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Betting on experience: George McPhee ready to thrive in Vegas

Ken Campbell
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Betting on experience: George McPhee ready to thrive in Vegas

Bill Foley and George McPhee. Image by: Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

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Betting on experience: George McPhee ready to thrive in Vegas

Ken Campbell
By:

Vegas' new GM, George McPhee, crafts high-flying teams that entertain, and that's not about to change.

When George McPhee was finishing his law degree at Rutgers many moons ago, he hung out with a few guys in medical school. The aspiring doctors had an enduring credo: eat when you can, sleep when you can, work out when you can, and don’t fool around with the spleen. Really, when it comes down to it, what more life advice does a guy need?

By the time he graduated, McPhee was just three years removed from an NHL career that ended largely because he was 5-foot-9 and played like he was 6-foot-3. He took the words to heart and, almost a quarter century later, not a day goes by when McPhee doesn’t work out. Hard. Because that’s the only way he’s ever known how to do things. Whether it’s skipping rope, going to a high school track to do sprints, enduring a boot camp workout or punishing himself on the bike, McPhee pushes himself to the point of exhaustion for 30 minutes, then gets on with the rest of his day. That’s why he’s a 58-year-old who looks like he could still play in the league in which he’s been an executive for more than two decades. And his spleen, for the record, is in terrific shape.

“You owe it to your family, and you owe it to your employer to be sharp and to stay fit,” McPhee said. “So you have to work at it.”

Good listener, George McPhee. The smartest guy in the room, they say, is smart enough to know he’s smarter than most people but not smart enough to recognize when other people are smarter. Those are the kind of guys who spend their lives annoying people at dinner parties and running Enron into the ground. McPhee isn’t one of them. Anyone who can juggle law school and a hockey career, then graduate from Rutgers, is plenty smart, to be sure, but McPhee’s true intelligence came from absorbing the lessons he learned from the people around him. And none was more influential than Pat Quinn, a Hall of Famer, who taught McPhee the importance of integrity and ethics. It was Quinn who hired him to replace Brian Burke as assistant GM of the Vancouver Canucks when McPhee was still studying for the New York-New Jersey bar exam.

McPhee learned a lot about hockey from Quinn. More importantly, though, he absorbed the significance of cultivating relationships. It’s a template McPhee carried with him through 17 years as GM of the Washington Capitals and will continue to guide him as the first GM of the Vegas Golden Knights.

“I got really lucky to be able to work with Pat and to get to know him,” McPhee said. “He did things the right way. There are a lot of us who were really lucky that our lives intersected with his.”

Some intersected with Quinn’s more than others. McPhee’s was almost on a parallel track. Both were marginal NHL players who went on to become respected executives. Both went to law school but never wrote the bar exam. Quinn was fiercely protective of his players and McPhee, well, remember when he was suspended one month (20 games) for going after Chicago Blackhawks coach Lorne Molleken after a pre-season game in which McPhee thought the Hawks were manhandling his team?

Actually, that’s kind of the way McPhee approached the game as a player. At Bowling Green, he won the Hobey Baker Award on the strength of his offensive prowess, but it wasn’t enough to get him drafted. His coach at Bowling Green was Jerry York, who more than 30 years later coaches McPhee’s son Graham at Boston College. York said McPhee could have been a Brian Gionta-type of player if there was a place for them in the early 1980s.

“When he turned pro, he had to find a way by bringing all kinds of grit to his teams,” York said. “He’d take on anybody.”

The record shows McPhee fought 28 times in just 144 regular season and playoff games, and he wasn’t a guy to pick his spots. Consider his fight card: Dave Brown, Craig Berube, Scott Stevens, Marty McSorley, Nevin Markwart, Rick Tocchet (three times), John Kordic and Ed Hospodar.

Yet like Quinn, the philosophy McPhee took to building a team in his post-playing career was everything he wasn’t as a player. Quinn, who wore his defiance for playing an offensive game in a defensive era like a badge of honor, earned a disciple in McPhee, who plans to build a team in Las Vegas that attacks, plays stick-on-puck hockey and tries (likely mightily in its first couple years) to create a masterpiece rather than destroy one. And that, if nothing else, will make it an anomaly among expansion teams.

“It’s an entertaining way to play for your fans, it’s a fun way to play for the players, and it can be successful,” McPhee said. “Pittsburgh has done it and Chicago has done it. Hockey should never be boring.”

That philosophy led to McPhee giving a career minor league coach named Bruce Boudreau his first job in the NHL. The two of them never came close to winning a Stanley Cup despite having one of the league’s most offensively explosive teams, and both were ultimately let go, so the theory has a few holes in it. Boudreau, now coaching the Minnesota Wild, speaks of McPhee like he’s a brother. And this is the guy who canned Boudreau. That, of course, goes back to the integrity factor and McPhee’s insistence on treating people with respect. Boudreau said the friendship runs so deep that he even sought McPhee’s counsel when things got really rocky in Anaheim last year and after he was ultimately fired by the Ducks.

“He’s such a standup guy,” Boudreau said. “You want him in your corner every time because he will fight for you. I know before I was let go (in Washington) he fought for me really hard. When he let me go, I forgave him 20 minutes later. I knew it was tough, and he gave me a big hug. And I think he went to bat pretty good for me on this job, too.”

Boudreau and McPhee are well into their new starts in the game this season. For his experience alone, McPhee was an excellent choice to be the Golden Knights’ first GM. Expansion teams that hire GMs with experience do much better early and make the playoffs quicker than those who fight through their first couple years with men who have no experience running a hockey department.

McPhee has already instituted 30-, 60-, 90- and 120-day plans for the franchise, checking off the boxes as they move along. He knows he can’t prepare for every challenge that will come his way, but that won’t stop him from trying. Every GM in the league will have him on speed dial leading up to the expansion draft.

McPhee knows that, at this moment, it’s probably the best it will be for a long time. The beauty of taking over an expansion team is the blank canvas. There are no bad contracts to get out from under, there is no losing culture and nobody needs to be fired. The people working for you are eager and enthusiastic because they’re getting their first chance in the NHL or are grateful to get another. The best thing of all is there are no wins and losses to consume your thoughts. And McPhee is eminently prepared for the challenge. He took over the Capitals in 1997 from David Poile and watched as his team made the final in his first year. But it wasn’t long before the Capitals bottomed out, then drafted Alex Ovechkin first overall in 2004.

“To be as honest as I can be, it hasn’t been daunting at all,” McPhee said. “After building the clubs we built in Washington, I have a lot of confidence that I can do it again. Everything I’m about to see, I’ve already seen. I’ve seen this movie before. In Washington, we tore it right down to the point where we were just filling boots the first year out of the lockout.”

McPhee had a rich, aggressive, larger-than-life owner in Ted Leonsis then (the man who ordered him to trade for Jaromir Jagr against McPhee’s advice), much the way he has in Bill Foley now. Foley originally boldly predicted his team would win a Stanley Cup within eight years, then amended that to six. Wealthy, eccentric guys are like that. But before the Golden Knights can even think of being competitive, let alone win a Cup, they have to establish themselves in a market where the NHL’s only presence has been its awards show. Everything looks promising at the moment, but nobody goes into these things thinking they’re going to fail. The best the Golden Knights can hope for is to become a modern-day version of the Nashville Predators, a well-run team that plays in a fickle market and always faces enormous challenges.

“I understand that this is important, that Bill Foley has put a lot of money into this and put his reputation on the line,” McPhee said. “And we have to make this work. We certainly understand the challenge and what’s at stake.”

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Betting on experience: George McPhee ready to thrive in Vegas