The days of Chuck Fletcher being able to sneak in and out of a restaurant unnoticed with Craig Leipold are likely numbered.
While Leipold was in the process of courting prospective General Managers and needed a place to eat while Fletcher was in town interviewing, the pair went to an upscale Twin Cities steakhouse in plain sight. No clandestine bunkers, no attempt to obfuscate flight plans that might be transporting an interviewee, and no real concern that the combination of owner and hot GM prospect would sound the alarm on a process Leipold wanted to keep out of the media spotlight.
Fletcher, while perhaps not likely to draw attention in a crowd, is far from an unknown quantity in the hockey world. The 42-year-old Fletcher not only has a father who served as general manager in Atlanta when its coach was Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion and who went on to build a Hockey Hall of Fame life as a hockey exec, but himself has one of the more extensive resumes in the game.
Most recently the Assistant General Manager in Pittsburgh, Fletcher began his NHL career in 1993 as assistant GM of the Florida Panthers. Only a few years removed from his graduation from Harvard when he took the job, Fletcher remained in Florida through 2002, then spent four seasons with the Anaheim Ducks, for whom he would serve as Director of Hockey Operations, Assistant General Manager, and Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Player Development. Since 2006, when he joined the Penguins, he worked in a number of executive capacities.
And it is experience, more than merely the resume or bloodlines, that had Leipold circling Fletcher.
"Being the assistant GM on three different teams, and taking all three of those teams to the Stanley Cup finals, there was a little bit of a wow factor," says Leipold, looking back to the early stages of his search. "Here's an assistant GM who knows how to help build a winning franchise. He's been around this business for a long time, and he's only 42, so he's coming with a great amount of energy and charisma, and he's dying to get started."
The search began nearly four weeks ago.
Leipold and Jac Sperling started with a list of more than 50 names, the kinds of list formulated when one keeps asking, "Who else?" Leipold and Sperling talked to individual executives with teams across the NHL, rooting around for names that might rise to the top with consistency, if not frequency. The more they asked, the more times Fletcher's name entered the discussion. And rarely as a dark horse. It was usually the first or second name in the conversation.
As Leipold and Sperling moved forward, their list narrowed, down to just over 30 names, then to a dozen who were interviewed. Throughout the process, Fletcher was impossible to ignore for Leipold and Sperling, neither of whom had been formerly introduced to the most intriguing candidate.
"OK, everybody else thinks this guy is obviously good," Leipold says in recalling the first stages of discovery and due diligence. "I didn't know Chuck. I had not met him, Jac had not met him, so we didn't come with a bias that Chuck is our guy. And it was only through the interviewing process that we started to realize that this guy's the real deal."
Fletcher, for his part, viewed the Wild's open GM position in largely the same light.
"It was first-class," he said of the process, which included two in-person interviews and several phone conversations. "Regardless of the outcome of the interview process, it was terrific to go through it. The fact that it culminated in me being offered the job was obviously a dream come true."
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Chuck Fletcher's story as an NHL executive begins with Cliff Fletcher's story as an NHL executive. As recorded by The New York Times, the elder Fletcher was first mentioned in an NHL transaction on Jan. 13, 1972, under the heading, "Fletcher Gets Atlanta Job."
Chuck was born in Montreal, but only lived there until the age of 2 before the family moved to St. Louis briefly, and on to Atlanta. Atlanta served as the home for Cliff's formative hockey years, which, he says, involved access to one rink and one travel team.
"And there weren't a whole bunch of kids, so, if you showed up, you pretty much made it," Fletcher says of a team that played in such Southern cities as Chattanooga, Charlotte and Huntsville. By the time he was ready to apply to colleges, and after the family had moved to Calgary with the Flames, he was looking for a very strong education that also might have offered a place to play hockey.
His mom suggested going to an Ivy League school.
"I wanted to try go get the best education I could, and I was hopeful of playing hockey at the same time," Fletcher says. "I looked to find schools with a top academic reputation as well as a strong hockey program, and I applied to a bunch of them and I ended up being accepted to Harvard."
Twenty years ago, Harvard was a hockey powerhouse, with such future NHL players as Don Sweeney, Ted Donato and Lane MacDonald, who won the Hobey Baker Award in 1989, the same year the Crimson won the NCAA Title in, of all places, Saint Paul.
Fletcher played on the JV team during his four years at Harvard, from which he graduated in 1990.
"I'm making some excuses, but they were a nationally ranked program, in the top four-to-six teams every year I was there. I wasn't quite good enough to crack the lineup, but I played because I loved the game."
His first job out of school was with Hockey Canada. His second job was with Newport Sports Management, where he was a player representative for two years until he moved into Panthers front office in 1993.
Sixteen years later, he's still in the game, a young and vigorous talent looking forward to his newest challenge.
As Friday's announcement neared, stacks of flattery piled in -- "He is ready for this," from Brian Burke; "Peers consider Chuck Fletcher an exceptional judge of talent," from Pioneer Press columnist Charley Walters; "[B]right, young hockey mind who has been preparing for this job from the day he was born," from the Star Tribune's Mike Russo; "A good dude," in a text from a friend with another NHL club. And, of course, there is the opinion that mattered most in the search: Leipold's.
In fact, if there was any drama to the pursuit of a new GM, it was the chase to make exactly the move that Leipold wound up orchestrating.
"Chuck was clearly the No. 1 candidate," says Leipold, who was immediately honing in on Fletcher. "Even if you go back two or three years ago, Chuck would have been, like, the
candidate that somebody's going to grab. As we were going through this process, what I became worried about is that I didn't want somebody else to grab him before we did."
To some degree, Fletcher had been thought of as someone for whom it was a matter of time before taking the helm of a franchise. For Leipold, the timing could not have been better.
"I knew once we got into his ear and told him we were seriously interested, we felt pretty good that he was going to go with us. Now, I don't know if he has or has not interviewed with any other teams, but we're just real excited he was available."
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On Friday, when Fletcher was introduced to a large media gathering at Xcel Energy Center, the vision of the well-spoken, avid reader, family man and father of two who likes to play Wiffle ball with the neighborhood kids, took a back seat during a few sentences that revealed his passion for playing winning hockey.
"Hockey is a game of confrontation," he told reporters in front of the arena's Gate 1 and under a sign welcoming one and all to the State of Hockey. "It's a game of one-on-one battles. It's a game of imposing your will on your opponent."
Fletcher's answers to reporters on Friday were peppered with the loose constructs of his philosophies -- "We want to be a team that has the puck or is aggressively in pursuit of the puck," "The best managers will tell you they don't know everything," "The teams whose best players don't pay the price don't win," "Why back up and cede ice to your opponent if you can force the issue up-ice?" -- to the point that it is must-see TV for Wild fans.
Perhaps one of his more interesting lines came by way of a reference to baseball, another sport he loves: "I don't know how far I'll hit the ball, but I guarantee the bat won't stay on the shoulder."
Fletcher, after years of waiting, now has his dream job. What he might not get is an anonymous dinner in public with his new boss.