Commentary

Dream job or nightmare? New Leafs GM inherits quite the conundrum

Updated: February 13, 2008, 5:24 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

It's the best job in hockey.

[+] EnlargeCliff Fletcher
Graig Abel/Getty ImagesInterim Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher, left, and team president Richard Peddie are searching for a permanent replacement for John Ferguson.

Or the worst.

Who would want this job?

Then again, who wouldn't?

Probably the only man in sports who might have any meaningful understanding of the skill set required to run the Toronto Maple Leafs would be New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.

Cashman has to figure out the best road to take, which lies somewhere between the fickle moods of owner George Steinbrenner, good baseball decisions and Bronx supporters' thirst for championships year after year with no rebuilding allowed.

Those who try to operate the Maple Leafs, hockey's most profitable club and one of its least successful over the past 40 years, meanwhile, have to do so under an excruciating media microscope in a hockey-mad country while trying to succeed at the shell game of guessing what ownership's priorities might be.

It could be winning a Stanley Cup. It could be maintaining an astounding 22 percent profit margin in a market that willingly pays whatever price the Leafs set for tickets despite the fact the team has been of high quality only sporadically since last winning it all in 1967.

All this in a teeming metropolis of four million where every citizen is a hockey expert, Leafs tickets are handed down from generation to generation, the team's games are shown at local movie theaters and the local minor hockey organization is the largest in the world.

These days, the full-time job of running the Leafs is vacant, and the rumor mill is churning out one candidate after another, including Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke.

"If you're Catholic, this is the Vatican," said Burke, who nonetheless has said he is intent in staying with the Ducks and doesn't want the Leafs job.

Others would say the appeal of the job is wildly exaggerated.

"It's totally oversold as far as being a great job," said one of the NHL's top managers. "Yes, it's the most prestigious hockey franchise in the world, and everyone views that job as one that, if they could win there, wow, they'd really have done something special.

"But it's a very, very difficult job. A lot of people have tried and failed over the past 40 years."

At the same time, the anonymous GM said he'll listen if the Leafs come calling.

"There's definitely intrigue in trying to rebuild that team," he said.

The job of running the Leafs opened up last month, when GM John Ferguson was fired after more than four years in the position. Much-criticized team president Richard Peddie, with no background in the sport, remains in place, but the ownership of the club says it is now looking to fill both the jobs (president and GM) with either one or two people.

Former Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher, 72, took over from Ferguson on a 19-month contract with the job of guiding the team (currently 14th in the Eastern Conference) through the Feb. 26 trade deadline, the rest of the regular season, into the June entry draft and possibly NHL free agency, which begins July 1.

[+] EnlargeBrian Cashman
Jim Rogash/WireImageYankees GM Brian Cashman can likely relate to a GM in hockey-mad Toronto.

Peddie and well-known Toronto lawyer Gord Kirke, once the agent to Eric Lindros, are leading a search committee for the next president/GM, with Fletcher acting in an advisory role.

"It's a good pressure, and I would not like it if nobody cared," Kirke told The Toronto Sun this week. "Having been a lifelong Leafs fan, I relish the chance to help make a difference."

The Leafs are privately owned by Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Inc., a group of corporate and individual interests, dominated by the 58 percent share held by the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund, which boasts a portfolio recently estimated at $106 billion.

Rather than take an active role, however, the pension fund has essentially relied on Peddie and team chairman Larry Tanenbaum, who owns 13 percent, to make key decisions.

That, however, has only produced suggestions that the team is mired in struggles born of internal politicking and that Peddie and Tanenbaum have consistently meddled with the team, including trying to hire Scotty Bowman to advise Ferguson last summer.

"It's definitely a bum rap," Tanenbaum said. "We don't interfere."

Perhaps, but Ferguson was forced to run every major decision past the MLSE board, including significant trades and the hiring or firing of coaches, and Tanenbaum actively sought to have him replaced for more than a year before he was finally fired.

Those outside the Leafs clearly see the board's influence. In fact, when Ferguson was hired back in 2003 despite having no experience as an NHL general manager, a variety of well-known hockey executives declared they had no interest in the job because of the way in which the board watches every move the GM makes.

By bringing in Kirke, the Leafs are actively trying to make the selection process of a new GM appear to be simply a hunt for the best person possible, rather than another exercise shackled by Leafs politics and nonhockey priorities. Peddie and Tanenbaum have publicly stated they are looking for a hockey equivalent of Bryan Colangelo, who left the NBA's Phoenix Suns to take over the Toronto Raptors -- also owned by MLSE -- two years ago and has improved the club from one of the league's worst teams to a middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference club with youth and upside.

"The person who fills [the Leafs] job will be a winner," Peddie said when Ferguson was fired on Jan. 22. "He will be both a long-term builder and a short-term fixer with NHL experience and an established track record, a success on and off the ice."

Cynics might suggest that's what the Leafs should have been looking for back in 2003, when they stripped Pat Quinn of the GM role and gave it to Ferguson while insisting Quinn stay on as coach.

The team made the playoffs the first season before the lockout, but then missed the postseason in 2005-06, and Ferguson fired Quinn. With Paul Maurice at the helm, the Leafs missed the postseason in 2006-07 and are likely to do so again this season despite having a group of high-profile veterans with lucrative, no-trade contracts.

So what exactly are the Leafs looking for?

Well, history isn't much of a guide, although it helps to understand why the Leafs have been so wholly unsuccessful over the years.

The last GM to bring a Cup to Toronto was iron-fisted Punch Imlach, who won four titles with the club during the 1960s. During that time, however, team ownership was transferred from the team's founder, Conn Smythe, to his son, Stafford, and an associate, Harold Ballard, which meant that while the team continued to win up until 1967, a dry rot was settling inside the mighty Maple Leafs empire.

Imlach was fired in 1969, and Ballard, an owner known more for his buffoonery and brief prison stay in the early 1970s than his hockey expertise, eventually assumed total control of the Original Six franchise.

Jim Gregory, an organization man who had never been an NHL manager, took over after Imlach and built solid teams in the mid- to late-1970s despite ongoing interference from Ballard. At one point, Ballard forced Gregory to fire coach Roger Neilson and, when a replacement couldn't be found, agreed to let Neilson return two days later if he would wear a bag over his head as he stepped behind the Leafs bench to start the game.

In 1979, a decade after Gregory had replaced Imlach, Ballard decided to hire Imlach again in place of Gregory, a bizarre and disastrous move for a team that had made it to the NHL semifinals the year before. Imlach lasted less than two years, and then was replaced by Leafs lifer Gerry McNamara, who had no experience as an NHL manager and lasted seven (mostly unsuccessful) seasons.

McNamara, roasted regularly by the voracious Toronto media, was replaced in 1988 by 32-year-old Gord Stellick, an inexperienced executive who became the youngest GM in NHL history. Stellick lasted less than a season before wisely quitting when Ballard refused to let him hire his own coach, insisting former Leafs captain George Armstrong coach the club despite the fact Armstrong didn't want to coach.

[+] EnlargeToronto Maple Leafs
Dave Sandford/Getty ImagesMaple Leafs fans have had to endure much heartbreak since their team's last Cup win in 1967.

Floyd Smith, who had been an NHL player and coach but never a GM, took over for Stellick, and the Leafs made the playoffs in his first season. But then, Ballard died during the 1990 playoffs; by the next season, the team was in disarray and there was a major fight brewing over the future ownership of the team.

Ballard left two of his friends, Don Giffin and Steve Stavro, as executors of his will, and those two men immediately became embroiled in a nasty fight over the future of the team.

Over Stavro's objections, Giffin executed a brilliant move in June, 1991, luring Fletcher, then considered one of the best executives in the game, away from the Calgary Flames and installing him as the Leafs president and GM. It was the first time the club had actually scoured the hockey landscape for a top hockey mind in decades.

Fletcher had some success, taking the team to consecutive conference finals in 1993 and 1994, but eventually Stavro managed to take over the franchise and squeezed Fletcher out, replacing him as team president with former NHL goaltending star Ken Dryden, a complete neophyte when it came to NHL management. Dryden was a chum of Brian Bellmore, Stavro's personal lawyer.

Charged with hiring a GM, Dryden instead chose himself and brought in an unwieldy group of executives, producing a new round of infighting. Former Winnipeg GM Mike Smith was hired for an assistant GM role, but he ended up squabbling with Dryden, coach Mike Murphy and chief scout Anders Hedberg.

Quinn was brought in as coach in 1998, but soon he and Dryden were barely on speaking terms, particularly after Dryden tried to bring in his former Montreal teammate, Bob Gainey, as the team's GM.

In 2003, after two more unsuccessful runs to the conference finals, Dryden decided to run for Canada's Parliament and the Leafs decided to bring in a new GM, leaving Quinn only as coach. Quinn, no stranger to the political game, tried to have two of his associates from his Vancouver days, Hockey Canada chief Bob Nicholson and Canucks assistant GM Steve Tambellini, hired as his replacement.

The hiring process was surreal.

One candidate reported first meeting for two hours with Dryden, who then refused to show him how to navigate the hallways of the Air Canada Centre to find the Leafs dressing room for a scheduled meeting with Quinn.

Finally, Peddie pushed through Ferguson, a St. Louis executive who had never been an NHL general manager, against Quinn's wishes. Not surprisingly, Ferguson ultimately canned Quinn in the spring of 2006.

By this season, however, Peddie backpedaled on Ferguson, publicly saying that hiring such an inexperienced suit to run the hockey office was a "mistake," while Ferguson was still doing the job.

Then, like a rerun of a bad movie, Fletcher was called upon to take over from Ferguson, just as Imlach was once brought back to take over from Gregory.

Only in Toronto.

Ferguson, to some extent, was undone by the constant media pressure in Toronto. While a GM like Ken Holland in Detroit might deal with one or two beat writers a day and occasional radio and TV interviews, there are currently four major newspapers with reporters and columnists, two national sports networks and two 24-hour talk radio stations with regular reporters, all covering the Leafs daily. That doesn't include Leafs TV, the organization's own 24-hour television station, which provides daily coverage. The Leafs are featured most weeks on "Hockey Night in Canada," which is based out of Toronto.

Former Leafs players and executives are also everywhere in the local media. Bill Watters, an assistant GM under both Fletcher and Quinn, is a featured commentator on AM-640 and Sportsnet. Glenn Healy, a former Leafs goaltender and a confidante of Tanenbaum, is an analyst on The Sports Network of Canada. Nick Kypreos and Bill Berg, both former Leafs, are daily radio analysts. Ferguson, meanwhile, was hired by TSN this week to contribute to the network's coverage of trade deadline. Ferguson will be critiquing the moves the Leafs make or don't make just over a month after being canned by the club.

The man who runs the Leafs, in other words, is surrounded by second guessers, many with inside ties to the organization and an ability to get information that often embarrasses management.

"Nobody needs that kind of pressure," said one NHL general manager.

So is it a dream post or someone's worst nightmare? Is it hockey heaven or shinny hell on earth?

Whoever takes over the job -- Burke, Holland, NHL vice president Colin Campbell and Carolina GM Jim Rutherford are seen as the front runners -- will need a thick skin to deal with the daily scrutiny and a total free hand to rebuild without interference, something the Leafs organization says it will allow but has been historically reluctant to grant.

The replacement will also need some luck. Right now, the Leafs have more than $40 million in player contracts committed for next season, with the salary cap expected to rise to $53 million. Captain Mats Sundin is an unrestricted free agent in July and has thus far refused to waive his no-trade clause to pave the way for a trade for players and prospects before the deadline. The team traded a top prospect two years ago to get goalie Andrew Raycroft from Boston, then was forced to trade its first-round pick last June to get Vesa Toskala from San Jose to replace the unreliable Raycroft. On defense, the team has about $17 million committed to Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Hal Gill, roughly the same amount Anaheim pays for its peerless blue-line corps.

There's a lot to be done.

Since Imlach won in '67, eight other general managers have tried and failed to bring a championship back to Toronto.

The ninth will soon be unveiled. It will be difficult to know whether to offer congratulations or condolences.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.