"I look back at my career and think, 'It's been 48 years that I've been involved with the NHL. Where did it all go?' It sure has gone by quickly."
Cliff Fletcher was born August 16, 1935 in Montreal, Quebec. And just like every other youngster in the province, Fletcher fell under the spell of the Montreal Canadiens. "Every youngster in my neighbourhood had a Canadiens' jersey. We used to go out and play road hockey and follow religiously every game that the Canadiens played," states Cliff. "I was a product of the environment I was brought up in."
Filled with the dreams embraced by all youngsters, Cliff too hoped to one day pull on an NHL sweater, but admits, "I wasn't a very good player but I played up to the level of Junior 'C.' I went through the whole minor gamut, from PeeWee, Bantam, Midget and up to Junior 'C'."
It was at that point that Fletcher segued into coaching. "I coached a PeeWee and a Midget team in St. Laurent, a suburb of Montreal, and had pretty good success." In fact, Fletcher enjoyed so much success that in 1956, the president of the Verdun Blues of the Montreal Metropolitan Junior Hockey League offered Cliff a position with his club. "I started out as the manager of the Verdun Blues. The captain of my team was Jack Bowman, Scotty's brother. That was my start in the hockey business." Fortuitously, the Blues had an affiliation with the Montreal Canadiens.
Fletcher's apprenticeship fell under the outstanding tutelage of Sam Pollock. "At that time, Frank Selke was the general manager of the Montreal Canadiens. Sam was responsible for the farm system and all the junior clubs they had at that time, as well as the minor pro clubs," nods Fletcher with a smile. "Even though I was on the periphery, seeing how Sam Pollock ran the minor league system was very instructive. Fortunately for me, some of it rubbed off. Pollock had an unbelievable mind and was clearly a forerunner in the business of hockey. The business of hockey was very important to him at a time when most people filling his position were former players. Sam had a brilliant mind. He knew what he wanted, hired good people and ran a very successful operation." In Cliff Fletcher's first five years as part of the Montreal Canadiens organization, the club won the Stanley Cup in five consecutive years. "Being around all those great hockey minds was a great thing," Cliff continues. "I would have coffee with Toe Blake from time to time and talk hockey in general terms. I was a scout, managing the junior system and he was the NHL coach, so there was a lot of opportunity to talk on a casual basis to not just Toe, but guys like Ken Reardon, a great player who became president of the Canadiens. I also had the opportunity to be around great players like Rocket Richard, Bert Olmstead and Doug Harvey. That was something special for a young guy in his twenties who grew up in Montreal. A great learning experience."
During his tenure in Montreal, Fletcher performed a great number of tasks, including overseeing the young players brought into the junior clubs. "One of the players we brought in from Boston was Craig Patrick, son of the then-Boston Bruins' general manager, Lynn Patrick." The situation later presented an opportunity for the young hockey executive. "When Lynn was named the first general manager and coach of the St. Louis Blues, he offered me the job of being in charge of amateur scouting. I think that after ten years with Montreal, I had more than served my apprenticeship in the business and I was looking for greater challenges and opportunities. St. Louis offered me that. That was my jumping off spot, as it was for many others who were working for Original Six teams. They had opportunities to go on to much more responsible positions with the six expansion teams."
The expansion teams, including the Blues, had better than a year to prepare for their NHL debuts. From June 1966 until the opening of training camp in September 1967, the six new teams were able to get their teams together, both on and off the ice. "There weren't many young players available to us because they were tied up by the Original Six teams," recalls Cliff. "We made a trade with the Rangers for Tim Ecclestone before his rookie season, but we had to wait almost four years before any true young fledgling talent was available." Many of the new clubs made deals with Montreal, obtaining veterans who could provide immediate assistance in exchange for prime draft picks. "That's where Sam Pollock did a great job for the Montreal organization. He set it up to be successful for a decade more by cashing in fringe assets for futures. He was very adept at doing it and he did a great job for Montreal."
Then, just 16 games into the Blues' inaugural season, Lynn Patrick relinquished the coaching role to Scotty Bowman. "When Scotty took over as general manager, and he was also coaching, he elevated me to assistant general manager, and that's when I moved to St. Louis. My first years were spent covering the AHL and looking for players to help the big team in St. Louis."
The St. Louis Blues were the most successful of the expansion franchises, climbing to the Stanley Cup finals in each of their first three seasons. "Getting to the Stanley Cup finals was very frustrating because you knew it wasn't an even playing field," Cliff states. "We lost 12 straight finals games, but the first year, every game was decided by one goal."
Then, Fletcher got the opportunity to be an NHL general manager for the first time with the expansion Atlanta Flames. "Atlanta was granted a franchise pretty late," remembers Cliff. "The NHL only decided to expand at their December meeting in 1971, and approved franchises for the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames at that time. I was hired about two weeks after that, so had less than six months to hire a staff and to prepare for the expansion draft. It was an exciting time, a busy time and a challenging time."
Using the template of the St. Louis Blues, who had succeeded early by drafting strong goaltenders (Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante), Cliff searched for the best netminders available. "We knew we would need good goaltending so we made a pre-draft trade with Montreal to get Phil Myre, and then we picked up Dan Bouchard. They did a very good job," Fletcher admits. "One thing you knew going into the expansion draft was that you weren't going to see a lot of goal scorers. Plus, both the Islanders and us were coming into the NHL in 1972, and that was the first year of the WHA. We had competition in trying to bring in players to our expansion team. Of the players we acquired in the draft, I think they had a total of 60 career NHL goals. In those days of the expansion draft, there weren't too many Christmas presents wrapped up for you!"
At first, the Flames were the toast of the town in Atlanta, but it quickly became clear that the team was going to struggle financially. "The crowds were great and the interest and enthusiasm of the community was truly outstanding, but unfortunately, the new building, which opened for our first game and the first-ever pro hockey game in the State of Georgia, was almost a dinosaur by the time it opened its doors," admits Cliff. "That's when new buildings in the planning stages were going up with all sorts of revenue-generating opportunities. We had a great hockey building in Atlanta but it only had 15,000 seats and no room for expansion and no private boxes. As the cost of operating a hockey team escalated during the early-seventies because of the competition from the WHA that started up at the same time the Flames did in 1972, it became financially impossible to operate profitably in Atlanta, and that's when they sold the club and moved it to Calgary."
Cliff moved with the franchise to Calgary in 1980, where the team enjoyed success from the moment the moving vans rolled into Alberta from Atlanta. "It was the oil and gas capital of Canada. The city was growing and has continued to grow. I would guess the population has nearly doubled since we moved there," says Fletcher. "We had a great first year. We lost only five home games and caught a lot of teams coming into the Stampede Corral by surprise. We won two playoff series that year. We beat Chicago and then lost Game 6 of the next series, so we faced Game 7 in Philadelphia. Pat Quinn was coaching the Flyers by then. We upset them at the Spectrum and then lost to the Minnesota North Stars in six games."
Yet, the adjustment period was difficult for the players on the Flames. "They moved from an atmosphere of very little pressure and criticism to a real hockey market," states Cliff. But there was one other sizeable challenge that faced Fletcher and his Flames. "We had the challenge of maybe the greatest team in the history of hockey 180 miles down the road. We knew they were going to be damn good. Somehow, we had to find a way to compete with them. We finally got to the point that we could compete with them and we beat them in 1986 when they had maybe their greatest hockey team." That year, the Flames faced Montreal in the Stanley Cup final, but lost to the Canadiens. "It was just a great rivalry (with the Oilers) so intense. The big winners were the hockey fans in both cities. They were wide-open, high-scoring games for the most part."
Calgary finished first in the Smythe Division in 1988, 1989 and 1990. But 1989, in particular, was extraordinary. The club, packed with terrific talent put together by Fletcher, finished first overall with 117 points. That spring, the Calgary Flames won the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. "The fact that we won it in Montreal made it very emotional for me," admits Cliff. "We lost Game 3 in double overtime, then won three straight games. The fact that we were the only team to win the Stanley Cup at the Forum, other than the Canadiens, was quite a feat. I remember going out there on the ice afterward and looking up at the roof, the banners, and the fans. They were very gracious fans and they stayed there and watched the proceedings. Flashing back to thirty years earlier and my start with the Canadiens made it a very special feeling."
In 1991, Cliff was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as Chief Operating Officer, President and General Manager. Toronto was a hockey-mad city starved for a Stanley Cup championship after having last won in 1967. Cliff could barely conceal his excitement. "When you consider that you're a young boy growing up in Montreal and starting your career with the Montreal Canadiens' organization, and then approaching the twilight of your career, to end up with the Toronto Maple Leafs what else could a Canadian boy ask for?! Toronto is the hockey capital of the world and to have the opportunity to come and try to restore the team to a higher competitive level was a challenge that I couldn't pass up. It was one I relished and one I enjoyed thoroughly for the full six years that I was there." The team made two terrific runs towards the Stanley Cup, only to lose unceremoniously to the Los Angeles Kings in 1993 and to the Vancouver Canucks in 1994. Fletcher not only returned the hockey club to respectability on the ice, but endeared himself to fans by recognizing some of the great players who were part of the Toronto Maple Leafs' legacy. "The great players of the past had been neglected," he admits. "There was no alumni association. We got all that together and raised the great players' jerseys to the rafters. We tried to do the things that should be done in a sports organization that was so deep in tradition and history."
After being relieved of his duties in Toronto, Fletcher was asked by Jacques Demers to act as a special advisor to the Tampa Bay Lightning, beginning in 1999. After two years in Florida, he was hired by the Phoenix Coyotes as Executive Vice-President and General Manager in 2001. That August, he surrendered the GM portfolio to Michael Barnett and assumed as role as Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations for the Coyotes. "I really have the best of all worlds here," smiles Cliff. "I'm not responsible for any of the detail work or the grunt work that goes on today in running a National Hockey League team. I actually really feel for the class of NHL general managers today, because their job is much more difficult than any time during the 25 years I was an NHL general manager, having to deal with a salary cap and making decisions that that can impact your franchise for years and years. I'm just happy to be able to work with Wayne (Gretzky) and Mike Barnett and offer them whatever benefit my past experiences have given me and just be part of an organization that's trying to feel its way and move up the ladder. The Coyotes are at the beginning of a really good era."
There is one other area that gives great pride to Cliff Fletcher, and it is also hockey-related. Cliff's children, both son Chuck and daughter Kristy, have followed him into the hockey industry. "When you're young, children grow up in the environment their father works in. They get to feel a lot that their Dad is going through your frustrations, the good times and the less than good times. And now that they're living that life on a day-to-day basis as part of the business, it makes me very, very proud." Chuck is the Assistant General Manager with the Pittsburgh Penguins after spending many years with the Florida Panthers and later, with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Kristy is the director of Executive Suite services for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
Although the years have passed more quickly than he may wish, Cliff Fletcher has left an indelible legacy on the hockey world, and one that led to his Induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builder Category in 2004.
Kevin Shea is the Hockey Hall of Fame's Editor of Publications and On-Line Features.