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As a hockey fan, wouldn’t it be great if your favorite team won the Stanley Cup? In our case, in Minnesota, that would be the Minnesota Wild. All of us, including owner Craig Leipold, want to see the Wild win the Stanley Cup, and we’re all disappointed when they don’t.
That means we’re all disappointed once again in 2018 when the Wild didn’t win the Cup. Some of us clucked, some shook our heads in frustration, some realized what a monumental challenge it is to win the Cup, and some of us got frustrated enough to be angry with the whole franchise.
Craig Leipold, however, is the owner of the Wild, and he could carry his frustration over to a new level. He fired general manager Chuck Fletcher. And he did it in the “modern” way of simply saying he will not be offered a new contract. You can say that to a coach or GM whose contract is up. That way you don’t look like such a heartless character. You didn’t fire him, you just failed to offer him a new contract.
I must say I was quite surprised by the move. But then, I know a lot about the Fletcher family. Chuck’s dad, Cliff Fletcher, was the head of public relations for the original St. Louis Blues, back in 1967 when they and the North Stars both were born. Cliff and I got to be good friends, on a professional level, and we had many long and enjoyable talk sessions when he was PR chief for the Blues and I was covering the North Stars for the Minneapolis Tribune. Cliff moved on from there, when he was spokesman for Scotty Bowman as coach and GM of the Blues, and he gained responsibility and stature in the NHL.
When Chuck was hired, nine years ago, by Leipold, I didn’t know Chuck but I knew the family, and that he was a quality person who was instrumental in the Pittsburgh Penguins rising to Stanley Cup prominence.
If you recall the Wild back in those years, you’ll remember that Doug Risebrough was general manager and he hired Jacques Lemaire as coach. It was a good combination, and they worked some magic as the Wild won a string of upsets. Lemaire was an intriguing coach. He had strong ideas, and he knew what he wanted. Those Wild teams quite often threw the puck into the offensive zone, a technique I find boring, but they did it with style, where a forward on the left side might cross center ice and rifle an extremely hard slap shot up the left boards, ringing behind the net before the goaltender could get back there to set up. At the same time, a speedy Wild winger on the other side would race in hard and get to that puck first in the right corner, and the Wild would attack from there.
When they got banged around a little and fell short of the Cup, Lemaire and Risebrough made a tactical adjustment. They needed to get a little tougher, in order to be tough enough to weather such physical confrontations. So they did. In the process, they lost some speed. Suddenly wnen they would fire the puck througn the left corner, the opposing defensemen would get to the puck first in the right corner, because the Wild had given up just enough speed to get tougher, and the whole concept went south.
Flash forward now to about nine years ago. The Wild’s new owner, Leipold, hired Fletcher. If you recall, about seven years ago, the Wild missed the playoffs several years running, and every red-blooded Minnesota hockey fan would have given anything to see the Wild make the playoffs. Fletcher did that. He rounded up some talent, made some deals, some drafts, and some hunches, and here we are. The Wild just finished reaching the playoffs six consecutive years -- a tremendous accomplishment in a league where true parity is not just a concept.
When I contacted one of my friends who has a clue about the game a few days ago and asked if he was surprised by the dismissal of Fletcher. He said he wasn’t, and, in fact, predicted it would come right when it did. His reasoning followed that a year ago, Craig Leipold chose to not give Fletcher the extension that seemed logical. Sure enough, he was throwing down the challenge of winning the Stanley Cup or else. When the Wild were eliminated in five games by Winnipeg in the first round, the “or else” clause kicked in, and Fletcher was done.
The Twin Cities columnists who rarely attend Wild games, but are fearless about hurling their opinions out into the public mainstream -- even though they seem to be striving to prove how little they know about the game every time they write about hockey -- all clamored for Leipold to make a major move. What was he supposed to do, fire the whole team? Fire the coach? No, and no. The team is there, and coach Bruce Boudreau has a couple more years on his contract. The easy move was to fire Fletcher, whose contract was up.
However, it doesn’t appear that he has a successor named, or in mind. I’ve seen various lists of successors, and they range from pretty good, to possibly good, to you’ve-got-to-be-kidding. I will suggest that only a couple of them, in my estimation, have a chance to be as good as Fletcher is.
When the Wild started the Winnipeg series, columnists and media types painted the Wild as hopeless underdogs to the big, powerful Jets. On top of the strong Jets season, the Wild went in with Ryan Suter out with a broken ankle. When the Wild lost the first game, Zach Parise, just back from back surgery, scored a goal, and I thought that Charlie Coyle might have been the best player on either team. When the Wild lost Game 2, Parise scored again, and Coyle suddenly enrolled in a new club with Nino Neiderreiter and Jason Zucker, and it was a club where all three tried to become invisible. That is, they were never visible by their presence in the corner, or fighting for loose pucks, or being first to the puck along the boards. All three played as if they were terrified. Worse, they infected the lines they were playing on.
The Wild came home, and romped to a 6-2 victory, taking the play to the Jets and overrunning them. Parise, for the third straight game, got another goal. But after that game, it was disclosed the Parise had been sandwiched while reaching up to bat a puck out of the defensive zone. Two Jets converged, and in the process, Parise suffered a fractured sternum. Nobody ever heard of such a thing, but he was done.
If you don’t think that was significant, consider that the guy who scored in every game got hurt, and his team never scored another goal. Getting shut out in Game 4 in Saint Paul was bad, but getting blanked 5-0 in Game 5 meant the Wild was meek enough to get shut out in their final two games and go off into summer.
Obviously, Fletcher, who put all these players together, must be held responsible for the injuries to Suter, one of the NHL’s best defensemen, and Parise, one of the NHL’s best forwards. And obviously, it must be Fletcher’s fault that those impressive players he linked up to form the Wild lineup would all quit playing. In five games, Coyle, Zucker, and Neiderreiter combined to score zero goals and zero assists. That, too, must be Fletcher’s fault.
So he’s gone. If Craig Leopold had only said, “I wanted a new set of eyes to take a look at what we’ve got,” I would give him the benefit of my doubt. But when he went on to say in various ways that the wonderful fans of Minnesota deserve a Stanley Cup, it stopped me.
Mr. Leipold needs to understand that every year, only one team can win the Stanley Cup, even though all 31 teams are striving for it, and particularly those 16 that make the playoffs. The Wild are one of precious few that make the playoffs with regularity -- a huge accomplishment.
But when this year’s tournament finally ends late in June, and one team circles the ice hoisting the Cup, there will be 30 other teams sorely disappointed, along with their fans, at having not won it. But only one of those 30 teams that we know of will be so certain it “deserves” to win the Cup that it will fire its general manager.
I wish the Wild all the best. Good and great players with only a couple of required upgrades, mainly to stay free of injuries, with an outstanding coach. My prediction, however, is that Chuck Fletcher will get another job and end up being general manager of another NHL team, soon. With that in mind, it might also be a safe bet that Fletcher will get the chance to hoist the Cup before Leipold does.