PITTSBURGH – They used to sit in the stands in a center-ice area called the “Well” at the old Omni in Atlanta.
It was 1972, the expansion Flames were just breaking in, and Cliff Fletcher had 5-year-old son Chuck on one side and 22-year-old protégé David Poile on the other.
Fittingly, 45 years later, Poile has paid it forward after Chuck’s Hall of Fame dad gave Poile his first opportunity as an administrative assistant. Fletcher, now 50 and GM of the Wild for eight years, considers Poile, now 67 and headed to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in an expansive career that includes being the first and only GM of the Nashville Predators, one of his biggest mentors.
“When I broke in here in Minnesota, David was always available to answer questions,” Fletcher said. “Even when I broke into the business in 1991, I ultimately took a job with [agent] Don Meehan, but David was unbelievable meeting with me, answering questions, helping me with my résumé, helping set up interviews. On a personal level, I couldn’t be happier for David right now.”
As the son of former player and Hall of Fame executive Bud Poile, David Poile was hired in Atlanta after playing hockey at Northeastern University. Before the Omni was even completed, Poile and a small staff would work in trailers, where Poile even helped organize the contest to pick the team’s nickname. The Flames ultimately moved to Calgary in 1980. Poile relocated for two years before becoming the Washington Capitals GM in 1982.
Nineteen seasons in Nashville after originally being hired by Wild owner Craig Leipold, Poile is the NHL’s longest-tenured GM. He has been a GM for 34 consecutive years and will tie Jack Adams and Glen Sather as the longest-tenured GMs in NHL history next season. His 2,622 games as a GM and 1,280 wins rank second all-time behind Sather.
It really hit Fletcher and Poile how special their relationship is back in March when Fletcher gave Poile a lift to the west coast of Florida following the GMs’ meetings in Boca Raton.
“Everybody needs mentors in their life, and I was fortunate enough to have two great ones in my dad and Cliff Fletcher,” Poile said. “I could go on forever about how much I learned from Cliff, whether it be hockey, socially, being a husband, a father, all of the above. Chuck, as a young kid, it’s pretty fair to say he idolized his dad and the job that he had.
“Chuck is really smart. You don’t go to Harvard by accident. Much like myself, he always wanted to be in the hockey business. He was an easy guy for me to support, go to bat for and to recommend without any reservation. It just felt like he was destined to be here.”
Fletcher respects so much about Poile. He’s loyal, firing three coaches in 34 years as a GM. His assistant GM, Paul Fenton, has been with him for 19 years. And he has dramatically changed the composition of the Predators through bold trades for Filip Forsberg, James Neal, Ryan Johansen and P.K. Subban to complement a build-from-within philosophy.
Much of that came after a traumatic incident in St. Paul in February 2014. Standing on the bench during a Predators morning skate like he had done hundreds of times before, Poile was struck by an errant puck. He broke his orbital bone above and below his right eye, severed his optic nerve, suffered tear duct damage beyond repair, took 40 stitches and broke his nose in three places. After several surgeries, his vision never returned. Yet he adapted and just went about his business.
“It was terrible and incredibly scary and maybe the flukiest incident ever to lose your eye in that fashion,” Fletcher said. “But it speaks to David’s resiliency and character. Over the last two or three years, I don’t think you can name a general manager that has done a better job than David Poile.”
‘It was just a bad break’
Less than a year after the accident, Poile returned to the X with his wife, Elizabeth. Tears flowed from both.
“But I’m over it,” Poile said. “I guess if there’s something that I’m proud of in my life, that might be one of the top ones. When they finally told me I wasn’t going to have sight in my eye, I said, ‘This is not going to affect me, my life, my lifestyle, my job.’ A lot of people have had worse things that have happened to them from injuries to illnesses to any of number of things.
“It was just a bad break and you move on. Honestly, it’s an inconvenience, but I can’t say it’s changed me in any way.”
Poile added with a chuckle, “I don’t mean to make this a pun, but if anything I’m probably more focused, whether you’re driving or watching out for people on your right side or watching games and players because you can only see the action with one eye. Maybe in some regard, I’m better.”
Nashville is one of the Wild’s biggest rivals. But 45 years after meeting Poile as a child, Fletcher can’t be happier that the man who once looked up to Fletcher’s own father is prepping for his team to play the Pittsburgh Penguins for the sport’s most cherished trophy.
“Obviously we’re all competitive, and we all want to be there ourselves. I wish the Minnesota Wild was playing for the Stanley Cup, not anybody else, and it’s really hard to cheer for other teams when you work so hard for your own team,” Fletcher said. “But I don’t think there would be anybody unhappy for David. He’s worked so hard and so long for this opportunity. My sentiments are probably shared by hundreds of others in this industry.”