Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee yesterday was handed one of the steepest disciplinary actions in NHL history when the league suspended him for one month without pay and fined him $20,000 for striking Chicago Blackhawks Coach Lorne Molleken after a preseason game Saturday night.

Under the terms of the suspension, McPhee may not attend any NHL games or practices and is restricted from conducting business with members of any NHL organization, including Washington's. A league source conceded it will be difficult, at best, to monitor McPhee's dealings within the team and that it's unlikely the league will go to great lengths to keep tabs on his conversations. However, if McPhee is found violating the ruling, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman could take further action.

Bettman's ruling is the harshest ever taken against an NHL executive for a matter other than tampering, league sources said.

"No one, especially an NHL club executive or general manager is free, even in the emotion of the moment, to engage in action that is clearly inappropriate," Bettman said in a statement released yesterday. "Actions, such as those engaged here by Mr. McPhee, will not be tolerated in the NHL."

The Blackhawks were not disciplined for their part in the postgame fight, a ruling that angered Capitals officials. Bettman, who met with McPhee in New York Wednesday, said the league's investigation clearly found that McPhee "made a deliberate action" to confront Molleken outside the Chicago dressing room, and then punched Molleken following a "heated discussion."

McPhee, eligible to return to work Nov. 1, was upset the Blackhawks used a lineup loaded with overly physical players, many of whom he believed were trying to injure his players.

The league had been monitoring the Blackhawks for such conduct, and several NHL teams already had called to complain. McPhee, who has a cast around his right thumb as a result of the fight, called the Blackhawks before the game in Columbus, Ohio, to preempt such action.

He then tried to defuse the situation by altering his lineup, and considered pulling the Capitals off the ice before the game ended. Chicago defenseman Dave Manson was suspended for one exhibition game and fined $1,000 as a result of a match penalty against Capitals forward Steve Konowalchuk during the game.

"It's harsh, but I understand the commissioner's rationale," McPhee said. "This can't happen in this league ever again. Certainly a physical confrontation is undignified and unprofessional, and I'm sorry it ever happened. But I can never regret standing up for the organization and for what's right in this league."

The Blackhawks, whose owner, Bill Wirtz, was fined $3,000 for remarks he made earlier in the week during a league-imposed gag order on comments about the situation, released a statement yesterday stating they would have preferred the league note McPhee's actions and make similar conduct by team employees punishable by loss of their job.

"Chicago totally disagrees with the concept of suspension and fines in situations like the McPhee episode," the Blackhawks stated. "The Blackhawks do not want to see Mr. McPhee suspended for one month without pay and fined. Dollars cannot be the determining factor in instances of vigilantism. The more appropriate method is censure of Mr. McPhee for his outrageous actions by vote of the NHL Board of Governors. This situation has never happened in the past, and by a censure vote of all the owners it would never happen again."

McPhee will be doing lots of amateur scouting during October and could be a frequent visitor in chat rooms on the team's new Web site. Little business is usually conducted in the season's first month, as general managers evaluate talent and watch lots of games, which McPhee can do on satellite TV.

In cases of fines and suspensions, clubs generally find creative ways to compensate those punished by the league, though the NHL mandates the money must come directly from the individual. The Capitals would not comment on the finances of the ruling, but McPhee is strongly supported within the organization (Coach Ron Wilson also was fined $5,000 yesterday for publicly supporting him), team sources said.

"I will never forget what the organization has done for me," McPhee said. "They've been more than fair and reasonable and incredibly supportive. They're just outstanding people. I've certainly received great moral support. The e-mails [owners] Ted [Leonsis] and Jon Ledecky sent to me were wonderful, and they've been by my side from the first day this started."

Yesterday's ruling sent ripples through NHL front offices, and several general managers were shocked at the severity of the penalty and the lack of any action against Chicago.

One longtime NHL executive said he felt the Blackhawks have been running around this preseason "like a bunch of [idiots] and everyone in the league knows it. And to my understanding, George tried to prevent it ahead of time, so I can see why he got so hot under the collar.

"It's ridiculous to tell a GM he can't conduct any business even within the team. It's one incident and he had a very good reason. I've always found George to be a very mild-mannered guy. He was a feisty player but he's not that kind of person."

Fine Situations

Major NHL rulings against coaches or general managers since 1982:

1999

Washington GM George McPhee, $20,000 fine and one-month suspension: Confronting and striking Chicago Coach Lorne Molleken after a preseason game.

1997

Marc Crawford, $10,000 fine: Confronting Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman on the bench during a playoff game while coach of Colorado.

1994

Mike Keenan, suspended 60 days and fined $100,000: Negotiating to be coach/GM in St. Louis while still coaching the New York Rangers.

1992

Tom Webster, 10 games, 1992: Throwing a stick at an official while coach of Los Angeles.

1991

Ron Caron, banned from all press boxes for remainder of season: Altercation with an official in a press box while coach of St. Louis.

1987

Pat Quinn, suspended from the NHL for one year: Agreeing to be GM in Vancouver while still coaching Los Angeles.

1986

Bob Nystrom, 10 games: Entering stands to join an altercation while assistant coach of the New York Islanders.

1982

Harry Neale, 10 games: Joining an altercation in the stands while coach of Vancouver.