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