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  By George, McPhee Has Done It!
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, June 11, 1998; Page E6

Jennifer Frey
DETROIT — George McPhee had to smile Wednesday when he heard that Ron Wilson thinks they are very much alike. Wilson had a laundry list of reasons — reasons McPhee does not dispute — to back his premise. They both love practical jokes. They both laugh in similar situations. They both have the same goals — winning a Stanley Cup highest among them — and the same approach to hockey, and the same perspective on how a team should go about its work.

"And I think," Wilson added, turning serious for a moment, "that we're similar because both our dads died young."

McPhee did not disagree with that statement, either, though when it comes to the subject of his father — George McPhee II, a blue-collar laborer from Guelph, Ontario, who died when the younger George was 18 — McPhee is able to put his finger upon exactly what it is that makes him and Wilson not similar, but opposite.

"It's interesting that Ronnie and I have both been through that," McPhee said, calling Wilson by the nickname he likes to use. "We've handled it in such different ways. Ronnie always talks about his dad, which I admire. But I never have. I never said a word."

Wilson, the coach, and McPhee, the general manager, joined the Washington Capitals' franchise at the same time last summer, two men asked to turn around a team that had fallen into near-disaster the previous spring. In the months since, in the Capitals' long and unexpected trek to these Stanley Cup finals, Wilson has become bigger than life. And McPhee, well, McPhee has kept quietly — and happily — to the sidelines. He isn't dramatic, he isn't loud, and he doesn't need attention.

And for all of those reasons, and more, McPhee is exactly what the Washington Capitals needed to turn around this team.

McPhee, 39, became the youngest GM in the NHL when Abe Pollin hired him last summer and he had the opportunity to do whatever he wanted with this franchise. This is what he didn't do: He didn't rip apart the team and remake it in his own image, just because he had that power. He didn't make big, sweeping moves to announce his presence. He sat back and decided to figure out what had gone wrong first, and how to fix the problem second. It was the best thing he could have done.

McPhee is honest enough to admit that he didn't build this Eastern Conference Championship team — for the most part, former GM David Poile did — or lead it to this point, for that job he left to Wilson. What he did, to use his own imagery, was to act a bit like an interior designer. Move a chair here, change a fabric there, adjust a rug a few inches to the right.

"I came here and David Poile and Jack Button had built a good team together," McPhee said. "What I had to do was move the furniture around."

When McPhee arrived here, he looked at the franchise on paper and saw a talented group of players who had, inexplicably, failed to live up to their promise the previous spring. "I thought it was a pretty good team," he said, "so my biggest interest was finding out what it was like in the locker room."

And so McPhee hung around after games, attended practices, went on road trips. He ate meals with the players, asked about their lives. He paid attention to how they treated each other, and how they interacted off the ice. He measured character. He measured commitment. He measured leadership. He measured confidence.

"You just hope the team plays well enough, long enough, that you get a chance to evaluate the whole situation," he said. "We got lucky. The team played well, almost all year long."

Again, what McPhee didn't do was perhaps his greatest strength. He didn't interfere with Wilson while Wilson built the relationship with his players that is now the glue of this franchise. He figured out which players simply needed a confidence boost, not an exit visa, and let his coach help build those necessary blocks. And, when it came time, he moved around his pieces. He added veteran Esa Tikkanen. He added Brian Bellows. He made sure Wilson had talent and experience in the locker room come playoff time. He made sure the ingredients were right.

"George and I haven't had an argument this year," Wilson said. "What I like about working with George is he allows me to coach the team. . . . He is very even keel night after night. That is very much appreciated."

Ask McPhee what he was like as an NHL player — he played seven seasons before retiring because of an injury — and he will tell you that he was a "fringe" player. Others will give you a more complete description. A small guy who excelled at the college game, McPhee came to the NHL and decided that he had to stand up to the biggest players on the other team, no matter what the consequence. That history is written on his hands, which poke out from his perfect cuffs still bearing scars.

And when he could no longer play, McPhee went to law school. He hoped to become an agent, or a labor lawyer, or something involved with NHL management. He was still studying for the bar when the Vancouver Canucks offered a gig as director of player operations. Now, he's running his own team.

"He had an opportunity and he did an outstanding amount with it and that's a thread throughout his life," said Frank Brown, who covered McPhee as a player and now is vice president of media relations for the NHL. "He started out fighting the biggest, toughest [players] and he's still doing it."

Perhaps the most compelling thing about McPhee, though, is that he's likable. Actually, it's a big part of the reason Pollin hired McPhee. The young gun from Vancouver had an excellent resume, of course. He was motivated and hungry and smart. Pollin liked his reputation for never backing down as a player. And he liked that McPhee had a legal background he used to his advantage in player negotiations. Mostly, though, he simply like McPhee.

"Sometimes," Pollin said, "you meet somebody and you just like them. He was the last guy I interviewed, and I just liked him so much better than the other guys. So I called him up, and said, 'George, you're my general manager.'"

McPhee made the next phone call, to Wilson, officially offering the coaching job to the man who had become Pollin's favorite during the interview process. And with one of them brilliant and brash enough to set a team afire, and the other wise enough to know when to merely poke the embers, the Capitals made their way to the Stanley Cup finals.

And now that they're here, Wilson and McPhee have discovered that they have a few more things in common. One is the belief that, no matter their own preseason predictions, the Capitals "just might win this thing," as McPhee put it today. And the other is their approach to these finals themselves. That approach had them telling tales out of school about each other this morning, both laughing even though the Capitals are already down, one game to none.

"Hey," McPhee said, "nobody told us that we weren't supposed to have fun."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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