Well-aged is well-appreciated in many sports arenas

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When the Toronto Maple Leafs recently fired their general manager, John Ferguson Jr., they did so primarily because the team was floundering at or near the bottom of the National Hockey League standings.

“We have reached out to Cliff Fletcher and his 50-plus years of hockey management experience to serve as general manager of the Leafs on an interim basis,” said Richard Peddie, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, at the press conference called to make the announcement.

On the surface, the move was made because Ferguson had made a series of poor trades and questionable signings. However, another factor at play here — one that hardly got any mention in the press — was that in firing the 40-year-old Ferguson and hiring the 72-year-old Fletcher, Leafs ownership showed that age isn’t an impediment when building a winning team.

In fact, in appointing the septuagenarian Fletcher to the GM role, Leaf executives ignored the prevailing ageist myth that older workers can’t do the job. The team showed that this was a case where the value of age and wisdom trumped the folly of youth and enthusiasm.

Although professional sports are a young man’s game, it’s comforting to know there’s still room for older executives, who have the advantage of bringing their lifetime of experience and skills to the table. In short, you don’t have to be young to succeed at the top levels of sports — or business. It’s certain that a lot of older workers noticed what was happening and were quietly cheering on the sidelines.

Fletcher is by no means a rarity in today’s world of sports. He just has to look down the road to see his old friend Scotty Bowman, still playing an active and key decision-making role for the Detroit Red Wings, at the age of 74.

A host of teams in other sports have achieved the pinnacle of success with so-called “older workers” at the helm. Tom Coughlin, a 63-year-old who is often criticized for his inability to relate to today’s younger football players, silenced his critics by leading his New York Giants to the Superbowl. And baseball also showed that age is no barrier to winning championships when 72-year-old cigar-smoking Jack McKeon skippered the youthful Florida Marlins to their 2003 World Series championship.

While the bulk of the athletes playing the games remain in their 20s and 30s, there have been a few notable exceptions. Hockey great Gordie Howe played until he was 52, his last years spent on the ice with his two young sons. Nat Hickey is said to have been the oldest ever basketball player, his final season coming in 1948 with the NBA’s Providence Steamrollers, at the age of 46. And George Blanda remains the oldest ever football player to take the field, his last season coming with Oakland Raiders in 1975, surviving in the rough and tumble sport until he was 48. Little wonder his teammates nicknamed him “Fossil.”

However, the record for oldest professional athlete goes to the colourful Satchel Paige, who pitched a few innings for the Kansas City Athletics at the age of 58. Paige spent a great deal of his career playing in the Negro Leagues, finally breaking into baseball in 1948, after Jackie Robinson had broken the colour barrier. Despite the fact he was 42 at the time, he enjoyed great success for the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Browns.

Paige was often asked by reporters and fans to explain how he lasted so long on the playing field. He finally revealed his longevity secrets in his aptly titled biography: Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever. His very sensible advice included:

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1. Avoid meats which angry up the blood.
2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on socially – the social ramble ain’t restful.
5. Avoid running at all times.
6. Don’t look back — someone might be gaining on you.

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