Back when he was a 26-year-old assistant general manager with the Florida Panthers in 1993, Chuck Fletcher was mentored by the team’s GM, Bob Clarke.
Long before that, however, Fletcher had been introduced to the ins and outs of the NHL by one of the most respected general managers in NHL history: a guy who happened to be his father, Cliff.
“He had a massive influence on me,” the soft-spoken Fletcher, who was named the Flyers’ general manager Dec. 3, said the other night.
When the Atlanta Flames joined the league in 1972, Cliff Fletcher was their first general manager. By the second season, he had them in the playoffs, where the Flyers swept them in four straight en route to winning their first Stanley Cup.
“It was great growing up and seeing the Flyers, who along with the Canadiens and maybe Bruins, were the best teams in the ‘70s. I still remember Game 4 and Dave Schultz scoring on a breakaway in overtime to win it,” Chuck Fletcher said with a tinge of disappointment for his boyhood heroes, a Flames team that included Tom Lysiak, Eric Vail, rugged defenseman Pat Quinn, and Bryan Hextall, the father of Ron Hextall, the person Fletcher replaced as Philadelphia’s general manager.
Chuck Fletcher was 5 when the Flames hired his father, and the two were inseparable.
“I literally grew up around the game of hockey and in the dressing room and at the practice rink,” Fletcher, 51, said. “I was a rink rat from a young age and just loved spending time at game-day skates and around the rink. I’d go to the office with my dad all the time, and he inspired a love of the game in me, and as I got older, I began to understand the details of the game and some of the strategy of the game. He certainly allowed me opportunities to be around the team and sit with him and be a part of a lot of his conversations.”
As the years went by, Fletcher felt he was in his element at a hockey arena.
“I used to sit in the press box with my dad and David Poile, who was his assistant GM,” said Fletcher, aware that Poile’s father, Bud, was the first general manager in Flyers history. “The three of us would watch the games together and the two of them would make me feel a part of it, which was nice because I was just a kid.”
More than four decades later, after being in management positions in Pittsburgh (2009 champs), Florida, and Anaheim when those teams reached the Stanley Cup Finals — along with a nine-year stint as Minnesota’s general manager — Fletcher is trying to steer a sinking Flyers ship back into contention.
Though he has been here only less than three weeks, Fletcher has already hired an assistant general manager (Brent Flahr) and an assistant coach (Rick Wilson), fired a coach (Dave Hakstol), appointed an interim coach (Scott Gordon), and promoted a 20-year-old goalie (Carter Hart) who would probably still be in the AHL under the previous regime.
Next on his agenda after he learns more about his current players: making some trades that will enhance the Flyers' playoff chances and put them in position to contend for a Cup.
It won’t be as easy to make deals as when his father was GM with Atlanta/Calgary, Toronto, or Phoenix (now Arizona).
A different era
Back when the Cliff Fletcher was building a general-manager resume that earned him a spot in hockey’s Hall of Fame, the landscape was different — much different.
For that reason, Cliff Fletcher isn’t envious of today’s general managers, including his son.
“All the general managers today, not only Chuck, are under extremely more pressure than we were in my era, even though I was a manager for 26 years,” Cliff Fletcher said in a recent phone interview from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“Today with the cap system and the increasing pressure, they can’t make mistakes, and if they do, it’s almost impossible to recover from them. If you make a signing and the player doesn’t work out, the cap hit is still there and it’s very hard to recover from. In my time, if a manager made a mistake — and everybody does — you’d have a much better opportunity of recovering by going out and getting somebody else or spending a little more money, because there was no cap system.”
Added the elder Fletcher: “When you make a trade today, you almost have to trade dollar for dollar because there aren’t many teams in the league that are that far away from the cap [ceiling] and can afford to take on a lot of money. Whereas in my day, in a couple of big deals we made, we took in substantially more salary than we gave up. You could do that in those days, and that’s what the successful teams did.”
As a GM, Cliff Fletcher was such a shrewd dealer that he became known as “Trader Cliff.” Amazingly, he acquired eight players who went on to become Hall of Famers.
Cliff Fletcher was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder’s category in 2004 — he was Calgary’s GM when it won the Stanley Cup in 1989 — and he is in his 10th year as a senior adviser for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He stays in Toronto one week of each month, watches junior games, and watches and evaluates Leafs players and players on their AHL affiliate, the Marlies.
At 83, he is still going strong.
“It keeps him young, and he still loves the game,” Chuck Fletcher said.
Because of all his experience, Cliff Fletcher serves as a sounding board for first-year Toronto GM Kyle Dubas. “They don’t have to necessarily be player-related issues,” Cliff Fletcher said. “Toronto is probably the most high-profile hockey franchise in the world, and there are a lot of side issues that go along with running a team there.”
During his years in Atlanta, his job left a lasting impression on a youngster who now runs the Flyers.
“He lived the life of a general manager’s son for all those formative years,” the elder Fletcher said, adding he would take Chuck on one road trip a year that he weaved around Chuck’s school and hockey-playing schedules.
“He got to understand the highs and lows of the job, and like most other managers with young children, I would take him everywhere with me. He’d be at practice, he’d be walking around the dressing room, and be in meetings when we were discussing players. So he lived in the environment his whole life. He was very familiar with what the role of the general manager was before he got his first opportunity.”
Chuck Fletcher, a Harvard graduate who played JV hockey there, spent nine years as Minnesota’s GM, and the Wild earned a playoff berth in his last six seasons before he was fired last April. The Wild won just two playoff series during his tenure.
“I think he’s developed the ability to be a very good listener, and to me, that’s the most important thing anyone can have,” Cliff Fletcher said. “And the second thing is that he does a very good job communicating with people in his organization. He believes in everybody in the organization.”
Clarke agreed, saying Chuck Fletcher, during his time with Florida, had a “neat way of asking questions and getting responses, and even if you disagreed, you felt important. He was exceptionally good at that, and for us, it was the treatment of the people who worked for us [that was important]. Chuck was really good at treating people properly.”
Before the Flyers hired Fletcher, the brass consulted with Clarke, the team’s senior vice president.
Clarke gave Chuck Fletcher his front-office start in Florida 25 years ago, and he has been close with his father for several decades, calling Cliff Fletcher one of his mentors when he broke into the league as a GM.
“Clarkie and I go back a long, long way. That’s for sure,” Cliff Fletcher said. “At one stage, we both lived in places that were side by side to each other in Florida. My relationship with Clarkie goes back 50 years. We were managers at the same time for a lot of years. Back in those days, the general managers' group was a very close-knit group in all aspects of the game except the competition between the teams. When it came to that, we’d carve each other’s hearts out.”
Back then, Boston GM Harry Sinden, Islanders GM Bill Torrey, and Cliff Fletcher were “kind of the three senior guys and we sort of took all the young guys under our wing” — such as Clarke — “and helped them out when we could,” he said. “I’m talking about mostly issues that were common to every franchise but were not part of the competition.”
Before the Flyers hired Chuck Fletcher to replace Hextall, Clarke gave club president Paul Holmgren a glowing report on his former sidekick.
Now, Chuck Fletcher is in a difficult situation, trying to learn about the Flyers’ and their farm system’s strengths and weaknesses on the fly. Most GMs are hired in the offseason, giving them time to learn about the organization.
“He may know the players from afar, but only from being with the players on an everyday basis and watching practice do you really get an idea of the asset value and what you really have,” Cliff Fletcher said. “You can’t come in and have it all figured out [right away]. It’s just impossible.”
The younger Fletcher has been working the phones daily, even though the NHL has a holiday trade freeze until Dec. 27.
Chuck Fletcher, whose trading record in Minnesota was mixed, said one of the things he learned from his dad was to be bold.
“He was a guy who wasn’t afraid to make moves,” Chuck said. “Again, not every move you make works out, but he certainly was never afraid to pull the trigger. He taught me to make your best judgment, make your best decision, and hopefully it works out. If it doesn’t, you have to go back and make another one.”