Fletcher still bleeds Penguins' black and gold
Wild GM will cheer old club from stands in Game 7 of Stanley Cup final
He refuses to join the other management types in the cramped press box at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Instead of rubbing shoulders with good friend and former boss Ray Shero, he'll take in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final on Friday night in the stands, surrounded by the families of Pittsburgh Penguins players and staff members.
And should Pittsburgh win its first NHL title since 1992, he'll be the guy in the background sporting a smile and feeling like a proud papa as the co-architect of the Stanley Cup champions.
The Penguins remain near and dear to former assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher, who left the team three weeks ago to become GM of the Minnesota Wild.
"Things are certainly a little bit different because I'm spending a lot of time in Minnesota," Fletcher, who did attend Game 6 at PIttsburgh's Mellon Arena, told CBCSports.ca on Thursday. "I'm invested here and focused here, so I'm not part of all the day-to-day grind that the group in Pittsburgh is going through.
"But in terms of still wanting Pittsburgh to win or still feeling a part of the group, I still feel very much connected with that group and spent a long time with them. I still very much believe in that group and want to see that group succeed."
Fletcher arrived in the Steel City in July 2006, shortly after the Penguins finished fifth in the Atlantic Division and missed the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season.
They more than doubled their win total the following season (22 to 47), but were eliminated by Ottawa in the Eastern Conference quarter-finals.
A year ago, Pittsburgh won another 47 regular-season games en route to the Stanley Cup final, only to lose in six games to Detroit.
With seven free agents set to test the open market, Penguins GM Shero and Fletcher faced another playoff-like challenge: rebuild a Cup contender with little flexibility under the league's $56.7-million US salary cap.
They filled holes, and watched top defencemen Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney spend the early part of the 2008-09 season nursing injuries. In February, head coach Michel Therrien was fired and replaced by Dan Bylsma from their minor-league affiliate.
Looking to bolster the offence and add experience for what they hoped was a long playoff run, Shero and Fletcher acquired Stanley Cup champions Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin and Craig Adams prior to the March 4 trade deadline.
"It was a long year to get to that point," said Fletcher, who also went to the Cup final in management with Florida in 1996 and Anaheim in 2003. "There was a lot of ups and downs.
"There was a ton of adversity that the group dealt with together in Pittsburgh and a lot of work needed to be done the past 12 months to get the team back [to the Cup final] this year and Game 7."
In Game 7 of the 2003 Cup final, Fletcher watched relatively unknown New Jersey forward Mike Rupp deflect Scott Niedermayer's point shot between Anaheim goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere's pads at the 2:22 mark of the second period. It stood as the winning goal in a 3-0 Devils victory.
"I remember thinking if we can just get a bounce, if we can have a puck hit a shin pad, if we can find a way to get a break and get that first goal …" Fletcher said.
Goals hard to find in Detroit
"I knew we had to get that first goal … you could just see the lift on the [Devils] bench. We just had a hard time scoring goals [in New Jersey]. We scored three goals in four games."
It's déjà vu all over again for Fletcher as the 2009 Penguins have scored two goals in three games in this series at Detroit, where the Red Wings boast an 11-1 record this post-season.
Like the Ducks-Devils final, the home team in the Red Wings-Penguins series won each of the first six contests. Anaheim was outclassed in Games 1 and 2 on the road, but fought back with a pair of character-building victories, just like the Penguins.
So, does Fletcher expect a similar low-scoring, tense Game 7 this time around?
"There's no question there'll be a lot of nerves," he said, "but whether that means it'll be tighter checking and fewer scoring chances, or whether it'll be the way the series has played out with pretty good tempo and good chances at both ends, I don't know."
What Fletcher is certain of is the "overwhelming feeling of despair" of being on the losing side in Game 7.
"It was difficult to accept, a tough night," he said of June 9, 2003, in East Rutherford, N.J.