TORONTO (June 28) -- The Toronto Maple Leafs are indeed searching for a senior hockey administrator, but not someone to replace general manager John Ferguson. Instead, the newly-hired executive will coach and mentor Ferguson over a period of several years, then step aside.
This information was relayed to me during a sit-down yesterday afternoon in the office of Richard Peddie, CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the company that owns the hockey club.
"John is still a very young man [40 on July 7] in a tough hockey market with great expectations," said Peddie. "And it occurred to us -- the board and myself -- that John could use some help. So, we went to him and he was very open-minded to the idea. We are nowhere close at this time to hiring that person. If we can find the right individual that we believe will help the Leafs and John, then we'll do it."
This arrangement, according to Peddie, differs from the company's decision -- a year ago February -- to spirit highly-touted NBA exec Brian Colangelo away from the Phoenix Suns. Colangelo, president and GM of the Toronto Raptors, is 42 years of age and has the bulk of his basketball career in front of him. The Maple Leafs, conversely, are seeking an "older" hockey executive to share his knowledge with Ferguson in the short term.
"We're looking for someone very wise and very experienced to work with John over a finite period of time," said Peddie. "This is not a long-term role -- perhaps a couple of years -- and we want a person that can mentor and coach John; a person that can help him look at the organization to see if it's the best it can be, and weigh in on evaluating talent."
What seperates this scenario from most others is that MLSE's appointee will usurp final authority on hockey matters from Ferguson. That, too, will be a temporary arrangement, according to Peddie. In a typical professional sports environment, a president or vice-president with full authority would also be GM -- such as Colangelo with the Raptors, or Brian Burke of the Stanley Cup-champion Anaheim Ducks.
"John's position is not in jeopardy," emphasized Peddie, who hired Ferguson in August, 2003, and has been a solid supporter of the Leafs' GM, despite a lack of unanimity among MLSE board members. Ferguson and his representative -- long-time football agent Gil Scott -- were informed last month that the GM would receive a contract extension, but MLSE decided to alter its approach.
"John has one year remaining on his current deal, and that's where we're at," said Peddie. "I'm hoping, with a bit of progress on the ice, that [an extension] is something we'll deal with sooner than later."
Clearly, this is a reaction to a pair of circumstances. There has never been consensus among the MLSE board over Ferguson's merits as GM. Peddie has a strong voice in the organization as the point man for Teachers' Merchent Bank -- private equity arm of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan -- which controls the company with a 58% share. Minority share-holder Larry Tanenbaum, and his counsel -- MLSE board member Dale Lastman -- are said to be in favor of replacing Ferguson altogether.
Also a major factor is that the Leafs have failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs the past two seasons. "John is still learning the job," said Peddie, in spite of Ferguson's four-year term as GM. "And, even though we have made some progress, we haven't made enough on the ultimate scorecard, which is making the playoffs and moving towards a 14th [franchise] Stanley Cup.
"What I've told John is to behave like he's the general manager, which he is, and to continue making long-term decisions. And, that's the direction from the board, as well."
Ferguson came to one of those decisions last week in Columbus, when he traded three draft picks to the San Jose Sharks for goaltender Vesa Toskala and forward Mark Bell.
And while Peddie wouldn't speculate on candidates for the senior position, he did speak with Detroit's Scotty Bowman, who turned down the offer, and is rumored to be interested in both John Muckler and Cliff Fletcher.
Muckler was fired last week as Ottawa's GM after taking the Senators to the Stanley Cup final. Fletcher was a victim of the recent executive purge in Phoenix and is a former GM of the Leafs -- best remembered for acquiring Doug Gilmour in a ten-player swap with Calgary in 1992.
Ferguson may not be able to attend an MLSE board meeting today at the Air Canada Centre. He is with his family in Windsor, Ont., where father John Ferguson Sr. is gravely ill with bone cancer. Our hearts are with one of the truly wonderful families in the sport.
The Leafs will shortly release their 2007 pre-season schedule. It will include a two-game western trip -- Sep. 18 at Edmonton, and Sep. 19 at Winnipeg (against Phoenix). The Coyotes will play a return match in Toronto, and the Leafs will travel to Boston on Sep. 22.
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