The summer of 1997 brought a drastic re-structuring of the Maple Leafs front office and off-ice management team. The preceding year was an abysmal season that saw the Leafs miss the playoffs for the first time in four years. Changes were coming that would drastically alter the franchise.
The team finished the 1996-97 season with a record of 30-44-8-0 good for 3rd last place in the league. Unfortunately, the Leafs traded their 1997 first round pick to re-acquire Wendel Clark. With no playoffs and no first round pick the future looked bleak. On May 24, 1997 Cliff “The Silver Fox” Fletcher resigned from his position as President and General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (His resignation was an effort to save face as the last two years of his contract were bought out) Judgment of the “Fletcher Era” was swift and unforgiving in the Toronto press. In the Globe Dave Shoalts stated that “Cliff Fletcher has left the Toronto Maple Leafs after six years much as he found them: a collection of aging veterans and unproved young players of questionable value.” The Leafs needed to re-build, and management did not think Fletcher the man for the job. His job was cleaved in half which left the Leafs looking for both a new GM and President.
In the interim, Bill Watters (yes, that Bill Watters) took over as GM. Obviously, the team was looking to replace him as soon as possible. Watters explained, “We would like to go to the (June 21) draft with a new GM but if we do not have the person who we feel is the best person for job, we don’t feel we should do that.” One of the most coveted jobs in hockey was suddenly vacant. There was no shortage of potential and interested candidates.
Despite the interest in the vacant GM position, the Leafs would first hire a new President. In late May 1997 Ken Dryden was named President of the Toronto Maple Leafs. After an abysmal season Dryden was bent on improving the team. “There’s no reason in the world for thinking the Toronto Maple Leafs shouldn’t be able to compete at the top. We have to.” Dryden’s role as President would be to “give the team a sense of direction, a new feeling of what the Toronto Maple Leafs are all about and where they’re going, a sense of ourselves and our mission.” Dryden had not been involved with the NHL since his retirement 18 years prior. He even admitted that he had only watched a handful of Leafs games that season. The Leafs believed he was fully qualified and entrusted him with the future of the franchise.
Dryden’s first decision would be to select the next General Manager. He told reporters there was no set timeline. “I don’t think it’s critical for the general manager to be in place for the (June 21) draft, it’s only preferable. The task is to find the right person.” How would he know who the right person was? According to the future Member of Parliament, “We want someone the fans can imagine and the players can imagine carrying the Stanley Cup. If we can’t imagine that, then it’s not the right person.”
Dryden had been given a clear mandate by Steve Stavro and the board of directors. He explained, “I have been given the authority to make the decisions, hire the right people on the ice and off to build an organization. As Steve said, I’ve been given the resources to build a Stanley Cup team. I wouldn’t have taken the job without those assurances, without the tools to make it happen.” The team was in Dryden’s hands now. "We will have what we need, no excuses, no crutches. It’s up to us to make something of it, to make it to the top."
The first step was filling the vacant GM position; there was no shortage of qualified and interested candidates.
None of the articles I read talked about how Sundin would be the cornerstone on which the franchise would be re-built. He had just led the team in scoring with 94 points- 41 goals and 53 assists- in 82 games at the age of 25. The media made it sound as though the team had no future, no assets.
Shoalts, David. 1997. Leafs at square one after six tumultuous years BACKGROUND / fletcher’s notable trades included stealing gilmour, giving up fichaud, jonsson. The Globe and Mail, May 26, 1997.
Dryden entrusted with top Leaf job. Toronto Star, May 31, 1997.
MacLeod, Robert. 1997. Dryden appointed new leaf president former canadiens star may be facing his toughest assignment in hockey, making winners of toronto. The Globe and Mail, May 31, 1997.