NAPLES, Fla. --
|Cliff Fletcher took over as the Leafs' interim GM on January 22.
At first glance, you never could tell Cliff Fletcher has the weight of the entire Leafs nation resting squarely on his slender, 72-year-old shoulders.
His silver hair is crisp, not one strand out of place. His golf shirt is neatly tucked into his finely pressed khaki pants. Media inquiries come at him at a rapid pace, and Fletcher, Toronto's interim GM, answers them like the veteran he is.
"After having done it for 25 years, you're much more relaxed at the trade deadline than maybe you would be when you're just starting off, when you have high expectations," Fletcher told NHL.com. "I have no high expectations at all. We have a plan in place. We know what we'd like to accomplish if it's possible, but whether it is or not only time will tell."
Fletcher, who in 2004 was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder's category, didn't have to be in this position today. He could have said no when executives from Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment asked him to take over for John Ferguson Jr.
Fletcher, though, chose to tackle this enormous challenge and was named the team's interim GM on Jan. 22. Now he has the task of beginning the rebuilding stages of one of the League's most storied franchises, located in what Fletcher calls "the hockey capital of the world."
He deals with a rabid fan base that is just dying for a winner, one that is fed up that the Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup in 41 years or are going on their third straight season without the playoffs. Couple that with the intense Toronto media, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Fletcher's hair was messy or his shirt was only half-tucked into a wrinkled pair of pants.
"That's where experience comes in. You have to act according to how you plan to proceed," said Fletcher, who led the Leafs to Conference Finals in 1993 and 1994 during his previous six-year run as the team's GM. "You certainly can't react to media or fan pressures because that's a sure cause for disaster. You know, I have been lucky to have experienced the Toronto scene for six years in the 1990s, and this time around I am comfortable there and I know what to expect so I'm much better prepared to deal with it."
As much as Fletcher wants to flex his muscles and begin the inevitable rebuilding project in Toronto, his hands are tied.
Five of the biggest assets he could move by Tuesday's deadline have no-trade clauses, including Mats Sundin and Tomas Kaberle, who stated this week through his agent that he will not waive his no-trade clause. It remains unknown if Sundin will waive his, although he has stated his intention to remain a Leaf, too.
Reports out of the Canadian media had Fletcher entertaining offers for Sundin during the GM Meetings at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort here, but nothing tempted the neatly coiffed Leafs GM
"Obviously there is hope out there that there is going to be change and we're going to be able to improve our hockey club, but the reality of the situation is you can only do what you can do," Fletcher said. "So, you evaluate any opportunity that may be available to you."
"You have to have a sense of realism," he continued. "You have to understand the marketplace and you have to be cognizant of what other team's needs may be. They may have players that they can part with easier than we have."
Asked if there is a sense of realism in Toronto these days, Fletcher didn't hesitate to respond.
"No, there isn't," he deadpanned, "and you know they're frustrated. Toronto is probably the hockey capital of the world. I don't know of a better hockey city than Toronto. It almost borders on fanaticism on the way they support their team, which is great. Naturally their expectations are high. They haven't won a Cup since 1967, and haven't made the playoffs in the last two years. They're in jeopardy this year. They want a team to win, and hopefully we can start the process to get the team headed in the right direction."
As difficult as that task may be, especially in the new salary-cap world, Fletcher never goes home to his wife Linda at his Yorkville, Ont. apartment looking disheveled or distraught. He's completely under control, even if there isn't much in his control.
"At this stage of my career I'm not the long-term solution for the Maple Leafs," Fletcher said. "I'm just the custodian with the keys for a short period of time. On that basis we'll just try not to screw anything up. I'll do what I can, whatever that may be."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.