TORONTO – As speculation about who should become the next general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs continued Monday, John Ferguson was at his desk, working the phones in a bid to try and help his struggling hockey club.
“I will continue to operate the club in its current and future best interests,” the current Leafs GM told The Canadian Press.
He’s all but been fired in the eyes of local media and fans, a bloodthirsty hockey public in Canada’s largest city crying out for change as the NHL club threatens to miss the playoffs three seasons in a row for the first time in 80 years.
“I do not concern myself with any media-related rumours or distractions,” said Ferguson. “It has never affected my decision-making and nor will it.”
His team is sitting 28th in the 30-team NHL thanks to a 2-9-2 slide in its last 13 games. Speculation about management changes reached a crescendo over the weekend as the Leafs wrapped up an 0-3 California road trip with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Richard Peddie along for the ride to witness the carnage. He told reporters on Friday that Ferguson’s job status would be re-evaluated soon by MLSE’s board of directors.
There has been confusion about whether or not there is a board meeting this week. Peddie would not confirm either way when reached on Monday.
“I am not updating developments on the management side of the Leafs,” Peddie said in an e-mail. “When and if there are any developments we will inform the media.”
When asked where Peddie had left things with him, Ferguson did not elaborate.
“I don’t comment about any discussions I have internally,” said the Leafs GM. “Certainly not any conversations I have with the people I work for.”
Ferguson’s contract expires at the end of the season, which has fuelled rumours of his demise all season long. In a perfect world, ownership should have either replaced him last summer or given him a contract extension. Instead, paralyzed by the organization’s reported squabbling at the board level, neither was done.
“It’s shameful the way they’re letting him twist in the wind,” one NHL executive, who requested anonymity, said Monday.
Former Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher, who presided over the club’s revival in the early 1990s with a number of sharp moves that led to a pair of conference final appearances, was eventually fired by the club in 1997. He knows what it feels like when times are tough.
“I just feel badly for the manager and the coach, having experienced it, it’s tough, it’s really tough,” Fletcher told The Canadian Press from Scottsdale, Ariz., on Monday. “But the one thing about Toronto, there’s nothing that three consecutive wins wouldn’t cure.”
Former Leafs head coach and GM Pat Quinn, who was let go after the 2005-06 season, said it’s important in times like this to keep focused on the task at hand.
“From the perspective of being in the management side when it’s not going good, you try to centre your focus on the players, the team, the basics and get right back to that,” Quinn said from Vancouver. “Because it’s performance at the end of the day that counts. . . .
“We know that in every business, you have those ups and downs, and you get tested by the downs,” added Quinn, whose Leafs made the playoffs six of his seven seasons at the helm. “But you can’t get distracted by them, nor by criticism – fairly or unfairly – that takes you away from where you need to go to get things back on the upswing again. That’s just because the Leafs are so important in Toronto that there are a lot of distractions.
“When you get long-term damage, usually it’s because you start watching the distractions rather than what you need to do to have your organization run well.”
What continues to resurface at MLSE is an apparent disagreement at the board level between chairman Larry Tanenbaum and Peddie, who has the backing of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan – which has the biggest stake in MLSE.
Legendary coach Scotty Bowman fuelled the fire in an interview on Hockey Night In Canada on Saturday when he revealed conversations he had with MLSE last August about taking an executive role with the club.
Bowman said he a “strong” meeting with Tanenbaum only to be told later on by Peddie that the Leafs were going to go with the status quo with the season fast approaching. Once again it underlined the apparent chasm between Peddie and Tanenbaum.
When reached on his cellphone by The Canadian Press on Monday, Bowman declined further comment, citing a personal situation he was attending to.
However, in Monday’s Detroit Free Press, Bowman said he had no desire in leaving his job with the Red Wings as a paid consultant.
“My commitment is with Detroit,” Bowman, 74, told the Free Press.
It’s a comment he also made last summer in an interview with The Canadian Press when he publicly acknowledged he had spoken with the Leafs.
“If I didn’t have something to do with Detroit I would have been more interested,” Bowman said. “But it’s something where I wanted to finish my career with Detroit. They’ve been good to me and I’ve been good to them. I’ve got a good relationship with the owner Mike Illitch. . . . We’ve been together for 14 years and I just didn’t feel comfortable (leaving). . . .
“I would have an awful time explaining why I was leaving Detroit.”
In the meantime, Bowman’s comments on Hockey Night In Canada further exposed the problems at the upper levels of MLSE. Can the organization lure a big name for its next GM if it’s not on the same page?
“I don’t see how anybody could take the job right now,” a former NHL GM said Monday. “You can’t go in there under the circumstances they have now. If you go in just in the exact same job that John’s got right now, forget it, you’re just ruining your career.”
The next GM needs to have more authority instead of having to run decisions through Peddie and the board.
“They would have to have a totally different set-up,” said the former GM. “A seasoned guy would never take the job that the way it is now. You can’t, it would be suicide.”
With Ferguson’s days seemingly numbered, there’s no shortage of candidates to replace him. Former New York Rangers GM Neil Smith, former Dallas Stars GM Doug Armstrong and former Leafs pro scout and Calgary Flames GM Craig Button are out there.
NHL executive vice-president Colin Campbell could possibly be lured while former Leafs goalie and TV analyst Glenn Healy has repeatedly been linked to a future front-office job with the team. Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson is another name that has popped up. He, like Smith, was interviewed in August 2003 for the GM job that Ferguson ultimately got.
But it’s a tough time of year to get the man you want. Many of the top candidates are employed on other teams and probably wouldn’t leave their teams until the off-season.
“Your list of candidates in June is way better than the list during the season,” said one NHL executive. “They should say right now, ‘John Ferguson is the general manager for the rest of the year. And then we’ll assess it.”‘
GMs Ken Holland of Detroit, Jim Rutherford of Carolina and Brian Burke of Anaheim are the three most popular names because of their championship track records. All three would require permission from their respective NHL clubs for MLSE to talk to them and all three most likely would not be available until June. And that’s if they’re interested.
Burke has another year left on his deal with the Ducks and has a strong relationship with the owners, Henry and Susan Samueli.
“I’m happy to repeat today what I said a week ago, what I said a month ago and what I said six months before that,” Burke said in an interview Monday. “My wife and I feel priviledged to work for the Samuelis and the only way we’re not coming back is if they don’t want us back.”