Scrappy George McPhee, still fighting the good fight for the Washington Capitals

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010; 12:04 AM

This is how George McPhee thinks about the 82 games - plus an untold number in the playoffs - the Washington Capitals will play over the coming months.

"As much as you hate that long walk down the corridors and up to the press box before the games - you hate that feeling - I think life, on the professional side, might be too boring without it," McPhee said. " I enjoy watching practices and certainly enjoy all that goes into trying to build a team. But when the puck drops, I can't say that it's ever fun."

And then there is McPhee before the opening of another training camp, when everything seems possible. His first was 29 years ago, when he was a player. His first as a general manager was 13 years ago. One of his most promising starts Saturday morning.

"It's not unlike the night before Christmas," he said.

So it is for a hockey lifer, one who now seems like a lifer in Washington. When McPhee became the Capitals' general manager on June 9, 1997, Redskins Executive Vice President and Coach Mike Shanahan was about to embark on his first Super Bowl-winning season in Denver. Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld had just completed his first full season as a general manager of the New York Knicks. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo had not begun his stint as a scout with the Arizona Diamondbacks, because the expansion Diamondbacks had not yet played a game.

McPhee has quietly, almost silently, become the most enduring sports executive in Washington, a town of inordinate athletic turnover. On those game nights, his close-to-the-temples hair and starched shirts scream that he is just what he has become: a law school-trained executive, a man who has assembled what has in recent years become Washington's best professional sports team.

"He has the respect of his peers, there's no question," said New Jersey Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello, one of McPhee's mentors.

There is also a complexity to McPhee that goes beyond having a job and doing it well. He has deep roots in his sport, a passion that belies his normally staid countenance: clenched jaw, uneasy smiles, all-business-all-the-time attitude. In his 52 years, McPhee has been a scorer, a student, a brawler, a builder. He might be tight as a sailor's knot on game nights now, but only because he knows that once the puck drops he can no longer affect the outcome.

That tension has only increased this year. The Capitals had the best regular season record in the NHL last season, only to be ousted in the first round of the playoffs. With the team again among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, the pressure on McPhee and the team he has assembled to deliver a championship is enormous.

How McPhee got to this point is a product not only of who he is, but of how he got there, a series of hockey experiences that might have broken other men.

"There's an intellect there, and it's apparent," said Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, another mentor. "You could see that early on, too, because of how he had to reinvent himself as a player."

Gaining a reputation

McPhee was, in effect, two hockey players. In college at Bowling Green - where he arrived from Guelph, Ontario, son of a factory worker, with no expectations of ever turning pro - he was a prolific scorer who won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's best player.

"But he was small," Burke said. "He was a highly skilled player in college, but as a pro, he had to be a part-time player who would fight."

Go to Youtube, and the videos are there. McPhee, all 5 feet 9 of him, taking on the best fighters of the 1980s. His second year with the New York Rangers was 1984-85, when he played a career-high 49 games, scored a career-high 12 goals and logged a career-high 139 penalty minutes. From there came his reputation, boiled down to a single phrase: George McPhee, scrappy little fighter.

"It became something that I was known for, and I'm not sure I ever meant it to be that way," McPhee said. "I just wanted to be a well-rounded player like everybody else and try to do everything well. And I got good at [fighting]. Sometimes you're stereotyped and that's what coaches expect, and that's what they want from you."

Fighting simultaneously provided McPhee a career and shortened it. He appeared with the Rangers for four seasons, then was traded to New Jersey, where Lamoriello acquired him because, as he says now, "no one got more out of his abilities, and for his size, he was one of the toughest players in the league."

But even toughness can't negate what McPhee faced. For a small man, the brawling life carries consequences.

"I didn't have a lot of weight under me," he said, "and it's hard to stay healthy at my size playing the way I was playing."

The way McPhee played as a professional took shape in the minor leagues, and in every pro hockey game, there are hits. The best spark teams. The worst change lives.

On March 7, 1983, Ed Kea was a 6-foot-3 defenseman for the Salt Lake City Golden Eagles, an affiliate of the St. Louis Blues, who had spent nine years in the NHL. McPhee was working his way up to the Rangers, playing for the Tulsa Oilers. On one play, he checked Kea, and hard.

It was, by all accounts, a clean play, well within the rules. Kea's head, though, hit the endboards, then the ice. He wasn't wearing a helmet. He broke his nose. He was carried, unconscious, from the rink. Two days later he slipped into a coma. He nearly died. At 35, with children ages 9, 6, 3 and 1, Kea's hockey career was over. Clean or not, McPhee had ended it.

"If anybody felt as bad as anybody in the whole building, it was George McPhee," said Tom Webster, Tulsa's coach. "He was a competitor that played as hard as anybody, but there was never a cheap shot, never anything dirty. When this happened, it was on his mind the most. It was not a dirty hit at all, whatsoever."

The game played out, and McPhee went on with his season. Kea was transferred back to St. Louis, where he remained in a hospital. One day, McPhee came to visit.

"He had been feeling really badly, and I tried to assure him that I held no bad feelings toward him, that, you know, accidents happen," said Ed Kea's wife, Jennifer.

She remembers taking her kids with McPhee to the St. Louis zoo, walking and talking. She hadn't been at the game. She had turned away from a television replay running outside her husband's hospital room. So that day, McPhee told her what happened. She was not bitter.

"I was just trying to keep my head above water," she said, and there were years ahead of dealing with the fallout: Ed re-learning to speak, to walk, his bouts with depression, his loss of short-term memory.

In 1999, Ed Kea drowned in the pool of his family's Ontario vacation home. He was 51. Among the mourners at the funeral: George McPhee.

"That was so encouraging to me," Jennifer Kea said. "It made such a difference."

The hit is part of McPhee's life, but it doesn't define it. He is, himself, a married father of two daughters - ages 14 and 4 - and a 12-year-old son, and he has talked about the play rarely in public. Still, he must have learned something from the experience. Ask him what, and he falls silent - for 30, then 60, then 90 seconds.

"You learn the guy had a beautiful family," McPhee said, finally, "and you ruined it for him."

That is not how Jennifer Kea sees it.

"I've been thankful that he's shown concern," she said.

Stepping away

By the fall of 1990, McPhee was trying to rehabilitate a torn groin muscle that had limited him to just six games with the Devils over the previous two seasons. All the hits had caught up to him, and as Lamoriello said, "You can just overcome so much, and his mental toughness brought him even further than he should have." At 32, he was done as a hockey player.

"In some ways, it's harder than never playing in the NHL," McPhee said. "You realize you're good enough to play, and you have what you think is a great opportunity, and you can't do it."

So McPhee pursued his law degree at Rutgers, always with the thought that he would return to the game. In the summer, he interned at the NHL's offices, where Burke then worked, and took on whatever research projects were handed to him: case law, writing memoranda about legal issues, tracking penalty trends, performing statistical analysis.

"Whatever I gave him, I had it back ahead of schedule, and it was terrific work," Burke said.

In 1992, at Burke's urging, Pat Quinn hired McPhee to be director of hockey operations for the Vancouver Canucks. There, McPhee learned at Quinn's feet, an experience he considers invaluable. By 1997, when the Capitals fired David Poile as general manager and Jim Schoenfeld as coach, team president Dick Patrick considered veteran executives - and McPhee. Capitals owner Abe Pollin called Burke for a reference.

"I told him, 'I really don't know why you're talking to too many people other than George McPhee,' " Burke said.

Pollin and Patrick hired McPhee as the general manager and Ron Wilson as the coach, and the first team they fielded finished third in the old Atlantic Division, then tore through the playoffs. The result: what remains the franchise's only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. The Capitals lost to the Detroit Red Wings in four games.

Thus began a string of nine straight seasons in which the Capitals either missed the playoffs altogether (five times) or lost in the first round (four times).

And there were other bumps, too, such as the preseason game in September 1999 when McPhee took exception to what he considered to be excessively rough tactics by the Blackhawks. They resulted, among other things, in a concussion suffered by a Capitals player in a fight against one of Chicago's tough guys.

When the game ended, McPhee stormed toward the Blackhawks' locker room.

"I was trying to tell myself, as I was walking over there, 'Don't do this,' " McPhee said. "And I kept walking."

McPhee went after Lorne Molleken, Chicago's coach, who ended up with a black eye.

McPhee walked away with a torn suit, an injured thumb, and some explaining to do.

The incident has become part of McPhee's lore: the former fighter fighting for his team. It is an easy conclusion, but perhaps not the complete one. McPhee certainly felt his team was being violated that night. But he felt the sport was, too.

"There's no gray areas with George," said Patrick, the Capitals' president. "He's very intolerant, in a lot of ways, in terms of what people should do, their behavior, things like that. He holds people to a very high standard."

But if he is to hold others to that standard, McPhee realized he had to match it himself. The next day, before 7 a.m., McPhee called Patrick and offered to resign.

"George, come on," Patrick remembered telling him. "Just see where it goes."

Where it went was a $20,000 fine, a one-month suspension, and what McPhee considers a stain on his record.

The 52-year-old version of McPhee would never do such a thing, he said.

"Just getting old," he said softly.

Drafting a superstar

The move that defines the current Capitals was all but a no-brainer: selecting young Russian winger Alex Ovechkin with the first pick in the 2004 draft. To surround Ovechkin, the Capitals have assembled a core of talented young players, many of them draft picks executed by McPhee and his scouting staff.

With Ovechkin, twice the winner of the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP, the Capitals have attracted legions of fans, many of whom don't remember how hard it was to get to this point, where Verizon Center is sold out nightly and the team is considered a Stanley Cup contender.

All of which made the loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs last spring even more difficult to take. If the hours before regular season games aren't fun for McPhee, imagine the hours after an excruciating Game 7 loss to a No. 8 seed in a series in which your team had a three-games-to-one lead.

"You're looking for a trap door to hide from everybody for a while, and sort of get over this," McPhee said a couple of days after the season ended.

That process wasn't easy.

"It was a very difficult summer, maybe the most difficult ever," McPhee said this week.

Yet that night last April, when he left the arena following the loss to the Canadiens, McPhee thought back: What could I have done differently? His conclusion: Nothing.

Maybe the fighter in him would have wanted to dismantle the team. The intellectual, the analyst, knows better.

"You have to get across to the players: The time is now," he said.

On this, the figurative night before Christmas, that's how George McPhee thinks. Forget the angst of the games to come. His anticipation of the upcoming season isn't blind optimism. It's based on his life in hockey.

"You fantasize about what a group like this can accomplish," he said.

A grown, hardened man dreaming like a little boy. That, surely, is fun.

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