Tommy McVie, who, in nearly three years as coach of the Washington Capitals hockey team, produced blood, sweat and tears but few victories, was fired yesterday.
In a stunning move only two days before the start of the new season in Los Angeles tomorrow night, Capital owner Abe Pollin replaced McVie with Danny Belisle.
Belisle, general manager and coach of the Philadelphia Firebirds of the American Hockey League, was given a two-year contract.
McVie, hired on Dec. 31, 1975, compiled a record of 49 wins, 123 losses and 33 ties. Ironically, he lost his job on the same day the team acquired the high-scoring winger he wanted so much. Rod Schutt was obtained in a deal with Montreal seven hours after McVie was told he was through.
Pollin was reluctant to discuss his reasons, either with McVie or the media, but said "The improvement of the team had not measured up to expectations."
Pollin added, "It was a very, very tough decision for me to make, and I made it on what I thought were the best interests of the team . . . We were disappointed with the progress because I like Tommy. But I felt I owed it to the team and city to make a move to try to improve."
Ironically, the Capitals had just beaten Pittsburgh Sunday night, 2-0, with a fine defensive effort and McVie said, "I was feeling pretty good after we won last night and here it was all over."
There had been speculation that McVie and general manager Max McNab had disagreed over selection of the 19 players to start the season but McVie squashed it.
"I've never had an argument with Max," McVie said. "I respect him too much. I've never even had a heated discussion with him."
Pollin said he also had not argued with McVie over the roster. "That had nothing to do with (the firing)," said Pollin. "I only discuss those things with the general manager."
McVie had two years remaining in his contract with the Capitals. He is not being offered any other job in the organization.
McVie may have inadvertently struck the real reason for his dismissal when he said sadly, his voice breaking up, "I guess with the World Series opening and the Redskins 6-0, it's not a big deal."
The Capitals have been obscured by the football successes of the Redskins, Maryland and Navy and unless the team gets off to an unexpectedly fast start, Pollin figures to drop another bundle of money to go along with the $5 million already laid out in operating losses.
Pollin expected to sell 10,000 season tickets, but the actual sale has been about half that number. Morale within the organization is low. Andy Dolich resigned as marketing director last week and a meager crowd, announced as 5,011, turned out for Friday's exhibition against the New York Islanders.
The success of Bob Lemon with the New York Yankees and Ray Malavasi with the Los Angeles Ram may have inspired Pollin into making a similar abrupt change, in the hope that a new coach could win a few games at the start and attract the attention of potential ticket buyers.
The Capitals, of course, lack the overall talent of the Yankees and Rams. Their particular weakness, noted last week by McVie, is on the wings, where only Bob Sirois and perhaps Tom Rowe were NHL caliber before the acquisition of Schutt.
Washington, since McNab took command, has pursued a policy of patience, preserving draft choices and refussing to deal them off for immediate help. This figures to be successful in the long haul, but it did not brighten the outlook for the upcoming season.
The outlock was brightened somewhat yesterday when the Capitals acquired Schutt from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Pierre Bouchard, whom they had selected from Montreal in the waiver draft earlier in the day.
"He's got a good goal-scoring touch," said McNab, "and is a strong all-around hockey player."
Capital players contacted expressed surprise over McVie's timing.
Defenseman Robert Picard was stunned after initially hearing about it when a reporter called his home. "I thought he was doing a great job. We got a few good rookies and had improved since the beginning of the year."
Sirois added, "I can't understand why they would fire him with the season not even started. Most other teams would wait until after 10 or 15 games to see what the team is doing. But I don't know, I'm just a player not a part of the management. "Tommy was really a nice guy. The players were working hard for him. If somebody had told me yesterday they were going to fire McVie, I'd have said they were crazy.
"It will be hard playing for a guy I've never seen," Sirois added. "The first time the team will see him is in Los Angeles Wednesday just before the regular season opener."
Belisle, 41, was "stunned" when McNab called him Sunday to offer him the job. "I'm elated that I was just selected, not interviewed or anything," Belisle said. "Max just called me and asked me if I wanted it, I was stunned at first. My name has been brought up in connection with NHL jobs before, but the first inkling I had about this was when Max called me."
In April, when he assumed the club presidency from Peter O'Malley, Pollin was asked whether McVie would be back. Pollin replied that "Max McNab wants him to coach and as long as he does, then Tom will be the coach."
Yesterday, however, Pollin acknowledged that the decision had been his, McNab, who had worked closely with McVie for almost three years, had difficulty keeping his voice controlled as he discussed the move.
"We have all the respect in the world for Tommy and what he's done for the organization," McNab said. "It's a terrible thing to have to do."
Belisle, like McVie, is a product of lengthy minor league wars. The two were frequent adversaries during the 10 years in which both played in the Western League, McVie at left wing and Belisle on the right side. Then they were coaching foes in the International League, McVie at Dayton and Belisle at Des Moines.
"I've known Tommy over the years and I have a lot of respect for him," Belisle said.
Belisle played in only four NHL games, with the New York Rangers in what he called a "demitasse," but he took over at Des Moines with ideas of an NHL coaching future.
"I want to reach the top," Belisle said. "I've plotted my career slowly, one step at a time. This is the seventh year and I'm confident that I'm ready. Three or four years ago I couldn't have said the same.
"I'm terribly excited and anxious to get going. My main aim is to get the Caps moving in the right direction. I know we're not going to win the Stainley Cup, but I can get my feet wet and get thing moving."