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Coach Can't Help But Shoulder Some Blame After GM Dismissal

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Press Release | Watch the Entire Presser | Player Reaction | Maurice Reaction 

Ferguson Reaction | Fletcher In Conversation

(TORONTO) - When the end came, John Ferguson didn’t flinch.

About 10:30 Tuesday morning, Ferguson was told by Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment CEO Richard Peddie that he was fired.

The first sign, for the players, was a doubling or even tripling of the media horde.

“I just saw a lot of media here, I didn’t know what was going on,” said winger Alexei Ponikarovsky. “It’s never fun when this happens,”

Had they done it better, there is no doubt Ferguson would still be the Leafs employ. After nearly five years with Ferguson, the Leafs struggles - they missed the playoff by a point last season and are six points out now - became a hanging offence.

“The results,” said Peddie, “had fallen short of what our organization, including John, and our fans expect.”

For a replacement, Peddie, mindful of the unique demands of Toronto, opted for the voice of experience, 72-year-old Cliff Fletcher. Fletcher ran the Leafs from 1991 to 1997 and if the road ahead seems rocky for Fletcher, it still seems better than it did in his first incarnation.

“The club that we have here is a heck of a lot better than the one that took the ice in 1991,” he said of a Leafs team that went 30-43-7 and missed the playoffs.

In leaving, Ferguson observed the time-honoured hockey dictum: never knock your boss on the way out the door.

“The one regret I have is I failed to bring the club into a position to win the Stanley Cup,” said Ferguson.

He reaffirmed management’s right to make any move they pleased. He did say a contract extension last summer may have given him more clout. Being a lame duck, he said, “is a matter of perception in the sports business. Still, I’m going to be judged on my record.”

Ferguson conceded that not all his trades have worked out but did not specify which ones. He mentioned injuries to Kyle Wellwood and Carlo Colaiacovo as well as the unexpected suspension of Mark Bell hurt the club “but we feel we have a better club  than the record shows.”

“I don’t feel sorry for John,” said Leafs coach Paul Maurice. “He’s a far stronger man than someone who would need my sympathy.”

“He’s a very bright, hard-working hockey man,” said Maurice. “He’s going to be just fine.”

White it’s still early to pronounce any lasting judgments, Ferguson had more luck drafting than trading.

Jiri Tlusty, drafted 13th overall in 2006 is playing for the Leafs.

“John drafted me, he was great to me,” said Tlusty. “Now he’s leaving and I feel sorry about it but that’s hockey.”

Justin Pogge, the 90th drafted player in 2004, is nearly NHL ready and could be the kind of young goalie franchises covet. Defenceman Anton Stralman, drafted 216th in 2005 is earning ever-increasing ice time and he jarring skills. Nikolai Kulemin will arrive next season and should quickly play on one of the Leafs two lines.

In trades and free-agent acquisitions, the picture is darker.

The Leafs gave up a first, second and fourth-round draft choice to San Jose for goalie Vesa Toskala. That’s steep and Mark Bell, who arrived along with Bell, was ineffective prior to a facial injury.

Among the moves most cited by Ferguson’s critics were the hefty free-agent signings of defenceman Bryan McCabe and Pavel Kubina and the five-year contract extended to free-agent forward Jason Blake who has struggled mightily in his first year in Toronto. Trading future star Tuukka Rask to Boston for the inconsistent Andrew Raycroft has been, by all accounts, unfortunate.

For now, Maurice answers to Cliff Fletcher, hired to lead the franchise through the trade deadline and the entry draft. Peddie and sports lawyer Gordon Kirke will conduct the search for a new general manager and will bounce names off Fletcher. A 19-month contract means Fletcher can return to consulting duties for the Leafs once they had their man. He made it clear he was not interested in taking for any substantial amount of time.

If there is to be a massive rebuild, Fletcher, the architect of big deals to bring Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark and Mats Sundin to Toronto, seems the man to do it.

Fletcher’s biggest issue is how to handle the status of Leafs’ captain Mats Sundin. One of the best Leafs ever, Sundin would still fetch a lot on the trade block but he has double clout, he is on a one-year contract and he has a no-trade clause.

Interestingly, Fletcher didn’t see the no-trade deal as a deal-breaker but as “something to give players a say in their destination.”

The rest of the Leafs organization, for now at least, remains in place

“Paul Maurice is the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs and he will be the coach for the balance of the year,” Fletcher said.

After that, all bets are off. New general managers like to hire their own guys. Maurice knows that, he became Ferguson’s guy at the expense of Pat Quinn.  Maurice rode the bus coaching the Marlies, reacquainting himself with the hockey life after his firing by the Carolina Hurricanes. When Maurice was ready and Quinn missed the playoffs, Ferguson made the move.

 Maurice steadily referred to Fletcher as Mr. Fletcher throughout a 15-minute meeting with the press, most of who are on a first-name basis with the Leafs newest GM.

 “This is a very difficult day, both personally and professionally,” he said. Ferguson, he said, “was losing his job because the people he put in place to do the job didn’t get it done.”

But Ferguson and Fletcher aren’t the only people whose jobs have been effected.

Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment CEO Richard Peddie made it clear that his tenure as de facto president of the hockey team would end with the hiring of a GM.

“We’re going to get the right person and when that person comes in, like (Raptors GM and President) Bryan Colangelo, he will be president and GM.”

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