Brian MacLellan emerged from an elevator, suit pressed, knot of his tie up to his neck.
“Do we have a game tonight, Mr. Brian?” the doorman asked.
This is MacLellan’s game-night routine, when the best team in hockey is just four-and-a-half blocks from his home.
“Yeah, yep, game tonight,” MacLellan said.
He is part of the fabric here now. As he leaves the atrium of his condo building, high-ceilinged walls adorned with brightly colored art, and walked the streets of downtown Washington toward the 80th of 82 regular-season contests, he was immersed in it all: in the District and in the Washington Capitals.
It wasn’t this way even two springs ago, when he was the team’s assistant general manager, when he still lived in Minneapolis, involved but distant.
“You could get away from hockey in that job,” he said.
The team that took the Verizon Center ice that night, and the team that will take that same sheet Thursday night to open the playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers, is MacLellan’s construction. He didn’t quite make wrecking-ball moves, because the team’s backbone is still Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. But he did turn over a third of its roster — and a larger portion of its attitude.
“You’re thinking all the time,” he said. “It’s never-ending. You’re waking up 3, 4 in the morning, and your first thought is: ‘What about that guy? What about this guy?’ ”
What about this guy, standing on the corner of 7th and G streets NW, directly across from the Capitals’ administrative offices? Twenty years ago, there’s no way he saw himself dressed in a suit, a hockey game ahead, running a franchise as a 57-year-old grandfather. The late-afternoon sun shone down, and fans with Capitals jerseys — Ovechkin’s No. 8, sure, but also MacLellan additions such as T.J. Oshie’s 77 and Justin Williams’s 14 — were filling the bars, buzzing around.
“Occasionally I’ll get a, ‘Hey, you’re what’s-his-face!’ ” MacLellan said. He has one of the most important sports jobs for the franchise that, over the past decade, has been the most successful in Washington. Yet what’s-his-face is fine being what’s-his-face. It’s the hockey that matters.
“He’s not an extrovert,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. “I might pop my head in his office and say, ‘Hey, Mac,’ but if I said 100 words to Mac in two years, that’d be a lot. I almost think if you went in and just talked randomly, he would consider it counter-productive. He’s more analytic, more the strong, silent type.”
MacLellan was 17 when he skated after his opponent, toward the boards, and went in for the hit, only to have the player spin around. This was in his hometown of Guelph, Ontario, just over an hour west of Toronto, where his father was an electrician, his mother worked in a metal-plating factory, and he played for the Guelph Platers — junior hockey, and not at the highest level, either. He didn’t see hockey as a profession but as a route to college in the United States.
But here his head crashed into the boards, then snapped back. He skated to the bench, but he couldn’t move his arms. He had broken two vertebrae, C-5 and C-6. His hockey career seemed over, and that was the least of it. Doctors spread tools out before him — not medical implements, but what looked like a workbench supply brought in from some garage — and gave him only a local anesthetic before they drilled four holes in his head.
“I could smell it,” he said, and the holes remain, little indentations under his skin — front left and right, back left and right — that serve as a reminder of the screws they inserted, of the halo he wore, of the special bed in which he lay flat for two weeks. To eat, he didn’t sit up. Instead, they flipped him over, and he stuck his face through an opening, staring at the floor as he shoveled food in his mouth. When he was allowed to get up and walk again, the halo remained, and his friends teased and tortured him, hanging wet spaghetti noodles off the back bars. He wore it for four months.
The following fall, he went to training camp. His parents, he said, reacted thusly: “Are you nuts?” The owner of the team, he said, stated plainly: “You’re not playing.”
MacLellan’s response: “Oh yeah I am.” He received a written release from doctors.
One teammate on those Platers was a high-scoring forward named George McPhee. The two went to Bowling Green State University in Ohio together. “Best friends,” said their coach, Jerry York, who took the job after their freshman season.
They differed stylistically. McPhee was 5 feet 9, 170 pounds, “a terrific goal-scorer,” York said, gifted enough that he won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s best collegiate player in 1982. MacLellan stood 6-3 and weighed 220 pounds, with an edge.
“He was a tall, rangy player that had good stick-handling abilities,” York said. “But he had a good mean streak to him. He was a forward, but when we needed some help defensively, he never batted an eyelash. ‘I’ll do whatever I can to help the team.’ ”
MacLellan graduated with a degree in business administration, but he signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings just as McPhee did the same with the New York Rangers. From there, MacLellan learned the realities of being the property of a team. In 1984-85, he played in all 80 games and scored 31 goals. In December of the following season, Pat Quinn, the Kings’ coach, grabbed him after a practice in Winnipeg and asked to meet in Quinn’s hotel room. They waited 20 minutes for word from general manager Rogie Vachon: MacLellan had been traded to the Rangers. He rode the team bus to the airport and murmured the news to his teammates, who thought he was joking.
“We get off the bus, and the team goes this way, and you go that way, and that’s it; it’s over,” MacLellan said. “It was devastating.”
The experience gave him a realistic view of the game as a business, and it stuck with him. He was traded from the Rangers to the Minnesota North Stars in September 1986, from Minnesota to Calgary in March 1989.
The Flames won the Stanley Cup that year, with MacLellan scoring three playoff goals along the way. But in the offseason of 1991, he was traded one last time, to Detroit. His body was breaking down. He was moving down in the lineup, behind younger players. The following year, he faced the prospect of playing for the Red Wings’ top minor-league affiliate in Glens Falls, N.Y.
“You start thinking: What am I going to do?” he said. “How do I get out?”
MacLellan had been preparing a path out. When he played in Minnesota, he met the woman who would become his wife, and they settled there. During the summers, he took graduate-school classes in business at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. When he decided he was done with hockey, he wanted a clean break.
“Most guys, when they’re done, are a little bitter,” MacLellan said. “It’s very rare not to be, unless you’re a Hall of Famer. How many guys go out the right way? It’s a hard thing to do.”
He took whatever resentment he harbored about the game and poured it into business school. In an era when the money he made from playing wouldn’t support his family — by now, a wife and two daughters — he needed a new career. He liked finance, and he thought he might be a good small-cap analyst.
“I like the analytical part,” he said. “I like discovering where there’s opportunities. I think that market’s less efficient, so you have a greater chance of adding some value with insight or instincts, combined with numbers.”
But people starting out in such careers were generally 25, not 35, and they’d generally start in New York, not Minneapolis. So he started with an internship at an accounting firm, then worked for National Car Rental in their finance department, analyzing whether the company should bid more to move to a more prominent spot in an airport. Eventually, he landed at a consulting firm that would monitor and help investment managers for financial institutions. It had everything MacLellan wanted, and he worked at it — long days, Saturday mornings in the office, a day-and-a-half off, then back at it on Monday.
“I thought that’s where his future was,” York said. “I thought he’d be in a high-profile business management position — stocks, finance, Wall Street.”
Then, in 2001, he received a call from his old buddy McPhee, by then the general manager of the Capitals. Do you want to scout? he asked.
MacLellan’s bitterness about hockey had flushed through his system. The Minnesota Wild had just begun play as an expansion team. So for a year, MacLellan scouted part-time, going to Wild home games and attending the Capitals’ scouting meetings in Washington. But that wasn’t sustainable for the Capitals. The next year, he had to make a decision: Stick to the second career he had worked so hard to build, or go back to some version of his old life.
“It could’ve been a disaster if we don’t do well and George gets fired,” MacLellan said. “I could be out on the street, starting over again, at an older age. There was risk involved.”
In the spring 2014, for the first time in 17 years, the Capitals needed a general manager. After a six-year run of making the playoffs with a core McPhee had built, they had missed out. McPhee and his sixth coach, Adam Oates, were fired. By that point, MacLellan had risen to become McPhee’s assistant general manager, overseeing the pro scouting staff as well as the team’s top minor-league affiliate, the Hershey Bears. Almost out of obligation, Leonsis and team president Dick Patrick invited MacLellan to pitch himself for the job.
“In an interview process, a lot of people tell you what you want to hear,” Leonsis said. “I think it’s an interviewing technique in that they’ll always lead with all the positive. . . . But Mac’s not someone who’s a salesperson. He wasn’t a typical interview.”
MacLellan cut away both preamble and pretense. Other candidates told Leonsis and Patrick that they would need 100 days to get inside, dig deep, and figure out solutions. MacLellan had spent a decade doing the digging. His job in the past was to provide McPhee with whatever information he needed. His job in that interview was to lay bare what he would do differently. (McPhee, now an assistant with the New York Islanders, declined to comment for this story. )
“There was a straightforwardness to it that really helped me,” Leonsis said. MacLellan saw a three-pronged, on-ice remedy: While most outsiders were imploring Washington to sign a second-line center, MacLellan advised trusting in the development of young forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky; he urged Patrick and Leonsis to invest in not one but two veteran defensemen who could play in the top pairings; and then, in the second offseason, he said the Caps would have to add more skill to the top two lines — a move Leonsis hadn’t heard from any other candidate. MacLellan rolled out potential targets and budgets to handle it all. And he told Leonsis: Quit it with the blogging, the public assessments of the team.
MacLellan got the job. And at the time, factions of the fan base said, basically: You fired one guy to hire his top assistant?
“People were making deep pre-judgments,” Leonsis said. “But I saw a man of action, a man who believed deeply in what he was doing.”
The belief in Kuznetsov and Burakovsky paid off this season: Kuznetzov was an all-star who led the team with 77 points, and Burakovsky blossomed into a consistent presence as well. The two veteran defensemen ended up being free agents Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, their introductions allowing old standbys John Carlson and Karl Alzner to split up. And the skill, in the most recent offseason, became Oshie and Williams, experienced hands both. Those four additions addressed on-ice weaknesses, for sure, but they also all are positive locker-room presences who have helped add professionalism, too. Rarely does a day goes by when MacLellan fails to check in with a simple question: How’s the room?
“That’s the No. 1 priority for me,” he said.
Ninety minutes before the game, MacLellan stood outside Verizon Center. Once inside, he would meet with Coach Barry Trotz and his staff, mostly listening to their needs or concerns. After the game, he and his wife would make that same walk home, perhaps stopping to grab a glass of wine among the throngs wearing those Caps jerseys. The playoffs awaited.
“I think we’re deeper this year,” MacLellan said. “I think we’ve had a year of growth. I think it’s a better prepared team. Whether it translates to . . .” and he paused. “Whether it translates to whatever, I think it’s a mature team.”
This routine — office, home, walk to the rink — is his life now. He opened the door, and went inside.