By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008
George McPhee leaned forward in his chair, squinted his eyes and focused on the performance that was unfolding before him. Except on this Wednesday night, the performers weren't hockey players and McPhee, the general manager of the Washington Capitals, wasn't sitting in a suite high above the ice. Instead, he was in a classroom at Georgetown University grading the midterm projects of 44 students in his graduate-level sports management class.
As the students made their presentations behind a podium, McPhee, wearing a dark suit and holding a sleek black portfolio, listened intently, nodding and occasionally smiling. At the conclusion of one presentation, McPhee reiterated something that had been mentioned moments earlier.
"Look at that first bullet point," he told the students, gesturing toward the projector screen. "You cannot be driven only by money. You must also enjoy what you do."
McPhee has overseen the day-to-day operations of the Capitals' front office for a decade and has little spare time, particularly during the season. But after some persuasion from Matt Winkler, an associate dean who developed the recently launched masters program for sports industry management at Georgetown, McPhee decided to give teaching a try this semester.
Graduate courses at prestigious universities are often taught by respected names. But having the current general manager of a professional sports team is rare, if not unprecedented. McPhee teaches the class with Bobby Goldwater, the former president of the DC Sports & Entertainment Commission.
"For the students, having a teacher who has his finger on the trigger makes all of the difference in the world," said Winkler, who worked for the Capitals for more than two years before leaving for Georgetown in November. "Something will come up, and George will say, 'Here's how it really is.' "
McPhee's involvement is limited by his commitment to the Capitals. Because of his hectic schedule, he agreed to teach eight of the course's 14 classes, six of them taking place before the Capitals' season started. McPhee said he did his preparation -- most of it involved studying the course's three textbooks -- during August, the quietest period of the NHL calendar.
"When I was asked if I could participate, I said that I didn't think that I could," McPhee said. "But when we looked at it a little closer, we realized there was a smaller commitment that we could make work."
A reminder of McPhee's nonstop hockey duties occurred late in this week's class when his cellphone rang. Doug Yingst, general manager of the Capitals' minor league affiliate in Hershey, Pa., had bad news to report: The Bears had been blown out earlier in the evening.
Agreeing to teach Sports Leadership and Management is consistent with McPhee's dual interests -- sports and academia. He won the Hobey Baker award as college hockey's top player in 1982 at Bowling Green and later earned a law degree from Rutgers, with a seven-year NHL career in between. He's one of four NHL general managers with a law degree (Brian Burke in Anaheim, Mike Gillis in Vancouver and Peter Chiarelli in Boston are the others.)
This week's class was different from previous ones because McPhee did more listening than talking. In previous weeks, McPhee took center stage in the cramped classroom. Earlier this semester, he walked the students through the five-year plan he implemented with the Capitals, who returned to the playoffs last spring for the first time since 2002-03. McPhee detailed everything, from getting majority owner Ted Leonsis, a Georgetown alum, to buy into the plan, to trading away proven veterans for prospects and draft picks -- a risky proposition that doesn't always work, he cautioned them.
McPhee also led the class on a behind-the-scenes tour of Verizon Center this month before a game against the New Jersey Devils. After the tour, several high-ranking front-office officials addressed the class and McPhee gave them a five-minute chalk talk on the Capitals' strategy for beating the defense-first Devils.
"When he talks, we listen because he has insights that are meaningful," said Jacob Burns, a 26-year-old student whose presentation focused on Atlanta Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell. "Books are books, but having real-life practitioners who can tell you 'this is why it worked, or why it didn't work' is much more valuable."
Malcolm Granado, 29, added, "It's like learning to play basketball from Michael Jordan."
McPhee said his first foray into teaching has been a rewarding experience. But he also doesn't plan on making it a regular gig.
"After law school, I didn't want to see a classroom for a long, long time," McPhee said. "This was a unique opportunity to see if you could make an impact on their lives. And it's worked out well."
Capitals Notes: Alex Ovechkin, who returned to Russia this week to be with his ailing grandfather, still expects to return to Washington on Sunday. . . . Defensemen Tom Poti, who has missed five games with a groin muscle strain, is aiming to return tomorrow in Buffalo, he said yesterday.