- From fielding floods of calls and email to scouring the hockey universe for top talent, the job of building an NHL team from the ground up can be overwhelming.
Among the many big picture plans he made upon becoming general manager of the NHL’s new Las Vegas team—a blueprint for the org chart, lists of candidates for front-office positions, a schedule for upcoming amateur scouting events, to name several—George McPhee forgot all about employee benefits. “That’s the one thing I overlooked,” he says. “Are we going with 401ks or some sort of pension or à la carte? These people are moving to Vegas. How are they doing it? Are we covering their expenses? Are we putting them up in a hotel until they can find a house? Things of that nature, people have to know.”
As T-Mobile Arena installed its first sheet of ice and the sparks of an expansion franchise have begun shooting from the dessert dust, these matters have become increasingly important. The first big hire after McPhee—assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon—was finalized last weekend, bringing aboard a longtime junior hockey executive whom McPhee calls both “experienced” and “a rising star.” Five more contracts have been signed to fill various high-level roles, McPhee told SI.com via telephone, including a salary cap expert, a director of hockey operations, a director of player development (former Capitals scout Wil Nichol was announced on Aug.4), and an organizational goalie director. He hopes that directors of pro and amateur scouting will be found within the week.
“We’re just announcing them as they start rolling into the office,” McPhee says. “We’re doing pretty well. Everything is falling into place.”
The process began well before McPhee’s introductory news conference on July 13. When he interviewed with Vegas owner Bill Foley at the businessman’s ranch in Montana, McPhee arrived confident in his plan. He had spent 17 years running the Washington Capitals, tearing them down during the mid-2000s before constructing the current core around Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and others plucked in the entry draft. To Foley, he proposed handling the Vegas team in similar fashion.
“I was really confident based on the teams that we built in Washington and the way that we drafted, that we could do it again,” McPhee says. “We had an amateur and pro scouting system that had developed over the years that I thought would work. There’s a difference between believing you can do something and knowing you can do something. I think I felt like I know how to do this and I can build a real good team and organization here.”
After all the handshakes had been doled out and McPhee had been sufficiently welcomed at the mid-July presser, he retreated upstairs at T-Mobile Arena and began punching numbers into his phone. He had suggested particular names to Foley for certain positions, many based on his experience with Washington and, after his firing in April 2014, the New York Islanders as a special advisor. But he needed to cast an even wider net, across what he calls “the entire league and hockey universe.” This involved calling fellow GMs for permission to speak with current employees—an accepted NHL practice, so long as the sought-after position is considered a promotion—and investigating every name that was tossed his way.
At times, as one can imagine, building an entire franchise from scratch becomes overwhelming.
“Although you’d love to have it built overnight, it’s not going to happen that way,” McPhee says. “I’ve had to step back and slow down a few times to make sure you’re getting it right and getting the right people. You get into a rhythm, jumping from one thing to another. You can’t make a decision just to get away from this and keep moving. You have to make a decision that’s based on this particular person being the best person we can find. It’s a lot of work, but it has to be done.
“There are moments when you’re on the phone with somebody and five texts and four emails and four other phone calls come in at the same time. It’s been very, very hectic in that way. Probably thousands of texts, at least a thousand emails, 400-500 phone calls at this point. It’s a lot of people applying for a job, it’s a lot of people recommending other people. We’re doing our best to make sure we get back to everyone.”
The first domino to fall was McCrimmon. The do-it-all owner, GM and head coach of the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings, he had initially appeared on McPhee’s shortlist for the assistant GM gig, even though they hadn’t communicated much beforehand. But McCrimmon’s sparkling résumé–four-time WHL executive of the year, three-time CHL executive of the year, consecutive first-place Eastern Conference finishes, reigning WHL champions—spoke for itself. “There were three people on the list for that position that I knew about, and then there were three others that I didn’t know that I had conversations with,” McPhee says. “It immediately got hot with Kelly in the first conversation with him.”
In a way, the instant connection is reminiscent of how McPhee describes his first meeting with Foley, when within minutes he knew the fit would work. But McPhee has been mindful of leaning on old connections while recruiting new colleagues, despite speculation among reporters and fans that he might pillage the Capitals’ front office for familiar faces. “I think you have to be very careful, in any business, about hiring friends, because friends can become enemies in a hurry,” he says. “I’m hiring the best team of people, and not necessarily people that I know or are friends.”
Slowly enough, those bushels of texts, emails, and calls are being narrowed down. Among the new flood of expected hires is an executive assistant who is knowledgeable about player immigration and visa applications. The salary cap specialist, McPhee says, will not hold an assistant GM title, but will also be responsible for negotiating and drawing contracts, something McPhee has done himself in the interim. The director of hockey operations will be responsible for “vetting our analytics people, vetting video people” and arranging scouting software, among other tasks. Before transitioning into a broader role for the team’s 2017-18 debut season, the goaltending director will spend this year scouting the pro and amateur levels. Once the pro and amateur scouting directors are found, McPhee says, they will be responsible for rounding out their respective staffs.
Looking back on his debut season with Washington almost two decades ago, McPhee sees front-office rosters growing bigger and bigger, something he cautions against in Vegas. “There are more specialists,” he says. “I’m not sure that’s always the way to go. Sometimes when you’re a little smaller, there’s real trust. I don’t like a lot of layers. Basically, with scouting for example, you have a director of pro scouting. We don’t need a lot of people between him and me. Just a guy like Kelly, and that’ll be it. Other organizations have lots of people with lots of titles. I don’t think we’re going in that direction. A smaller staff can create that camaraderie and trust. I think it’s ideal for a new team, for sure.”
The one spot that will remain unfilled through 2016-17, though, will be the head coach. Unlike, say, Nashville, which dispatched Barry Trotz on scouting assignments after hiring him less than two months into the franchise's existence, McPhee doesn’t plan to hire anyone there until next off-season. “You never know who might be available later, and I would like people that are going to do scouting to be people who will remain in those positions,” he says. “I just don’t want to lose that continuity. I want pro scouts doing the pro scouting, and then that gives us time to take a look at the coaches that are out there and really get a chance to watch them work.”
Soon enough, McPhee can start focusing on constructing an actual team. He and McCrimmon will leave Saturday for the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup tournament in the Czech Republic, an annual showcase of under-18 talent. There, McPhee will get his first look at potential prospects for the 2017 NHL Draft, in which Vegas is guaranteed a first-round pick no lower than sixth. “That’s a big help to know,” he says. “And so I look forward to seeing what kind of crop is out there for next summer, and then getting a chance to spend time with Kelly and talk hockey. We’ll talk to some people over there who are interested in being European scouts for us. We’ll get some work done over there in that regard too.”
For now, though, he’s conducted “a couple run-throughs” of next summer’s expansion draft, and anticipates creating a team “the same way we built the Washington teams—big talented teams that can score goals. I think that’s the way the game should be played. We are in the entertainment business and we certainly want to win, but you want to entertain while you’re doing it. We’re not going to play sit-back hockey. We’re going to attack.”
McPhee's wife has also started negotiations to close on a house in Las Vegas. The retirement plans have been formalized, the health benefits selected. Ancillary issues are getting resolved. The work goes on.