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Ferguson goes out with class while his owners try to finally get it right

TORONTO - Richard Peddie looked into the cameras Tuesday and described what the Toronto Maple Leafs were looking for in their next GM.

"We believe that being president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs is the top job in hockey," said the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. "The person who fills that job will be a winner, he will both be a long-term builder and a short-term fixer, with NHL experience, an established record of success on and the off the ice, along with his extensive knowledge in the areas of drafting and identifying talent in all the professional, amateur and international ranks.

"He will work effectively with the media and be comfortable with the intense scrutiny that characterizes Toronto."

Sounds logical. The Leafs want an accomplished executive who has years under his belt in the GM position and is a proven winner.

The question is, why wasn't this the mandate in August 2003 when the relative unknown John Ferguson - then 36 years old - was handed his first-ever NHL GM job?

While Ferguson shouldn't be let off the hook for some of his decisions, the majority of the responsibility for Toronto's disappointing results during his tenure lies with Peddie and the rest of the MLSE board of directors.

They should have known better than to put a rookie GM in that kind of position. Peddie admitted as much earlier this season and finally Tuesday after weeks of speculation fired Ferguson and replaced him with interim GM Cliff Fletcher.

"No GM should cut his teeth in a Canadian market," an NHL GM, who requested anonymity, told The Canadian Press. "The scrutiny and pressure is too much for someone trying to learn the ropes. It was a wrong decision."

Ferguson was the one candidate among the final four in 2003 that didn't have any political ties. Former head coach Pat Quinn was pushing for either Steve Tambellini or Bob Nicholson. Former Leafs executive Ken Dryden wanted Neil Smith. So Peddie chose Ferguson, who was director of hockey operations at the time with the St. Louis Blues.

The fact is, Ferguson will probably make a good GM elsewhere. He's learned his lessons and has nearly five years under his belt running a team in one of hockey's most demanding markets.

"You cannot replace experience," Ferguson said at his news conference Tuesday. "I don't mind saying and will firmly, I'm a better manager today than I was the day I was hired."

His phone was already ringing from other clubs Tuesday, mostly to see how he was doing, but undoubtedly he will land on his feet. Perhaps he will even be considered by Hockey Canada to assemble the men's world championship team for Quebec City and Halifax next spring.

His track record in Toronto was mixed. Yes, signing Pavel Kubina and Bryan McCabe to expensive long-term deals and the trade for Andrew Raycroft are the low points. But Ferguson also signed Tomas Kaberle to a long-term deal at a reasonable market-place figure - $4.25 million a year - while also fixing his goalie mistake by acquiring Vesa Toskala, who has been terrific. Rookie defenceman Anton Stralman has also shown signs of a promising career, drafted 216th overall (seventh round) by Ferguson in 2005.

"I'm proud of my record here," said Ferguson.

Ferguson went out with class and dignity, which he somehow managed to maintain even while his employers plotted his firing for the last week or so. He refused to sound bitter or complain at all about Peddie or the board of directors. Even when they didn't let him follow his vision. Ferguson, it's believed, had a plan to essentially bottom out and rebuild through the draft with high picks, much like Pittsburgh and Chicago have done. But the board apparently declined.

"This is a business, I understood that when I came here," said Ferguson. "Every manager deals with bosses and ownership. And I respect our ownership, I respect their right to make those decisions and that won't change."

Ferguson kept his head high even while his employers last summer contacted Scotty Bowman and John Muckler, among others, to come in as senior advisers for Ferguson. It was a public admission by MLSE's higher-ups that they felt their GM needed help.

"The first conversation I had regarding that role was with (MLSE chairman) Larry Tanenbaum," said Ferguson. "I was very understanding and embraced the concept. My father (the late John Ferguson Sr.) had done that role with probably four or five different managers. I had met with John Muckler. I spoke with Scotty just last week and we reviewed just what transpired.

"It was a very helpful conversation for me. It might have been different had something been able to be worked out. I would have enjoyed the opportunity to work with someone at that time."

Nothing happened because once again the apparent strained relationship between Peddie and Tanenbaum continues to plague the decision-making at MLSE. Peddie has more power because of his tight relationship with the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan - which has the biggest share in MLSE - but Tanenbaum is chairman.

Tanenbaum and other board members put up a united front at Tuesday's news conference where Fletcher was introduced. It remains to be seen just how united the board will be when it comes to agreeing on the full-time GM. Political interference afflicted the process in August 2003 and there's no guarantee that won't happen again.

Ferguson leaves MLSE without any harsh words for anyone. Perhaps his father taught him never to burn any bridges in this game. After all, did Fletcher ever think in his wildest dreams he would be back 11 years after being fired as Leafs GM?

"Not at all," Fletcher said Tuesday. "But it's a strange thing in the world of sports, things change."


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