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Cliff Fletcher, left, and Richard Peddie will search for a full-time GM. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

The Toronto Maple Leafs turned back the clock Tuesday, replacing general manager John Ferguson Jr. with former team president and GM Cliff Fletcher.

Fletcher, 72, signed a 19-month contract and will serve as interim GM until a full-time replacement is hired, then serve as a consultant for the balance of the contract — and retire.

"I am looking forward to the challenge," Fletcher told Hockey Night In Canada Radio on Sirius. "Hopefully, I can help do some good things to start the process going forward to move our club up into the upper echelon of the league.

"I'm just hoping to set it up so that when the new [GM] comes in, he is going to be able to get off and running quickly. When a new GM comes, I will fade into the woodwork or into the shadows again, like most consultants do."

"It gives us the luxury of conducting a thorough search," said Richard Peddie, president and chief executive officer of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment.

To that end, Peddie has retained the services of Gordon Kirke, a noted sports lawyer and professor, to conduct the search for a new GM.  

"It is wide open," Kirke told HNIC Radio. "We want to get the best person available."

Kirke has represented several high-profile clients, including the NHL Players Association, Canadian Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League, and teaches sports and entertainment law at York University and the University of Toronto.

"I have got to find out what the Leafs have to offer as far as contract and compensation and that sort of thing," Kirke said. "But the first part is really getting an understanding of the situation."

"At the end of the day, Richard will have to take our recommendation to the board for approval," Kirke continued. "But in the slugging stages, it will be just Richard and myself."

Peddie hinted Tuesday that Ferguson's successor could perform the dual role of president and GM, just as Bryan Colangelo does with the Toronto Raptors. 

"If you get the right No. 1 person, that person will decide if he does both jobs or needs a GM in addition," Kirke explained. "If the person does not have a household name, then it is incumbent on us to explain what we're doing and why this person was the best candidate in our minds for the job."

Fletcher too, will have input in the search.

"Hopefully, knowing the league the way I do," he said, "I can help search out the top hockey people in the game, and convince them to become a candidate to come to Toronto."

"I will not be on the committee that makes the final decision. But I will be part of the committee making the recommendation."

"We don't want to lollygag around and let this drag," Kirke claimed. "By the same token, we don't want to rush into the wrong decision.

"The one luxury for us is the introduction of Cliff as the interim GM. He certainly buys us some time and we can take comfort from that."

Fletcher oversaw hockey operations for the Maple Leafs from 1991 to 1997 — posting a .502 winning percentage (202-200-58) and reaching the conference finals in 1993 and 1994.

With the Maple Leafs (19-22-8) mired in 14th place in the Eastern Conference standings, and in danger of missing the playoffs for a third straight season, Fletcher will be granted the authority he needs to try to turn things around.

"That was a prerequisite for me as far as coming here," he said. "I wasn't coming here to be a neuturalized caretaker.

"If I was coming here, it was to perform a function — and I do have the authority to make any hockey transaction I feel is in the best interest of the team."

Plenty of experience

Fletcher entered the NHL in 1956 as a scout with the Montreal Canadiens, served as a scout and assistant GM for the St. Louis Blues from 1966-72, and GM of the Atlanta/Calgary Flames before joining the Maple Leafs in 1991.

Fletcher was lured out of retirement in 1999 to serve as senior advisor to the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning for two seasons, and spent the next two seasons in the Phoenix Coyotes' front office.

"The most important thing is to get a flow of young players that you draft and develop yourself coming into your lineup," he said. "That is the difference between the teams on top in the NHL and the teams in the middle of the pack fighting it out.

"A [salary] cap system limits the number of free agents you really go after. So the difference is the young players you draft and develop yourself."

With files from the Canadian Press