TORONTO – There is a message in big block letters high on a wall in the dressing room of the Toronto Maple Leafs that says “The Price of Success is Hard Work.”
The team’s board of directors delivered another message Tuesday: The cost of failure is the general manager’s job.
The players learned of John Ferguson’s fate as they came off the ice following practice at Air Canada Centre at noon Tuesday. They all felt badly for their former boss, who has been replaced by Cliff Fletcher on an interim basis. Coach Paul Maurice kept his job.
“(Ferguson has) done what he can to the best of his abilities to make this team as good as he can,” said captain Mats Sundin. “As players, and everyone below him, you feel guilty that you didn’t come out with the performance that he gave you the responsibility and gave you the trust you were going to come up with and be in a position we all expected to be in.
“Players and coaches and GMs, we’re all in the same boat and it’s always tough for everybody when something like this happens and I think we all feel for John.”
Going into their home game against Washington on Wednesday, the Leafs have 46 points. They are 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference and 28th overall. Only Tampa Bay and Los Angeles have fewer points.
Sundin and his teammates tried as best they could to ignore the whirlwind of speculation around Ferguson’s job status. All they could do was try to be better on the ice, said Sundin.
“We have to make sure that we perform and so far this year we haven’t lived up to expectations,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter who’s above us.
“We have to do a better job down on the ice.”
The board didn’t bring Fletcher in so he could sit idly behind a desk. The longtime NHL executive will make moves.
“If you’re in professional sports and you’re not winning, that’s a concern whenever you lose hockey games,” Sundin said. “That’s the reality we live with.
“We’ll see what happens from now on.”
Sundin said the GM change does not alter his intent to finish the season and his career as a Leaf. There has been conjecture that the team might ask the 37-year-old Swede and all-time club goals and points leader to waive his no-trade clause so they can deal him before the trade deadline, which is one month away now, and acquire prospects and draft picks to begin rebuilding.
“Cliff has been around,” said Sundin, who came to the Leafs by way of a Fletcher trade in 1994. “He’s an experienced guy and has great knowledge about the game so I’m sure he’s going to make decisions . . . and do everything he can to improve our hockey club.
“He’s a hard-nosed guy and I’m sure he’s going to do whatever he can to make us better.”
Ferguson or Fletcher – nothing changes for him, said Sundin.
“My only job and responsibility is to try to be as good as I can be and try to get us to be a playoff team,” he said. “That’s my only focus.
“I can’t worry about the other stuff. I wouldn’t be able to play and do my job. We still have a chance to make the playoffs if we can put a few good weeks together. My focus is only on that.”
Sundin said members of the board of directors approached him during the last week for his opinion on any management changes.
The guilt and disappointment over the firing of Ferguson as expressed by Sundin was shared by teammates.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Alex Steen. “It’s always tough when somebody loses their job.
“John meant a lot to a lot of the guys on the team and throughout the organization and has been a first-class general manager, I find, since I’ve been here. He’s always supported myself and my family so it’s tough, but we haven’t been playing the way we’ve wanted to and, you know, I guess they’re trying to make a change.”
The team has played better the last four games, he said.
“The confidence . . . is starting to come back into the team and moving forward we’ve just got to try to keep it up,” Steen said. “Coming into the season, we felt we had a team that was going to do great things right off the hop and we’d try to maintain that throughout the season.
“I think we’ve shown that on occasion but not consistently enough and that’s the reason we’re in the spot we’re in right now – fighting for our playoff lives. We’ve got less than half a season go and in order to make the playoffs we’ve got to go on a run.”
The lack of impact during the first half of the season by Jason Blake after he got a US$20-million, five-year contract from Ferguson as a free agent last July hindered the Leafs’ progress.
“I’ve only been here for a few months,” Blake said when asked for his reaction to the firing of Ferguson. “There’s certain things you can’t control.
“For us as players, the only thing we can control is how we play, and we weren’t getting the job done. You know, there was a change made and, you know, it’s the players who have to be accountable. We’re trying to turn this thing around and move in the right direction. We haven’t got it going consistently. It’s unfortunate that you see someone, you know . . .
“We’ve shown signs of brilliance and we’ve shown signs of just a lack of effort. We’ve got to find a consistent balance, and we haven’t found it yet. This is a shakeup . . . there might be some uncertainty now . . . but there’s a lot of hockey to be played yet.”
Pavel Kubina also got a lucrative free-agent deal from Ferguson.
“John lost his job because of the way we played,” said the big defenceman. “We’re very disappointed with that.
” We know we’re capable to play much better. We didn’t, and we let John down. He’s a great general manager and a great person.”
The results of the home-and-home set with the Capitals on Wednesday and Thursday could trigger Fletcher’s first moves.