Leafs fire Ferguson; Fletcher is interim GM

The Toronto Maple Leafs fired John Ferguson Jr. and hired Cliff Fletcher as general manager on an interim basis on Tuesday.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are hoping a name from their past will lead them into the future.

The Maple Leafs fired John Ferguson Jr., and announced Tuesday that Cliff Fletcher is returning as interim general manager.

As first reported on by Hockey Night in Canada analyst Elliotte Friedman on Jan. 13, Fletcher, the Leafs' GM from 1991-97, will replace Ferguson for the duration of the 2007-08 NHL campaign on an interim basis.

"After full consideration of the Leafs' situation, it has become clear that change and a new direction is needed," Richard Peddie, president and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference. "Regrettably, we did not win enough games to reach our goal, winning the Stanley Cup.

"Our team performance has fallen short of what is to be expected. Today, we need to forge the start of a new beginning for [the] Toronto Maple Leafs. And we begin with the man seated next to me, a man with Hall of Fame credentials, who is highly regarded by Leafs fans and by hockey people around the globe. We have reached out to Cliff Fletcher and his 50-plus years of hockey management experience to serve as general manager of the Leafs on an interim basis."

The MLSE board of directors met Monday and decided to make the change. Ferguson was informed of the news by Peddie on Tuesday morning.

Fletcher, 72, said he has "no interest whatsoever" in taking over as GM full time, adding that "the position is for a younger person."

Fletcher, who signed a 19-month contract with the Leafs, also said Paul Maurice will remain as head coach for the balance of the season.

"Cliff will have the autonomy and responsibility for all hockey matters, with focus on establishing a foundation from which the next general manager can build," Peddie said.

A search committee, formed by Peddie and sports lawyer Gord Kirke, will be convened to find Ferguson's full-time replacement for next season. In the meantime, Fletcher takes over as GM.

"I know here in Toronto the expectations are high," Fletcher said. "I look forward to the challenge and a few tough months ahead.

"The key here is to initially start the process to move the club ahead to the next level so that it can compete with all the top teams in the league, which will eventually lead to the playoff success."

Fletcher said he will immediately begin consulting with the club's hockey operations officials on what changes the team should make.

"The first step will be to meet with all the people involved in the hockey department here," Fletcher said. "I'm looking forward to their input on how they see the internal operation of the hockey team here and how they see the club moving forward.

"Out of that, a plan will [be] developed on how we're going to pursue the next few weeks. There are 35 days to the trade deadline and within two weeks we should be prepared to philosophically at least know what direction we've chosen to go."

Based on Raptors' model

Fletcher will remain with the club in an advisory-type role when a new GM is hired, copying an ownership model used by the NBA's Toronto Raptors.

When former GM Rob Babcock was fired in the 2005-06 season, longtime executive Wayne Embry was hired as a kind of caretaker, with full control over the decision-making process. When the Raptors hired Bryan Colangelo as the new GM, Embry stayed on as senior adviser with the team.

Ferguson told reporters he respected the board's right to make the front-office change.

"I'm proud of my record here, I've learned a tremendous amount," he said. "There's been somewhere in the neighbourhood of 11 general managers hired since I've been here and I am excited about my next opportunity."

Ferguson also dismissed reports he was restricted by MLSE from making any moves or trades during his tenure in Toronto.

"I have had all the duties typically reserved for the general manager," he said. "Everyone reports to superiors, to boards and our club is no different.

"I sought the responsibility and accountability as general manager and I acted accordingly."

Tuesday's announcement from MLSE ends weeks of speculation, drawing to a close a dramatic soap opera played out in the Toronto media over Ferguson's future with the club.

Ferguson became the 12th general manager in franchise history on Aug. 29, 2003, succeeding Pat Quinn, who retained his duties as head coach.

The Leafs established a club record for points in a season (103) and reached the Eastern Conference semifinals during the 2003-04 campaign, Ferguson's first at the helm.

But the fabled NHL club has failed to qualify for the playoffs the last two seasons.

Toronto has a combined record of 145 wins, 110 losses, 10 ties, 13 overtime losses, and 17 shootout losses under Ferguson.

The Leafs are now in 14th place in the East and six points off the pace of the New York Islanders, who hold the eighth and final playoff berth in the conference with 33 games remaining in the regular season.

Fletcher was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder's category in 2004.

The Montreal native presided over the Leafs' revival in the early 1990s. He made a series of big trades (most notably acquiring Doug Gilmour, a popular Leafs captain, from the Calgary Flames, and current Leafs captain Mats Sundin from the Quebec Nordiques) and smart coaching moves, such as hiring Pat Burns, who was with the team from 1992-93 to 1995-96.

The Leafs improved from a dismal 67 points in 1991-92 to a franchise-record 99 points the following campaign, and reached the conference finals in 1993 and 1994.

With files from the Canadian Press