The demise of John Ferguson, precipitating a sigh of relief from the Leafs Nation, was greeted by coach Paul Maurice and his players with all the joy of a death notice.
"No relief. Just disappointment," Maurice said after watching his boss die a death by a thousand cuts. Maurice got the word when he was called off the ice 10 minutes into practice and summoned to the dressing room.
He made a pretense of forgetting his whistle, which of course he would no sooner do than stand in the middle of Bay St. without his pants.
When he re-emerged minutes later, he went one way back to the ice, team president Richard Peddie went the other -- and a hallway full of reporters was handed press releases announcing Ferguson was out the door.
"It's a very, very difficult day, professsionally and personally," a sullen Maurice said, placing the blame for what happened to Ferguson on himself, his assistants and the players. "When the person that hired you and your staff loses his job because of the performance of the people who he put in place to do the job ... it is difficult."
Maurice was hired by Ferguson two years ago and the two developed a professional and personal relationship that he clearly does not have with new interim GM Cliff Fletcher.
"It may be a more difficult day personally," he said, his face ashen. Perhaps it was that they are so close in age; pushed together by circumstance, but the two had formed a kinship.
When Ferguson left, a little bit of Paul Maurice left with him. "In an intense environment you bond and form relationships that aren't even normal because you count on each other so much for support," Maurice said. "If you have a friendship ... it is very difficult." He didn't do a Vermeil but it looked like he felt like it.
Maurice, given a mandate to finish the season, said he had not been concerned about his own job. "Winning is what drives you. Your job security is not something that comes with the job, it's only something that comes with winning."
When the season started, Ferguson, Maurice and the players talked of competing for the Stanley Cup. Noted Alex Steen: "We felt we had a team that was going to do great things right off the hop and we've shown it on occasion, but not enough, and that's why we're in the spot we're in. It's unfortunate. John meant a lot to many guys on the team."
Many of the Leafs owe, if not their careers, at least their contracts and tenure as Leafs, to Ferguson.
Jason Blake sat at his stall with his head down. It was Ferguson who signed him to a five-year, $20-million US deal.
"Guilty," he said, when asked how he felt. "It's very unfortunate. The players have to be accountable and we weren't getting the job done."
Many of the players Ferguson was responsible for bringing to Toronto weren't in the locker room, disappearing into the bowels of the team's dressing room. Team officials scurried to pull several back in for reporters. Ferguson, meantime, never shirked reality or controversy. On what has to be the darkest day of his career, he broke with tradition and talked at a formal news conference, something even Pat Quinn didn't do on his day of reckoning. Accountability scoreboard: Fergy 1, Players 0.
"His leadership in difficult times was something to see," Maurice said, "and I don't think you get to see it unless you're on the inside. He was always there with support and open with his convictions that he believed in the hockey team."
He believed in Pavel Kubina enough to pay him $5 million a season.
"We're disappointed because we know we can play better. We let John down," Kubina said, noting that if it had come down to solely money: "I'd be playing somewhere else. But I always wanted to play in the best hockey town in the world and John is one of the reasons I've been able to do that."
If Ferguson does leave a lasting legacy it may yet come from Anton Stralman and Jiri Tlusty, kids he drafted. "He was good to me," said Stralman, "it just shows you never know. One day you're here, the next you're gone."
But, says Maurice, if the players see Fletcher as the grim reaper representing imminent change, there is one escape: "There's a simple solution to all these things," he said. "That's to win."