is not tied solely to the Leafs and their 38-year losing legacy. The 69-year-old can rest on his 1989 Stanley Cup laurel with the Calgary Flames and a long tenure of service around the National Hockey League before that. This morning, he has an appointment with the Hockey Hall of Fame's tailor to size the famous crested blue blazer and tonight, he'll be inducted into the Hall's builders' wing.

"Cliff is so good at getting what he wants in any deal or negotiation, yet he's one of the few people in this business who never made an enemy," Boston Bruins president Harry Sinden said. "That says something about the man."

From a $200-a-year job scouting for his hometown Habs in the mid-1950s (getting the coveted team jacket sealed the deal), Fletcher learned from the best exec in the business -- Sam Pollock -- then joined Scotty Bowman's hockey office with the expansion St. Louis Blues. In 1972, Fletcher ignored the nay-sayers that southern U.S. expansion would flop, jumping at the chance to run his own show as general manager of the new Atlanta Flames.

"There was a significant population of Northern-based workers and it was a legitimate hockey market," Fletcher said. "But what hurt us was the World Hockey Association starting up the same year and competing for our players. And though The Omni was new, it was a dinosaur from the start. It held 15,000, but was the last of the rinks built without amenities or private suites."

The Flames played to near capacity on many nights, but were doomed by five consecutive first-round playoff eliminations, the last in 1980 ending with a move to Calgary.

"He assembled some good Atlanta teams," Sinden said. "To this day, I feel if they'd won a couple of those series, they'd still be there."

But the Flames were much more at home in Calgary, even with playing before half as many fans in the Corral. With its high boards and manic fans, it was one of the toughest stops in the league.

The Flames lost only five home games in their first year in Calgary. In 1982-83, Fletcher began an aggressive Cup campaign to match the burgeoning Edmonton Oilers, built on Bob Johnson as coach, Lanny McDonald, Joel Otto, Joe Nieuwendyk, Theo Fleury, Hakan Loob, Gilmour and briefly, a newcomer named Brett Hull.

But the biggest hurdle to winning wasn't in-house, but 180 miles north.

"You look back now and say Edmonton was the greatest team in hockey, but the challenge was still there for us," Fletcher said. "Eventually, between 1985 and '91, we had more points than them, developed an entertaining team and, of course, won our own Cup in 1989."

But the Flames' championship roster slowly went the way of the Oilers as financial pressures began to hit all small-market Canadian teams. Fletcher looked for a new personal challenge. At the same time the Leafs were emerging from the rot of the Harold Ballard era.

"Right from the time you're a kid, any aspiring GM wants to work in Montreal or Toronto," Fletcher said. "I consider it fulfilling a life-long dream to have spent my first 10 years with the Canadiens and then (six) with the Leafs."

New Leafs boss Steve Stavro inherited Fletcher's deal and tried to scuttle him, but eventually, the two worked to put the pride back in the club. Darryl Sittler returned to the fold, the hockey office was modernized and the club's adversarial relationship with the media was buried, at least until 1997. But the biggest difference came on the ice, where the 'Silver Fox' changed the face of a dysfunctional team in a series of bold strokes. Between the summer of 1991 and the trade deadline of 1994, he made close to 40 trades, waiver pickups or free agent signings.

Among those acquired were Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr from the Oilers, with Fuhr later parlayed into 50-goal man Dave Andreychuk. Not every move paid off, but Fletcher's batting average was superb. He could out-wit or sweet-talk rival GMs or player agents, whether on the phone, face-to-face or on the draft floor, almost always without recriminations.

"My (philosophy) is to put yourself in the other GM's shoes," Fletcher said. "Try and understand whether he thinks it's a good fit or not."

But there were other forces at work when Fletcher pulled off his biggest and best heist, on Jan. 2, 1992. He knew Gilmour was ready to bolt the Flames in a pay dispute, that his successor in Calgary, Doug Risebrough, was anxious to make a splash and that ex-Leaf GM Gerry McNamara, whom Fletcher once hired as a Flames scout, was high on re-acquiring several of his young Leafs.

Fletcher snared Gilmour, defencemen Jamie Macoun, Ric Nattress, goaltender Rick Wamsley and forward Kent Manderville for forwards Gary Leeman and Craig Berube, defencemen Michel Petit and Alexander Godynyuk and goaltender Jeff Reese. All but the retiring Nattress would impact on the Leafs' back-to-back trips to the conference final within the next three years. The five new Flames helped some, but Calgary began skidding as the '90s wore on.

Fletcher doubts that the record 10-player deal will ever be duplicated in today's 30-team NHL.

"It's just the way the game is today," said Fletcher, now a consultant with the Phoenix Coyotes. "With expansion (eight new clubs since 1991-92), teams just don't have that kind of depth at every position. That deal was already considered unusual for its time and teams don't trade as much these days (because of big-dollar contracts)."

Fletcher grew to like Toronto captain Wendel Clark as much as Gilmour, but after the Leafs came up short in the '94 conference final, there was pressure to make another dramatic roster alteration. The same project was going on with new Quebec Nordiques GM Pierre Lacroix.

The latter called Fletcher prior to the '94 draft to sound out a deal for Clark. Fletcher perused the young lions on the Nords roster and stopped at Mats Sundin, then in the midst of a contract squabble. The two GMs didn't stop haggling about other components of the trade until they walked into the Hartford Civic Center the morning of draft day, resulting in another historic multi-player swap.

"We knew by trading Clark we were going to get slaughtered (by fans and media)," Fletcher said. "I love Wendel, but we knew we had to try to do something. In our minds, we thought Sundin had the potential of becoming either a franchise player or close to a franchise player.

"He has wound up averaging 75 points a year for Toronto and I'm glad he's part of my legacy there."


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