He sits and stares. He's learned to be patient; I guess I'd kill myself.
Mrs. Tom McVie
"SUCCESS is failure turned inside out," one of the photocopied inspirations on Tom McVie's desk exhorted iambically. "You never can tell how close you are. It may be near when it seems so far."
Light years, it seemed to McVie, 42-year-old coach of the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League, the least successful aggregation of professional game-players in the history of the jockstrap. The night before the Caps had failed to win for McVie for the 130th time in twenty-five months, snatching a tie from the jaws of victory with two seconds left on the dock - at home.
"It is," Mcvie said softly, "like trying to win the bleeping Kentucky Derby with a bleeping mule." He ignore the loud bang on the door of his office and told how, during his team's recent twenty-game will think this is bull - I wished I'd die. I just became an old man." Another bang on the door.
But the flaky kid who dived into th white water of the Columbia River for the hell of it had lived to be a coach in the big leagure of jet lag and room service. McVie was reminded of one of pro sports's hoarier cliches that being in the big league is like sex: when it's good it's very good, and when it's bad it's not bad. Weren't columnists in places like Seattle still writing their amazement that the Joy Boy of the Western League had been anointed a leader of high-priced men? Two more bangs on the door.
""A lot of people," McVie said, "didn't think I would ever make it to be an ordinary citizen." Bang. Bang.
The little coach opened the door to the dressing room and beheld the pinkish mass of Robert Picard, wearing nothing but a sheepish smile and holding a hockey stick ready to slap another puck against his boss's door. The Quebecois, Washington's prize in the 1977 amateur draft, is 20 years old. by the time he is 25, Abe Pollin and his associates will have paid him about a half-million dollars to do what he can in their defense.
"Rookie," McVie said as he closed the door. Then he smiled. "I have to remember that he's a little boy - a big little boy. I have to remind myself.
"I like all these kids," said the coach, whose income in seventeen years as a hockey player peaked at $14,000" and made me feel like I'd pulled a Brink's job.
"I'm glad they have their big contracts and their cars. But sometimes, when they tell me what they think is a sad story . . . that their girl friend is coming in at Dulles, so if they go to practice there'll be nobody to pick up . . . well, I feel like saying come in my office and I'll tell you some stories that'll make you cry."
Perhaps that young man could not relate to the dangers McVie has passed, e.g., a near miss at ending up a skeleton in the Canadian Rockies or, perhaps worse, a hockey bum. If not, Tom could bring in his wife, Arlene. She could tell them about riding five days in a car, sitting on a pillow, from Toldedo to Seattle, because the first-born son in her arms was barely two weeks old. "We'd have to stop at gas stations where they had a coal or wood stove, to heat a bottle," she recalls, Mrs. McVie had to leave the hospital the thir day (a short stay for maternity in 1957) because International League player contracts did not provide Blue Cross, or much else. The hospital warned the young father it would not release the patient - he still wonders which one - without full payment. Tommy tapped all their money from the bank and borrowed another hundred.
McVie was raised to hard times. One day when he was nine years old McVie had an experience that had an impact on his yound mind as searing as the guided tour of the Inferno that Virgil gave Dante. He grew up in the company (Consolidated Mining and Smelting) town of Trail, British Columbia. McVie's father worked in the melting room, at 150 degrees or so, pouring molten zine into 140-pound ingots. The elder McVie was neither absent nor tardy - Coach McVie's driven, disciplined flock of Capitals will roll their eyes at this-for forty years, and the day he finally felt he couldn't hack it he went to the office and retired. During World War Two, C.M. and Sons was the largest smelter of its kind in the world and production demands were high. One day McVie's father sent a message down the hill that he'e be working sixteen hours and would need an extra lunch.
"I carried it up there," Tommy recalls, "about 11 o'clock at night. The security guard let me in and I saw my dad in his asbestos clothing, with the furnaces blazing behind him. Kids in the town would quit school in the tenth grade and go into the mine; it was the only thing to do. But I knew right then, whatever I did with my life, that wasn't going to be it."
The alternatives were limited. The only opportunity to go abroad from Trail was the annual excursion on the company train to Nelson, forty miles away, where there was a lake. Young Tom learned to dive in the company pool and at 15 the company sent him ninety miles to Kelowna to win the British Columbia ("it's the size of Texas") junior springboard diving championship.
McVie in recent years has watched his three sons swim from Sandy Island, a sort of beach made by a gentle eddy of the surly river, "and had my heart in my throat." He has not forgotten his family's flight to higher ground when he was 13 and the Columbia poured five feet of white water into their homestead on its bank. Tommy was 12 the first time he swan the mile-wide river. "The normal current was about fifteen miles an hour, so it could take you five miles downstream." The swim was, naturally, a rite of pasage for the company town's lads and from time to time a pubescent body would wash up on Dead Man's Eddy, three miles down.
But however hairbreath some of the margins have been, Tommy McVie is a survivor and how are you going to keep them down in the mine after they've seen Kelowna? So it was in 1951, a the end of tenth grade, just before his sixteenth birthday, that Tom, and a buddy whohad a little English car, set out of Trail to somehwre else. Anywhere else.
"It was time to go," McVie explained. "My father knew that he left home in Scotland at 14. Scotch people don't huig and kiss like the French and Italians, but I think it was one of the happiest moments of my father's pretty lousy life when he saw me getting away from the mine.
"And my mother never cared much for me anyway." Tom's mother in two marriages had five daughters, all older than her one son, and never really came to understand why a boy would jump off the roof of the company ice rick, bashing his face with his knees when he landed, just because somebody said he wouldn't do it.
"The town was getting too small for me,"Tom decided at the time and the town was beginning to agree. With one movie theater bruned down and the other flushed out by the 1948 flood, the only entertainments were the live shows the company brought into the rink. McVie and his chums gained free admission to some of those by measure that could be construed, by a harsh critic, as breaking and entering. Then they took some stuff from a grocery and got in some other troubles and in a small town everybody talks. It seemed to Tom that his parents were always mad at him.
So by midsummer of 1951 he was employing his five-foot-nothing, 135-pound body to push and shovel wheelbarrels of wet cement at a construction site somewhere north of Edmonton, Alberta, for something like $1.35 an hour. McVie thinks of that adventure these days, driving through the road construction on Central Avenue, on the way to the Capitals' mornings practice at Fort Dupont.
And his players hear about those road workers: "I see those poor bastards out there, up to their ass in mud. I saw them when I come out here and they'll still be there when I go back. And in between all I'm asking you guys to do is concentrate for an hour and a half on playing hockey. If you can't do that, don'twaste my time." Give up playing games, McVie clearly implies, and go to work. It is an abhorrent concept to a career jock, especially one who can offer no more employable skills than Tom McVie had in 1951.
He did not think of himself at 16 as a hockey player, though he had been "one of the best three or four" in the peewee, bantam and midget competition around his home town. One truth McVie had come to accept was that he was too small. But construction work that summer had put fifteen pounds on him, and, with overtime, more than $400 in his pocket. So he hopped a bus to Medicine Hat, Alberta, to try out fo the Tigers of the Western Canada Junior League.
Tom did not survive the final cut. ("And they didn't make any mistake," he says, with characteristic, sometimes jarring candor. "There were better players there.") While the training camp lasted, however, Tommy went first cabin. That four hundred bucks burned at both its ends and they still talk in Medicine hat of the lovely light it gave. "I don't know how a guy can be a hero when he's cut from the team after one game," hockey reporter Bob Fachet of The Washington Post said after a tour of the Canadian Prairies, "but McVie is a legend in Medicine Hat."
I blew it all," McVie recalls, not remorsefully, "eating and drinking. They still tell stories about me out West." They do, and a number of them read like final chapters, particularly one all-she-wrote ultimatum from his wife. "I think now," Tommy said recently, "that I wasn't really having such a good time all those years." It would take him seventeen years of minor-league hockey to reach that conclusion.
"If I has my life to live over," McVie's introspection continued, "I'd always be a hockey player. But if I changed one thing, I'd be a straight arrow. In L.A., Portland, Medicine Hat, everybody has a Tom McVie story. It's taken six years to shake the reputation."
McVie was never really a crooked arrow. He was always free of the styriasis that opportunity inflicts upon so many professional athletes and his drink was beer. But he was a funcoholic, a clown, who frequented bars because they were laughing places, men's places, where you could sing and tell jokes "and just screw around." Hockey needed those six years to be able to take Tommy seriously.
"When you're winning," McVie said recently, talking about the curfews, rules of dress and other behavior limitations he imposes on his Capitals, "you can do a head stand on the bar and sing, and nobody will say anything." McVie has done head stands on bars, singing.
It was the man-to-man fun that was narcotic to Tommy. While hockey players may be the most obscence of athletes (using the present participle of that four-letter, not-really-Anglo-Saxon verb as an inscrutable part of speech: "I'm bleeping going home"), they are otherwise little different from baseball players in their dressing-room persiflage. They caress each other with personal insults that would start fights in genteel society and it is great fun.
But then it ends. "When a practice or a game was over," McVie recalls, "and the guys would finally be dressed and start going home, it would break my heart." That brittle camaraderie was Arlene McVie's rival for all the fourteen years in the Western League until the season in Phoenix, which for her was the last ho-ho. The money, in keeping with Tommy's 400-goal status, was good, but nothing else was. "It was a new franchise and it wasn't competitive," McVie says now, "Not as bad as as here, but bad. A bunch of Good-Time Charlies, too much happiness. My bride said, "That's it. You play here another season and I won't be here.' I think she meant the end of everything."
La commedia e finita. There were some scenes in her hockey-wife career that Arlene wouldn't care to re-run and the Phoenix experience is No.1. "The team was a lot of guys out to have a ball. I liked them personally, but they were there strictly to have personally, but they were there strictly to have a party. The situation wasn't that great for Tommy."
It was another close call, McVie got himself traded to Seattle, stopped drinking beer (he still doesn't) and started thinking. "If I hadn't been a little more dedicated, maybe I'd have been on one of those six teams. You never know."
If McVie had trained on prune juice and though beautiful thoughts all his years as a left wing, he still would have been a long shot to make the teams in Montreal, Boston, New York, Toronto, Detroit and Chicago, which were all the cities the National Hockey League comprised in those years. Now there are eighteen franchises, but by the time the league was expanding, Tommy's powers were contracting.
At age 36, he voluntarily went down a rung to play against 20-year-olds in the International League, for about a quarter of the money he'd been making as the most rewarded member of the Western League. "I was compaigning," McVie said, "for the new Tom McVie." New Tom was elected. John Ferguson, now general manager of the New York Rangers, nominated McVie to manage the Boston Bruins' International League team at Dayton. "Is he drinking?" was the only question Bruins' general manager Harry Sinden asked.
"Every day I go to work I'm grateful to those two guys," McVie says. "After twenty years, it seemed like I couldn't get a job in hockey. And I don't know what else I could have done."
Those were the same circumstances McVie, "a 16-year-old man," had faced twenty years earlier, after playing big spender in Medicine hat. Stony-broke, Tom didn't know how to get out of town, or where to go. Nick Yanchuk, also cut from the team and also broke, was was given a bus ticket because the Tigers had invited him to try out; McVie was a walk-on. But Nick proposed they hitchhike to Yanchuk's home in Vancouver. That was about 700 miles, over the Rockies, and it was October, the beginning of Canadian winter.
"We got a ride from some guy who must have been a forest ranger," McVie said. "He turned off and left us nowhere, about 10,000 feet up in the Rockies, snowing. We were beginning to hink seriously about freezing to death when a guy came along in a Ford Meteor. He said he was going to Vancouver and we said, 'So are we.' Then you could see him thinking, 'Oh-oh,' about picking up two young animals like us. It took about 200 miles before he was convinced we weren't going to rob him.
The Yanchuks, a generous family, took Tommy in and he didn't think seriously about hockey for that winter or the next. He got a job as a redcap, then in the freight department, of the Canadian Pacifice Railroad, paid $50 a month board and played hockey for fun in the city league. "Life was okay," McVie recalls. He could see no future in hockey; he had tried out on the prairies and been found wanting. "Anyway, I was a midget."
But he wasn't suddenly. At 19, with a year's eligibility in junior hockey remaining, Tom McVie was nearly 5-10, nearly 180 pounds, "nearly the ideal size for a winger." Clearly, it was time for another narrow escape - from the okay life.
Kenny Ullyott, coach of the junior team at Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, gave McVie a tryout. "And surprise! I was a good player. I didn't know it until I heard the guy on the radio say, 'The hottest prospect in camp is this kid from Vancouver.'"
McVie made the team and the all-star team. His "amateur" contract was for $175 a month. After the first month he asked for $225 and got it. (Ullyott, having observed the hot prospect's fluidity in the beer parlor, put $75 a month in the bank for him.) Then Tommy's hockey career ended again. He was caught in a pub, under age, and Ullyott bounced him off the team. One mistake, McVie pleaded. "You didn't show me you wanted to play," Ullyott said.
The Capitals moaned two years ago when "Simon" McVie ordained that all their practices, including the forty-five minute passing-shooting drill on game day, would be conducted not in sweat suits but in full, fourteen-pound combat upholstery. "A batter don't swing a little piece of pulp in the ondeck circle and then pick up the real bat to hit," McVie analogized. The players were not only inconvenienced but, like Marines ordered to carry full field pack on parade, insulted. The Caps were easily inconvenienced in those days. "They'd come to practice at Tysons Corner rink a half-hour late," McVie remembers sourly, "and explain there were barrels on the road [Beltway constructionbarricades]! 'Then get up earlier,' I said."On his sixth day as coach, at game seventeen of a twenty-five--game winless streak, McVie called for unheard-of-twice-daily practices. "It was," team captain Bill Clement said, "downright painful. You could see it in our faces. The out-of-shape Caps lost a collective 160 pounds in McVBie's first month, with the coach weighing them personally. And they grumbled and moaned.
It would be an exaggeration to say the midwinter climate of Prince Albert, on the banks of the Saskatchewan River, is as severe as Murmansk's. Actually the prairie town is at 53 degrees north latitude, like Petropavlovsk on the Siberain steppes. A steppe is a prairie is a steppe. It was 60 degrees below zero when Tommy McVie went out to skate, wearing all the socks and underwear he had. "I know I was the only person in town who was outdoors," McVie recalled. "They say after it gets lower than 20 degrees below it don't make any difference. Well, they don't know. When you breathe in at 60 degrees below, you don't feel cold; you feel like a poker is being shoved down your throat.
"And there I am out there, doing sprints and stops. Ullyott came out in his car to watch me. He was there just a few minutes and I could hear the crack when his tires broke away from the ice. McVie believes he scourged himself to his mortal limit: thirty minutes a day of swallowing "And the third day I had my mind made up: if he don't take me back, that's it. I ain't going to do anymore."
His first game back as a Prince Albert Minto ("I don't know what a Minto is: I never asked"), Tommy scored four goals including the winner as the Mintos beat Humboldt in overtime, 7-6. So the McVie career was lauched one more time. As New York Ranger property, he would get a call from general manger Muzz Patrick. Tom summered in Vancouver, working in construction to build himself up, skating every day at a rink (where he met Arlene, an eight-hour-a-day skater about to join the Ice Follies chorus) and wagging box lacrosse, a sideline that would keep the McVie menage solvent of decade. There was no call, but a letter from Patrick: sorry, but the Rangers had too many guys in their camp. And McVie, it said between the lines, had only one of three years' junior hockey experience that wewere, and is, considered requisite. Tom was 20 and it was too late.
The next season Andy Mulligan gave McVie a chance with his International League team in Toldeo. Two chances, really. "At the [roster] cut-off date, it was between me and another guy. I know the other guy was better," McVie declared. "But Andy kept me, because of my hustle - and because Tommy was going to be born in February. I didn't set any records in Toledo but I busted my ass for him." It was Mulligan who put up the extra hundred bucks to ransom Tom McVie IV from the hospital.
"Hustle,"says one of the photocopied inspirations McVie has handed out to his team, "is maximum effort joyfully expressed."
Like George Allen, whom he admires, McVie believes winning is a matter of motivation. "And after what I went through, I think I can motivate people. I'm tough with these players; I stand up to them. But somebody stood up to me at Prince Albert, didn't he? and made me prove I wanted to play hockey?
"And hockey may have saved me from . . . I think it was that close."
Something in Tom McVie's shtick worked,. In his first full season as coach of the Capitals, a team that won nineteen games in its first two years of existence, he led them to an 24-42-14 record. A coach of the Year poll had him second to Scotty Bowman of Montreal, which wins as many games as it wants. McVie was doing something right, despite a beginnning Les Canadiens might call gauche.
"All I can say," McVie said as a preamble to recounting the embarrassing experience, "is that my enthusiasm was pure." Watching from a Captain Centre Sky Suite with General Manager Max McNab as Montreal blitzed the Caps, 6-0, McVie could see exactly what needed to be done. After two successful campaigns coaching the Dayton Gems, he said, "I believed in myself. I really thought that in about a month and a half I'd have the whole thing straightened out and we'd be winning on a regular basis."
The team McVie took over on December 30, 1975, was 3-28-5. He would coach twelve games in the big league before he won one. "But I bounced out of the Sheraton-Lanham every morning for the first three or four days," McVie recalls, the trace of a blush around his boneless nose." 'Gentlemen,' I would say, 'I have these things planned for today. We'll do some two-on-ones, some three-one-ones . . . 'And I saw the looks on them, like 'this guy is bleeping crazy.' I went on with it and they just leaned on their sticks and listened. Finally I asked if anybody had anything to say."
"Why are we doing all this," inquired defenseman Bob Paradise, who had become a Capital just in time to be in on the winless streak, "when we know we're going to bleeping lose anyway?"
"Well, then," said McVie, "why don't we all go to Mr. Pollin's office and tell him we are disbanding the team?" Then, cooling down, he said: "You may as well get used to it. I'm not going to get any different."
He didn't. McVie took sixty people to camp at Hershey, Pennsylvania last fall, worked them from 6 a.m. to midnight and came back to Washington feeling he had picked the right twenty. "We've done our work," he said to McNab after the Caps had held Montreal to a 4-3 score "and should have won it."
And then they didn't win for forty-two days: twenty games without a victory.
"God," McVie said to McNab as th e winless streak rolled on, from October into December, "we've won two games. We could have done that without having a training camp. We could gone out and got drunk and won three or four, couldn't we?"
McVie fudges the question whether his team has ever made him cry. "I've walked off with tears in my eyes," he said. "It's a hurtin' you can't believe. Nobody will ever know: not Max, not my wife." Certainly not the players.
"I can't explain it," said McVie, his eyes seeming darker and deeper, "and I guess I shouldn't say this, but that [twenty-game slump] done more hurt to me than anything in my life and we had a baby boy die, just a couple days old."
The coach says things he shouldn't say, the most famous being, "I'd rather find out my wife is cheating than go on losing like this."
"Good line," Arlene said in Portland when somebody told me about it and I said, 'Oh, God, that sounds like something he'd say." He's a very funny man and it [losing] has not taken away his sense of humor. We never argue. We make smart remarks at each other all the time, but that's not arguing.
"In fact Tommy is a nicer person since he's been coaching. He's a very poor loser, but he was that as a player and I'm used to it. I'm sure people think he must be a maniac at home, but he's learned that all the players aren't made like him; they can't try as hard as he does.
"When he comes home after losing," McVie's wife said, "he sits and stares into space for a while and then he becomes tolerable. I pretty much ignore him because I don't have the answers to his problems.
"I'm just pretty careful to do and say the right things," Arlene McVie concluded.
Arlene's mother tries, too. One night in the latter throes of the twenty-game streak Tommy came home and his mother-in-law greeted him with the thought that "it's just a game."
"It was a tough line to top," McVie said, "but she did it."He came home with deep, dark eyes the night of the most unkindest cut: the Caps had their expansion peers, the Colorado Rockies, beaten at 19:58 of the final period and had to settle for a tie.
"Another day," his mother-in-law said as Tommy stared into space, "another dollar."
I wished I'd said that," Thomas Ballantyne McVie said, and went to bed.