Cliff “The Silver Fox” Fletcher
Atlanta Flames, 1972-1980
Calgary Flames, 1980-1991
Toronto Maple Leafs, 1991-1997, 2008
Phoenix Coyotes, 2000-2001
Smythe Division Titles, 1987-1990
President’s Trophy, 1987-1989
Playoff Appearances: 1974, 1976-1991, 1993-1996
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 1986, 1989
Stanley Cup Victory: 1989
Cliff Fletcher is a venerable presence in the annals of NHL team management. He built the Flames franchise from the ground up and made it one of the strongest franchises in the NHL during the late 1980s; took over the Toronto Maple Leafs and came closer than any other Leafs GM before or since (thus far) in guiding the team to the Stanley Cup finals; was responsible for drafting or acquiring many a great player; and discovering or finding many a great hockey coach.
Still, despite all this, Cliff Fletcher never enjoyed a period of sustained domination like Sam Pollock or Ken Holland or Glen Sather. Fletcher was always handling building (or re-building) projects and that can drag a manager’s value and ASR down considerably.
According to my rating system, Cliff Fletcher was tied with Baz Bastien and Jake Milford as the 11th best general manager of the 1970s. He was at his peak during the 1980s when he was the fourth best GM of the decade; during the 1990s (when he was with Toronto) he ranks 17th between Gerry Meehan and John Muckler.
He is tied with Jake Milford for being the 9th best GM of the NHL’s first expansion era (1967-1979) and he ranks fourth during the NHL’s second expansion era (1979-1991); sadly he is tied for 24th with David Poile and Bob Murray during the NHL’s third expansion era (1991-2001).
Still, despite this Fletcher made great contributions to the game with his managerial acumen and well deserves his induction into the HHOF in 2004.
Cliff Fletcher is a Montreal native who developed a love of the game and after finishing school pursued that love by finding work as a scout for the Canadiens under the keen, discerning eye of Sam Pollock. From 1956 to 1966 Fletcher pursued his hockey career and rose through the ranks under Pollock’s tutelage, eventually becoming general manager of the Verdun Blues junior team.
Fletcher’s next opportunity came when the expansion St. Louis Blues hired him to do scout work. During the first five years of the team’s existence, St. Louis was the place to be. Fletcher was working alongside future NHL luminaries like Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, and Jim Devellano—the ultimate managerial dream team.
Sadly, for St. Louis’ sake, it was too good to last. The ownership problems that would make St. Louis blue caused the dream team to fragment and scatter to the four winds. Bowman went to Montreal; Arbour and Devellano took advantage of NHL expansion and found a new home and fame in Long Island, NY; Fletcher, too, found his golden parachute in the expansion Atlanta Flames: becoming its first general manager in 1972.
For the next 19 years Fletcher’s left his mark with the Flames. His early draft picks showed instant results: forwards Eric Vail and Willi Plett won the Calder Memorial Trophy in consecutive years in 1975 and 1976; goalies Phil Myre and Dan Bouchard provided decent goal-tending; 1973 first round draft pick Tom Lysiak was the team’s best sharpshooter.
The Flames reached the playoffs in their second season of existence (much quicker than the Islanders did) but as the years passed the Flames failed to equal the progress the Islanders were making. The Flames had six winning seasons and six playoff appearances in the eight years they played in Atlanta but they failed to excel.
They were condemned to endure first round eliminations and the lack of attendance made the team’s future in Atlanta doubtful. Fletcher oversaw the team’s removal to Calgary and a brand new future. He had begun sowing the seeds for the team’s greatness in the 1980s during the late 1970s. Long before anyone else, Fletcher was beginning to comb the ranks of the U.S. Collegiate hockey program for playing talent. In 1984 he drafted Gary Suter, Brett Hull, and Gary Ranheim; in 1985 he drafted Joe Nieuwendyk.
Fletcher augmented his American discoveries by exploring Europe for additional playing talent: Hakan Loob in 1980. In 1988 he became the first NHL GM to successfully bring a player from the Soviet Union (Sergei Priakin) to play in the NHL.
The amateur talent poured in during the 1980s: Al MacInnis and Mike Vernon in 1981 and Gary Roberts in 1984.
To govern, mold, and exploit this talent, Fletcher reached into the U.S. collegiate ranks and hired the late Bob Johnson to become head coach of the Flames. Badger Bob created an offensive powerhouse that vied with provincial rival Edmonton for power in the NHL. In 1986 the Flames made their first Stanley Cup finals appearance. When Johnson left Calgary, Fletcher found another coaching talent in Terry Crisp. Crisp’s first three seasons were also the apex of the Flames franchise and Cliff Fletcher.
The team won two consecutive President’s Trophies (the only ones in Flames franchise history) and the 1989 Stanley Cup.
In 1991 Fletcher left the Flames; sensing that the team could not sustain its success. He needed a new challenge and found it in Toronto.
The Leafs were in pathetic condition and desperately needed help. Fletcher’s arrival was seen as a new era of prosperity for Leafs Nation. Not wasting time, Fletcher demonstrated why he got the nickname “Trader Cliff” by picking his former team’s pocket stealing Doug Gilmour away from Calgary. Gilmour became the captain of the collective hearts of Maple Leafs fans. In 1994 he did it again when he got Mats Sundin from Quebec.
Fletcher wasn’t just acquiring new players; he was also modernizing the Leafs organizational infrastructure: expanding the coaching staff and the scouting department; re-energizing the team’s relationship with the city and the community at large. It was the NHL equivalent of cleaning the Augean Stables after the madness that was Harold Ballard.
Not content with robbing players, Fletcher stole the late Pat Burns away from the Montreal Canadiens. Burns instilled his combative spirit and defensive genius on the Leafs and made them into instant contenders.
During the 1992/93 the Leafs came closer than they ever have before or since in reaching the Stanley Cup finals; only to be denied by the L.A. Kings in the conference finals.
Despite his exertions Fletcher could not bring the Cup to Toronto. Behind the scenes, he was locked in a power struggle with Maple Leaf Gardens chairman Steve Stavro. Stavro had opposed Fletcher’s hiring from the first and devoted considerable energy in undermining him as much as possible. After the stellar 1992/93 finish Stavro forced Fletcher to tighten the budget; thus tying his hands. Fletcher tried to bring Wayne Gretzky to Toronto so the Great One could finish his immortal career as a Leaf only to be stymied by Stavro.
In the end the real victims of Stavro’s machinations were the long suffering Maple Leafs fans themselves.
Fletcher left Toronto in 1997 and worked variously for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Phoenix before returning to Toronto where he remains today as a senior adviser to the Leafs.
His managerial genius has been transmitted to his children. His son Chuck serves as GM of the Minnesota Wild with a managerial value of -7 (he has a long way to go to catch up with his father).
(My next column will feature former New York Islanders GM Bill Torrey.)