Dudley passes on watching 'his' Jets

Leafs director of player personally and former Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley speaks to the...

Leafs director of player personally and former Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley speaks to the media prior to the 2011 NHL Entry Draft at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., June 24, 2011. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:44 PM ET

TORONTO - The best of the Winnipeg Jets — Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Nik Antropov, Alexander Burmistrov, Evander Kane — will make their debut as a team at the Air Canada Centre but Rick Dudley won’t be there to watch.

Won’t be there to see the foundation he began to build, the kids “I care a lot about,” the team that fired him without any real cause.

“I have no bitterness towards the Winnipeg Jets, but I do really care about a lot of those people,” said Dudley, the Leafs director of player personnel and former general manager of the Atlanta Thrashers. “I’d like them to end up behind us in the standings. But I like them. I like those guys a lot.

“Sometimes you get in a situation and for whatever reason things don’t work out. In this case, it was a comfort zone thing. They wanted their own people. I understand that. That’s business, that’s hockey.”

Mostly, though, it’s Dudley business. He was GM of the Thrashers for all of one year. In that time, he traded for Ladd and Byfuglien. He drafted Burmistrov. He brought in Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart. He signed Chris Mason, the veteran backup goalie. In his two years in Atlanta, one as GM, one as assistant GM, he played a part in the accumulation of almost half the roster that will dress Wednesday night for the feel-good Jets. For that piece of hockey magic — who did more with less? — he was shown the door.

Firing Dudley was the first dumb move the Jets made. The second was firing coach Craig Ramsay. The best thing about the Atlanta operation was the people in management. It was tough enough to start over in a new market: Foolish to do so by letting first-rate quality hockey people go.

This is how the puck seems to roll for Dudley, a well-regarded hockey man but not much of a professional hand shaker. He doesn’t do lunch with ownership. He’s not much into schmoozing or self-promotion. If given a choice between a round of golf at the club and a chance to watch the U.S. under-18 team practise in Sheboygan, Dudley would choose the under-18s.

That’s what makes him the hockey man he is. That’s also why his reigns as general manager — one year in Atlanta, two seasons in Florida, three seasons in Tampa, one in Ottawa — never feel like one of those David Poile lifetime appointments. Dudley’s never had one of those jobs. He goes into bad situations mostly, often with financial woes, and is asked to make sense of it.

In Florida one season, he was ordered to cut $20 million from the payroll and wound up adding 16 points in the standings. For that, he was rewarded by being fired. The reason: The owner was buddies with Mike Keenan.

In Tampa, he basically built the team that won the Stanley Cup, but was gone before the celebration.

In Chicago, he went in as assistant general manager to Dale Tallon, and in a few short years and with almost all the right draft picks, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. He was Tallon’s guy in Chicago, and when Tallon was shown the door before the Hawks won, Dudley left for Atlanta.

“I’m proud of every situation I’ve been in,” said Dudley. “Every time I’ve left a team it was in much better shape than when I got there.”

And now he is part of the Maple Leafs front office, maybe the most highly regarded hockey evaluator in what some consider a stacked front office. Dudley knows talent. He doesn’t have to be in charge in Toronto and in a way, he loves that. Tuesday night he was in Hamilton watching an American Hockey League game. Wednesday night it will be a junior game. By Thursday, it’s off the American youth training camp.

He isn’t bailing on the Jets game because he doesn’t want to feel the emotional disconnnect of watching what he started to build be in someone else’s hands. He says he hates scouting games the Leafs play in — and his responsibility is to watch the opponent — because he’s too busy watching his new team play.

His new team plays the old team for the first time as Canadian rivals Wednesday. There is something neat about that by itself: Toronto vs. Winnipeg never meant much in the old days of the Jets. But this first game has some. For the legion of Winnipeg exports who have become Torontonians over the years, it’s something special.

Funny thing about Dudley: He ended his NHL playing career as a member of the Jets.

“I couldn’t play anymore. Fergie (GM John Ferguson) was incredibly good to me. I wanted to keep going but I couldn’t.”

Almost the same thing happened to him in this summer of disappointment.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca


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