An irresistible deal for Cliff

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:25 AM ET

Many would consider him nuts to make this trade, but it was one Cliff Fletcher couldn't turn down.

An idyllic, well-paid retirement in Arizona, his Hall of Fame reputation intact, versus flying to Toronto, returning to the harsh glare of the media, to a non-playoff team, a meddlesome ownership and a fan base getting more bitter by the day with a Cup jinx approaching 41 years.

"It's great to be back," the interim general manager insisted, taking stock of familiar faces yesterday at the Air Canada Centre. Appearing nervous during his opening remarks, no doubt amazed that the Toronto media seemed to have doubled since covering his firing in 1997, he quickly regained his wits.

"The first step will be to meet with all the people involved in the hockey department here. Out of that, a plan will develop 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 philosophically to at least know what direction we've chosen to go."

But there are already concerns that the 72-year-old won't be able to come close duplicating the early '90s, when he transformed a mediocre club into one that made back-to-back appearances in the Conference finals.

Fletcher will only be as effective as his leash is long says his former right-hand man.

"You have to preclude anything about Cliff by determining whether Richard Peddie and Larry Tanenbaum are involved," said Bill Watters, Fletcher's assistant between 1991-97. "If they have anything to do with decisions regarding stick and puck, I don't think he'll do very well. It would be just a Band-Aid."

Watters was referring to the two influential board members of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. Both promised autonomy to Fletcher yesterday, but Peddie put himself on the search committee for a new GM with sports lawyer Gord Kirke, promising to use Fletcher "as a resource".Fletcher said this Leaf team is in far better shape than the one he inherited in October of 1991, even if it's now in 14th place. That first team didn't have Mats Sundin, as a captain or a trade resource, a proven goalie in Vesa Toskala or an all-star defenceman in Tomas Kaberle.

"Cliff's a deal maker. a people person, a very bright guy and can change the philosophy to be a winning team," Watters said.

Fletcher didn't fare as well in Phoenix, which let him go as adviser in a general house cleaning last season, but his fingerprints are on some of the moves the budding Coyotes have made.

A WIN AWAY

Fletcher's Leafs were a win away from a Cup final against the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, losing a seventh game to the Los Angeles Kings.

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

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

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. He then joined Scotty Bowman's hockey office with the expansion St. Louis Blues, jumping at the chance to run his own show in 1972 when the Atlanta Flames were born.

Moving that team to Calgary, where the great teams he assembled ran smack into the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, Fletcher finally took his team to the title in 1989. But within two years, the lure of the rebuilding Leafs became his calling.

Between the summer of 1991 and the trade deadline of 1994, he made close to 40 trades, waiver pickups or free agent signings.

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

A 10-player deal with the Flames that netted Doug Gilmour was his coup-de-grace.

Fletcher joked yesterday that he once intended to book-end his career by starting with the Habs and ending with the Leafs.

"It's going to happen this time," he promised.


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