- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Among the hockey lessons Cliff Fletcher holds dear almost 50 years into his professional hockey odyssey is that emotional decisions often beget disastrous results.
It is curious then that the longtime general manager and builder of contenders, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in the builders' category with the class of 2004, is remembered with such profound emotion by those who have worked alongside him.
"He's just a great human being," said Al Coates, the first Calgary-based employee of the Calgary Flames when Fletcher moved the Flames from the deep south to the frozen northwest in 1980.
"I don't want to sound too over the top on this, but there isn't a man in my estimation, as a builder, who deserves more to go into the Hall of Fame and will respect it more than Cliff Fletcher," said Bill Watters, who was hired by Fletcher when Fletcher took over a moribund Toronto Maple Leafs franchise in 1991 and went on to serve a dozen years in upper management with the Leafs.
Even Fletcher seems to be at odds with his own credo, remembering with a distinct feeling of emotion many of the dozens of players he either acquired or traded away or both. He recalls, for instance, the difficulty he had in trading away one of the Atlanta Flames' first and only stars, Tom Lysiak.
"Tom and I sat there together and cried. I was very attached to him," Fletcher recalls of the deal in March 1979.
Three times Fletcher deals involved Doug Gilmour. The final one was in March of 1997, months before Fletcher's seven-year run in Toronto ended, the only time in his career he has been fired.
"He was a general manager that you could call a friend," said Gilmour, who recalled going to Fletcher that spring and agreeing to waive his no-trade deal even though he didn't want to leave Toronto. "I told him, 'trade me and try and salvage your job.' "
A native of Montreal, Fletcher had the hockey equivalent of a Harvard business degree beginning in the mid-1950s, working as a scout and manager in the Montreal Canadiens' junior system. During his time with the Canadiens organization, the Habs won six Stanley Cups and Fletcher saw first-hand how men like Sam Pollock built a dynasty.
"It was like a 10-year apprenticeship," Fletcher said.
Fletcher's first NHL job was in St. Louis where he helped launch the expansion Blues, first as a scout then as assistant general manager. But it was in Atlanta that Fletcher had his first experience as the final decision-maker, bringing the Flames to life in 1972.
"I was prepared," Fletcher said. "The first thing I'd learned was that patience wasn't a virtue; it was a necessity."
Fletcher recalls the Flames' home-opener against Buffalo.
"They were screwing the seats in at the Omni at four in the afternoon," Fletcher recalled.
Seconds into the game, Buffalo defenseman Tim Horton launched a long shot on Phil Myre in the Atlanta net. Myre made the routine stop, but 14,000 fans rose in unison to cheer the play.
"Right away I turned to David Poile and I said, 'Well, I think we have a big job here educating the people about the game,' " Fletcher said.
Poile, now general manager of the Nashville Predators, was among the Flames' first employees and recalls his initial office was a trailer next to a construction site under a sign that read, "The Ice Age Cometh To Atlanta." As Fletcher had learned from Sam Pollock and Scotty Bowman, Poile would in turn learn the game's internal machinery from Fletcher.
When you start in the hockey business, you're looking for someone who believes in you, who cares about you and your family, Poile said. "I got all of those things when Cliff hired me."
When Poile and his wife had their first child, Fletcher was at the hospital to congratulate them. When Poile was honored with the Lester Patrick Award in 2001, Fletcher was there.
"Cliff was my mentor. And he had that kind of relationship with lots of people," said Poile.
After eight mostly disappointing seasons in the south, Fletcher, Poile and the Flames were on the move to Calgary. For the next 11 seasons, Fletcher squared off with one of the greatest teams in NHL history, the Flames' new provincial rivals, the Edmonton Oilers.
"We were compared to Edmonton in everything we did. It was almost total commitment to how we would catch the Oilers," Fletcher said. "If Calgary and Edmonton got together for a Parcheesi tournament, nobody wanted to lose."
Twice under Fletcher's watch the Flames won the Presidents' Trophy as top regular-season point-earner. In 1984, they lost to the Oilers in a wild seven-game playoff series but turned the tables in 1986, besting the Oilers in the playoffs for the first time and eventually advancing to their first-ever Stanley Cup final.
Three years later Fletcher and the Flames won it all, beating Montreal in Montreal for their only championship.
Coates recalls the final moments of the Cup-winning game, having to keep an agitated Fletcher away from assistant coach Tom Watt, who was in the press box on the head-set communicating with the bench.
"He was driving Tom crazy," Coates said.
In Calgary, Fletcher earned his reputation as a first-class manager and judge of hockey talent, qualities that are not necessarily mutually inclusive. Nobody left the organization, said Coates, now senior vice president and interim general manager in Anaheim.
"You couldn't pry them out of there with a crowbar and that all started at the top with Cliff."
But 11 years into his Calgary tenure and after 19 years with the same organization, Fletcher got the bug to move on.
Enter the Toronto Maple Leafs. Although he'd been approached by the New York Rangers, Fletcher stayed in Canada, taking on his biggest hockey challenge.
"The Leafs weren't a very good team at all when I got there in 1991," Fletcher recalled.
The team missed the playoffs in Fletcher's first season, but Fletcher managed to acquire Gilmour for the second time from his successor in Calgary, Doug Risebrough, in one of the NHL's most lopsided trades.
Other acquisitions followed, including Grant Fuhr, who was later dealt for Dave Andreychuk while Pat Burns was lured out of Montreal to coach.
"There wasn't a day went by that we didn't talk about a deal," said Watters, now a broadcaster. "It was either on the front burner or it was on the back burner."
On the morning of the Gilmour deal, Watters recalled talking to Hartford general manager Ed Johnson, who claimed to have Gilmour in the bag. By the end of the day Gilmour was a Leaf.
"Cliff never gave up on a deal. Some times people don't spend as much time as is required to make a deal," Watters said.
Along with resurrecting the on-ice fortunes of a once-proud franchise, Fletcher was also instrumental in repairing years of damage with Leaf alumni incurred during the Harold Ballard era. Banners were hung and longtime players returned to the team fold, re-establishing an important link with the team's rich tradition.
And had Fletcher been a better golfer, the story might have ended in Toronto. But he's a bad golfer and his journey through the hockey world continues. After a short stint in Tampa Bay, Fletcher was approached by Gretzky and joined the Coyotes in February 2001.
"He was the first call I made," Gretzky said.
Although he remains active as the Coyotes' senior executive vice president of hockey operations, Fletcher doesn't envy the job current general managers have. In Fletcher's heyday, if he made a deal that didn't work out, he simply made another one.
"As opposed to today when every decision these manager make is based on economics," Fletcher said. "Now, if a player doesn't work out, you're stuck."
Although Fletcher admits the hockey lifestyle doesn't necessarily promote a "father of the year" situation, his hockey legacy promises to extend well beyond the Hall of Fame induction. Fletcher's son, Chuck, who grew up in press boxes and taking annual road trips with his father, has taken up the managerial torch.
"From a personal standpoint, I've always been able to talk to him and get advice. There aren't many situations that he hasn't encountered over his career," said Chuck, 37, now the assistant general manager/hockey operations with the Mighty Ducks. "He still has such a great feel for people and a great understanding of how the game works."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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