The Toronto Maple Leafs have fired general manager John Ferguson Jr. The team informed Ferguson of his fate early Tuesday morning. Cliff Fletcher has been made the club's interim general manager.
"After full consideration of the Leafs' situation, it has become clear that change and a new direction is needed," stated MLSE President and CEO Richard Peddie from the Air Canada Centre Tuesday. "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."
Fletcher had been linked to much of the speculation regarding the team. He had been one of several hockey management types contacted last week to gauge their interest in the job, he was then offered the position for the remainder of the season serving as interim GM until a new general manager can be found. He will then serve as a consultant for the remainder of his 19 month contract.
"I know here in Toronto the expectations are high," Fletcher said at the press conference. "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."
"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 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."
During the press conference, Fletcher stated that he has no interest in becoming the Leafs' full-time general manager.
"It is a job for a much younger man," said Fletcher.
One of Fletcher's most important decisions now must be what to about Mats Sundin.
Sundin, who is the franchise leader in goals and points has a no-trade clause in his contract, however he would likely be a hot commodity at the NHL Trade deadline.
"Mats is driving the engine here," said Fletcher. "He's an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and he has a no-trade clause."
"Just what might be able to be accomplished this year at the trade deadline, honestly you're looking into a crystal ball," said Fletcher. "Whatever you do has to make sense. The goal is to improve the hockey club both for the present and the future."
Peddie believes that Fletcher's experience will give the team plenty of time to find the ideal candidate for the position.
"It gives us the luxury of conducting an absolutely thorough search," said Peddie.
In a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, Ferguson explained he has no hard feelings over the move and felt he gained from the experience.
"I'm proud of my record here, I've learned a tremendous amount," said Ferguson. "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."
"I sought the responsibility and accountability as general manager and I acted accordingly," he added.
When asked by TSN earlier in the day if he had been offered, or considered, the option of staying on in a different capacity with the Maple Leafs, Ferguson bluntly said, "no."
Maple Leafs head coach Paul Maurice left the ice during practice Tuesday morning to 'get a whistle.' He was seen talking to Peddie before returning to practice. Maurice was sombre when he met with the media later in the afternoon.
"A very, very difficult day both professionally and personally," said Maurice. "You try desperately to find the positives and for me it was John's example and leadership through difficult times was clearly something to see.
"He was always there with support and open with his convictions and what he believed in about the hockey team. An absolute pleasure to work for, completely and totally."
There is speculation that Maurice could be the next one to follow Ferguson out the door.
Peddie disagrees with that line of thinking.
"Right now he's our coach but Cliff and/or the new replacement will ultimately make that decision and Paul understands that," stated Peddie.
Fletcher, though, said Maurice and his staff will remain with the club until season's end.
"Paul Maurice is the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs," he said. "He will be the coach for the balance of this year as will the assistant coaches that work with him."
Toronto currently sits in 14th place in the Eastern Conference with a 19-22-5-3 record. They have missed the playoffs for the last two seasons.
Forward Jason Blake, who was signed by Ferguson as a free-agent in the off-season, believes that the players are at least partly to blame for Ferguson's firing.
"I've only been here for a few months and there are certain things you can't control," Blake told reporters. "We weren't getting the job done.
"There's a change a made and I think it's the players that have to be accountable to make sure we're ready to play. We're trying to turn this thing around and move in the right direction. I guess as players you can't control it so you've got to make sure you're ready to play."
The Maple Leafs also announced that Toronto sports lawyer Gord Kirke has been retained to assist Peddie in the search for the team's new GM. The search team has specific qualities in mind for the next full-time GM of the club.
"Our ideal candidate will be a long-term builder and a short-term fixer who has an established track record of success on the ice," explained Peddie. "Along with experience and extensive knowledge in the areas of drafting and identifying talent in the professional, amateur and international ranks, this individual will be comfortable with the intense scrutiny within the Toronto hockey market and will work effectively with the media.
"He will have the full autonomy to lead this hockey club in the manner he feels is best," added Peddie.
Fletcher, a Montreal native and Hockey Hall of Famer, was GM of the Leafs from 1991 to 1997. His NHL career spans more than 50 years, starting as GM of the Verdun Blues in 1956. Verdun was a junior team operated by the Montreal Canadiens and Fletcher ran the club for 10 years with Sam Pollock never very far away.
Ten years later, the Habs hired him as a scout.
When St. Louis joined the NHL, Fletcher was hired by the Blues to head up the scouting department and later became their assistant general manager.
He got his first GM job with the Atlanta Flames in 1972. He was general manager of the Calgary Flames from 1980-1991. In that time, the Flames won two President's Trophy's and a Stanley Cup.
In 1991, he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs as president, GM and COO. He stayed with Toronto through 1997, after helping to turn the team into a contender again.
He joined the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999 as a senior advisor, before taking over as GM of the Phoenix Coyotes in 2001.
Fletcher was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 2004.