BUFFALO, N.Y. — Thirty minutes or so after the Edmonton Oilers picked his only son in the 2016 NHL draft, George McPhee’s eyes were still misty, his throat still clotted, his cell still jingling with texts. He had experienced many of these before, calling names and making dreams come true as the longtime GM in Washington, but nothing compared to Saturday afternoon. “After all the years in the business,” he said, “it’s torture sitting there.”
Until the fourth round began, McPhee was merely another suit on the floor, sitting at the New York Islanders’ table as their special advisor. He had arrived at First Niagara Center torn over whether to even join his family in the stands, where 17-year-old Graham was watching and waiting with increased excitement. That morning, Graham had kept bugging his father about his prospects. Where am I going? Where am I going? George said he didn’t know, but based on experience figured that somewhere in the second half sounded accurate. Finally, at the behest of his wife, McPhee decided he should share the moment. He left the table, climbed the stairs, and found his son. “The right thing to do,” he called it.
Together, they listened as 30 picks elapsed in the fourth, and then 27 more in the fifth. Finally, Edmonton made its announcement at No. 149. The Oilers select…from the United States National Under-18 Team…Graham McPhee. The family rose up. First, Graham hugged his mother, Leah. Then he turned to George, who extended his hand but could not look Graham in the eye. “You understand it, but you don’t quite understand it until you go through it,” George said later. “It’s an emotional experience. Wow.”
It was here, speaking with several reporters just off the draft floor during the sixth round, that the memories came roaring back. The sounds of tennis balls blasting the basement walls and pucks crashing against the garage door, how George and Leah kept track of their only son’s whereabouts. “You always knew where he was because you could hear him,” George said. The driveway games Graham played with Alex Ovechkin, who lived with the McPhees in their northern Virginia home as a rookie. The many times Graham skated at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, absorbing what he could in the hopes of reaching there someday. “Just little things from the veterans, bringing the rookies under their wings, how to be on time, how to slowly become a pro,” Graham said. The one year that Graham worked as Washington’s runner on the draft floor, fetching snacks and whatever else the brass needed.
“He was fast,” Capitals assistant GM Ross Mahoney said. “Really fast. Good at getting the chips right away.”
“I remember a couple of our scouts told him to go get a bucket of steam,” George said. “He didn’t come back with a bucket of steam.”
For Graham, a forward listed under 6 feet tall like his father, tagging along at those events had always provided drips of motivation. “Seeing guys Washington drafted, how happy they and their families were,” he said. Graham spent his bantam and midget seasons at the famed Shattuck St. Mary’s in Minnesota, averaging at least one point per game in each, before joining the U.S. Development Team Program in 2014-15.
Around that time, the Capitals fired George after 17 seasons atop their front office. It was bittersweet, since Washington had just missed the playoffs for the first time in six years, but the decision freed George to spend more time with Graham in Ann Arbor, Mich., where Graham skated for the under-17 and under-18 teams. This April, Graham had five points in seven games for the U.S. at the U-18 world championships. This fall, he will enroll at Boston College, where he will play for the same coach George did at Bowling Green—the legendary Jerry York.
“He works hard,” George said of Graham. “Once you can get him away from fishing, he trains hard and he works hard. He’s the guy on the team who likes to fish and everyone wants to go fishing with him. That’s okay. Better there than nightclubs, right?”
Through the glossy eyes and thick throat, George smiled. After Graham had slipped into his Oilers sweater and disappeared for interviews, George finally returned to the Islanders’ table. If it had been him charged with announcing picks as some club’s GM, George said, he wouldn’t have chosen Graham, too concerned about the pressures of perceived nepotism.
Fortunately for George, this problem will never confront him, not even if he soon returns somewhere else in that same role. (The unnamed expansion franchise in Las Vegas, for instance, plans to contact McPhee about his interest in its vacant GM gig, according to a source.) And when asked if he someday envisioned facing his father’s team in the NHL, Graham replied, “I hope so. We’ll see. That’d be really cool.”
For now, though, George McPhee was simply another proud parent reflecting on the road here. Graham McPhee was another mid-round prospect thrilled with his new home. And sometime soon, maybe in Buffalo this weekend, or at Boston College during the fall semester, or if Graham debuts for the Oilers, they will reflect on Saturday afternoon as the moment when an NHL family experienced the draft just like everyone else.
“You just want your kids to enjoy the game, enjoy the journey,” George said. “He always has. His parents have gotten so much joy out of him experiencing the joy of the game and the people in the game. Even though he’d been in the business a long time, it blows you away. I was hoping it wouldn’t be this emotional.”