Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cliff Fletcher Fails as Maple Leafs' Interim General Manager

Leafs logoOf course, his time isn't finished yet. And he well may do something to improve the team and set the plate for whomever his successor turns out to be.

But as far as the all important trade deadline and the potential for increased returns because of the impending playoffs and the added pressure on the league's other 29 GMs, Cliff Fletcher failed like a senile old bastard who'd been out of the game for nearly 15 years and had lost all his hockey contacts and abilities to influence people. Oh, wait...

Let's take care of the requisite spreading of blame that is essential when assessing blunders in this truly hopeless franchise. The clods who hired Fletcher were as clueless as anyone regarding what it would take to make some immediate improvements. They looked at the last whiff of decency the team had emitted and went out and got the person who had some hand in those years of success.

Now, onto Fletcher's failed attempts to right this sinking ship. A goal that was unrealistic to start with but still provided some leeway for moderate gains and improvements.

The public tone set by Fletcher early in his current, temporary tenure was wrong-headed. If any market's media hounds can be used as a club to bludgeon players into seeing the light and waiving their "I'm a petulant mule and I ain't budging" clauses, then Toronto is it.

Fletcher essentially prostrated himself at Mats Sundin's feet and said "Hey big boy, I've got a kind of twisted man-love fixation for you, it thrills me to think I helped bring you here, and if the 80 million you've bagged as a member of this team ain't enough, I'll protect your ego from the slings of these nasty individuals who actually want a winner out of this dysfunctional franchise."

Fletcher introduced no strong story-lines into the melodrama. Nothing that fans and journalists could latch onto. Nothing that could be used to spin the fact that the very best thing for the Leafs as an organization was to convince Sundin that it was time to move on. Instead, it was the tiresome mewling about how everyone should respect the Swede who has grown sadly familiar and comfortable with chronic losing.

Yes, we all know it's his right to refuse to waive his no trade clause. No one's arguing that. And so too it is the right, nay the duty, of those in control of the team—who are charged with making it as competitive as possible—to put enough pressure on him so that staying is less comfortable than leaving.

But the meaningless narrative about respect, rights and tens of millions of dollars worth of loyalty ruled the day. Stoked by columnists who admit they are personal friends of Sundin, Fletcher's voice became almost non-existent in the whirlwind of saccharine and overly dramatic posturing.

No-trade and no-movement clauses are the antithesis of team sports. The ultimate act of putting the cart rammed full of cash and benefits before the tireless horses these prima donnas should become before they insist on being anointed icons and legends before they prove themselves. (No doubt this notion applies to varying degrees. A player such as Sundin has of course long since proven his worth and is one of the greatest Leafs players ever.)

They say, "I will not be subject to the vagaries of injuries, the shifting winds of team chemistry, declining play or the potential to acquire a reputation as an all-round nasty individual."

Of course, the fact that they have become relatively widespread is a testament to the strides made by players and their increasing leverage in negotiations. Who wouldn't leap at the opportunity to have more control over their future?

But the whole concept flies in the face of an organization controlled by an owner and manager determined to do whatever is necessary to build a championship team. And so they must be taken on by players with the full knowledge that the only time they will ever become an issue is when these situations arise. They are inherently contentious and conflict-creating instruments.

No doubt some blame has to be accepted by the general managers in the league who bend to the wishes of players out of the fear that they will bolt to another team. As many others have already pointed out, some of their excuse-making on the issue falls a bit flat.

John Ferguson Junior recently stated that he had no choice when it came to many of the players who demanded no trade clauses in their contracts. He claims that if he hadn't agreed...they would have gone elsewhere.

"You'd better give me a guarantee that I never have to leave this place I love and cherish so much...or else I'll leave!!"

The whole concept of playing with a desperation that makes it a moot point seems to be getting lost on both sides of the negotiating table.

If a player is willing to push for a no-trade clause, he must also accept the fallout if it comes to a showdown. Just as a player is tacitly stating, "My personal wishes supercede the goals of this organization and by association, many of its fans ," management must actively respond with whatever is in the best interest of the team. Just as a cop will continually ramp up the level of force when a suspect resists, with the logical end result being death, a manager must use threats of marginalization and potential humiliation or at least make it clear he is willing to consider such a direction.

Fletcher did neither and casually acceded to the wishes of the players whose refusal will now stall the Leafs' rebuilding. This fact seemed to have dawned on Fletcher (along with his now sadly inappropriate handle "trader Cliff") at a press conference, where he expressed some of the callousness and urgency that should have been present from the beginning.

Leafs fans better not dream of champagne anytime soon. The only thing they'll be sucking on for a long time to come is tired old sentiments and empty promises. And as they do, perhaps they can be at least satisfied in the knowledge that a handful of players were able to write the script for their final days in the league without concern for one of the great motivating forces that has long been part of professional sports.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Valentine's Day: The Perfect Script and Fan Loyalty

Many people, mostly of the female persuasion, seem to have a script in their minds regarding the potential love of their lives and how things should play out. One of the most important aspects is the initial meeting. The more quirky and memorable the better.

In keeping with the popular romantic comedy plot-lines of the day, it doesn't take much for a person to steer a situation towards an appropriate starting point. Something that can be retold at family gatherings and starts the relationship off with a dramatic flair, convincing the woman that the whole narrative will play out according to plan.

When that initial encounter was too embarrassing or bland, the passage of time and revisionist history can set things right.

So too with sports fans, their first experience with a team can take on special significance. It doesn't have to be grand or extreme to become a tale worth re-telling. Just spun correctly.

Vicinity is the most obvious factor that brings a couple or a fan and his team together. But just as often it can be psychological and as a way of rebelling against authority.

"Me old man drove me head against a brick wall tellin' me I'd be a Millwall supporter for the rest of me bleedin' life. I started to see stars and then they formed the Arsenal crest. It was a match made in white trash heaven I tell ya'!"

Once the relationship is up and running, it's bound to become dysfunctional in no time at all. As with the male/female variety, the wheels start to come off because of assumptions, expectations and good old fashioned boredom.

When the times are good (i.e. a good job and success or the team is winning) those problems become insignificant. As with all relationships, however, the real test is when the bloated gut appears, the teeth fall out and others around you seem to be having all the fun. Many remain loyal to the bitter end, holding up sad mantras and the accumulation of years as some kind of badge of honour. The nasty, twisted aspect of the crumbling marriage becomes a sick joke that has its own certain appeal.

Others start to "get a little bit on the side" (cheering for a "secondary" team) just to make things somewhat tolerable while still keeping the primary relationship alive out of sheer habit. Perhaps the illicit affair provides more of what the person really needs but just as likely the seedy taboo aspect is what provides the real thrill.

Sometimes circumstance intervenes and what was a less than perfect set-up comes to an end because of practical reasons. A team goes bankrupt or is bought and moves hundreds or thousands of miles away to start again (the Winnipeg Jets or Quebec Nordiques.) The split is emotional but it seems to ignore the fact that things were probably doomed anyway if it had carried on as before.

It creates an instant nostalgia for a handful of wackos who can't let go and they are left to forever lament the loss and dream about an unlikely reunion. (Not sure of a good analogy here for husbands and wives...a temporary job overseas that slowly becomes permanent? A rich Arab lures the woman half away around the world, leaving her lazy oaf of a husband in his menial job? )

After years of futility, the long suffering fools who have remained loyal may get a burst of redemption with a championship. Then things settle back into their old patterns and the pleasure from that moment in the sun slowly recedes.

Some fans have no time for sentiment and will abandon their team for a younger club with more excitement and potential and not saddled with self-destructive habits that ultimately lead to long-term failure. They are scorned by others who stand by their haggard and well-used mates/teams. They have to attack those who left for greener pastures. To not do so would invalidate their own character and choices.

But there's more to the rage and disdain directed at the ones who have moved on. There's a small bit of envy and regret that they haven't taken the hard, purely self-serving approach that results in more short-term happiness.

Maybe the teams and people in life who take the ruthless, win-at-all-costs attitude do enjoy the most success, recognition and satisfaction while those who are always mired in mediocrity are left to offer up stale bromides and meaningless rationalizations.

Whether the relationship you have with your favourite sports team is healthy, obsessive, twisted, dysfunctional, masochistic or otherwise...

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY!