LAS VEGAS — It’s not just that one of the guys who built one of the teams that reached the Stanley Cup finals hired the other, bringing him from a life in finance back to a life in hockey. It’s not just that one of those guys helped foster the other’s career as an executive, helping him learn how to deal with agents and make trades. And it’s not just that one of those guys was fired and the other one took over.
It’s that Brian MacLellan, the general manager of the Washington Capitals, and George McPhee, the general manager of the Vegas Golden Knights, were college teammates. Wait, better than that. They roomed together for three years. Nope, go further. They grew up in the same Ontario town and played on the same junior team.
“It’s funny how life goes,” McPhee said Sunday, a day before the Stanley Cup finals were set to begin.
They are woven of the same cloth, these two. Ask one about the other, and they don’t just know the answer as an NHL player — which they both were — or an NHL exec, which they both are. They know at the most basic human level because there’s more than 40 years of history between them, most of which didn’t involve wearing a suit and tie, watching from a suite and sitting up front on charter flights.
“Beats some of the jobs we had when we were kids,” McPhee said.
This is beers-in-the-dorm and jokes-on-the-bus stuff, and it’s unlikely any two opposing general managers meeting for the championship in any sport have pasts as intertwined as these two. As an executive, McPhee has long spoken with a thoughtful, measured meter. His shirt is always pressed. His tie is always neat. MacLellan can strip all that away.
“He’s a blue-collar kid from a blue-collar town,” MacLellan said of McPhee. “That’s who he is underneath it all.”
When MacLellan said this late last week, he did so from behind what, for the past four seasons, has been his desk in his office at the Capitals’ Arlington training complex. He is well aware that very desk, for 17 years, was McPhee’s. People will start there and analyze which players on the Capitals McPhee brought in — starting with captain Alex Ovechkin, sublime center Nicklas Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby — and then acknowledging who MacLellan fit into McPhee’s puzzle. We will get to that.
But it’s instructive to know that this isn’t a business relationship. It’s a personal one, and in recent years it has been difficult. Things MacLellan and McPhee, both 59, share: their home town of Guelph, Ontario, where McPhee’s father worked in a factory and MacLellan’s as an electrician. Both played the 1977-78 season with the Guelph Holody Platers, where they shared in the Canadian Junior A championship. Both went on to play college hockey at Bowling Green for the legendary Jerry York, who told me a couple of years ago that they were, simply, “best friends.”
They roomed together in the dorms freshman year. They roomed together in an off-campus house for two more years. They entered the NHL as rookie free agents in 1982-83.
McPhee, though, groomed himself for the job he has now by going to law school, by interning at the NHL office, by taking an assistant’s job with the Vancouver Canucks. “You could see where he was going, what he was doing,” MacLellan said. You could see that about MacLellan, too, though it was in a different world — finance. After he put himself through graduate school in business, that was where MacLellan expected to spend his life, and for a decade, it was.
And then in 2001, McPhee called. The 1998 Capitals had made the Stanley Cup finals in McPhee’s first year. By this point, McPhee believed he needed to upgrade Washington’s scouting operation.
“As an evaluator, it’s interesting,” McPhee said. “We’d talk about players when we were kids and when we were a little bit older. He always seemed to have a good read on players.”
MacLellan started part time as a scout, evaluating teams as they came through Minnesota, where he lived. That got hockey back into his veins. He moved up through Washington’s front office, eventually becoming assistant GM.
“He got good at it,” McPhee said. “And he was a real good evaluator. He was just a steady guy that we needed and an honest guy.”
That’s what McPhee was, too. McPhee was fired after 17 years on the job, following the 2014 season, the first time the Caps missed the playoffs in seven years. I still remember the day he spoke at Kettler Capitals IcePlex in the wake of his dismissal. More than one Washington employee’s eyes welled up as they quietly discussed the change. He had an impact not in Stanley Cups won but in how he conducted himself and ran his operation.
“Then you get fired, and suddenly you’re persona non grata because nobody wants to be too close to you in the organization,” McPhee said. “I understand that. Things change quickly. And that’s the business.”
MacLellan’s first thought wasn’t, “I want that job!” It was, “What do I do now?”
“You think, ‘If George gets fired, I’m looking for work,’ ” MacLellan said.
What he did: Owner Ted Leonsis and team President Dick Patrick asked him to be the “interim” GM. So he moved down the hall to McPhee’s office.
“It’s awkward,” MacLellan said. “George is mad. He’s angry. He’s got his feelings about it. Then I’m supposed to sit at his old desk in his old office and not down in the war room” with the scouts and other front-office staff. “It was hard. You know a guy a long time, back to when we were kids. But then I had to try to do the job.”
So MacLellan not only did the job as McPhee moved on, but when Leonsis and Patrick asked him to interview to run the team, he laid plain the faults of those Capitals over the years. An easy assessment would be that MacLellan undercut the work he and McPhee had done together. The way MacLellan sees it: He had information no one else had.
“I knew it from the inside,” MacLellan said. “I had a history with these players. I knew what we needed.”
So much of the discussion as we wait for the puck to drop in Game 1 will be about McPhee’s impact on these Capitals, and that’s fair because McPhee procured 10 of the 18 skaters expected to be in Monday’s lineup, plus Holtby, the starting goalie.
But fawning over what McPhee built ignores MacLellan’s impact — both when he worked for McPhee and since he has taken over the top job. In MacLellan’s four years, the Caps have the league’s best record, with 205 wins — more than 50 a year and 13 more than the next-closest team. This roster is marked by his big moves — signing veteran defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, trading for forward T.J. Oshie and signing him to an extension, extending Holtby and center Evgeny Kuznetsov as centerpieces going forward. But there are subtle touches that are important, too — a midseason trade for defenseman Michal Kempny, finding value in discarded pieces such as forwards Devante Smith-Pelly and Brett Connolly, on and on.
Both men, McPhee and MacLellan, can look at Washington’s roster and claim an influence. But as important, both men now can look at each other. It took some time for the inevitable awkwardness to be stripped away. They have texted each other in recent days. They spoke Saturday. At the general managers’ meetings, they had dinner.
“It’s hard to believe,” McPhee said.
Remember, as the Stanley Cup finals begin, that the men who built the teams aren’t just former colleagues. They are two men from the same time and place, men with an inexorably shared history that has shaped their teams — and therefore this series.
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