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  • George McPhee helped build the Capitals team that is taking on the Golden Knights, his current employer, in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
By Alex Prewitt
May 28, 2018

The restaurant erupts into a cheer when George McPhee arrives for lunch. “Yeah, all three people,” he says, modest but wrong. Fans bedecked out in black and gold offer congratulatory handshakes as he walks by their tables at MacKenzie River Pizza. Some early birds along the bar applaud. An elderly gentleman and his grandson ask for a photo. McPhee leans in close and smiles. Celebrity sightings are plenty common in Las Vegas, but for the moment no one is more famous than the general manager of the local hockey team.

It’s some 16 hours after the expansion Golden Knights secured the Western Conference title with a 2–1 victory in Game 5 over Winnipeg, adding another chapter to the unlikeliest success story in North American sports history. Settling into a high-top seat at the eatery in the team’s practice facility, McPhee asks a waitress to turn a TV to the NHL Network, which is replaying the clincher. Between bites of chicken chili, McPhee keeps stealing long looks at the action, as though he needs reassurance that his team actually won. That, he says, “it all doesn’t turn to dust.”

At 59, McPhee remains the pragmatic mind who interned on Wall Street for two off-seasons while playing for the Rangers in the 1980s, studied law at Rutgers upon retiring from pro hockey and clerked for a judge on the U.S. Court of International Trade. Now he spends summers on Martha’s Vineyard, where he attends lectures on topics ranging from marine robotics to the biophilia hypothesis to island tree growth. “Something stimulating,” he says. “It’s not like you go to the beach all day.” During the season he prefers to decompress with breezier texts including John Grisham novels. Restless after flying home the night before, he dug into the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s autobiography around 3 a.m. “In the pressure of the playoffs, if I’m going to read something, it has to be really light and help me fall asleep,” says McPhee. “As a manager you’re always thinking about the worst thing that can go wrong on every shift. At least that’s how this one’s wired.”

NHL
Stanley Cup Final Series Breakdown: Washington Capitals vs. Vegas Golden Knights

Except next to nothing has gone wrong for the Golden Knights so far. As the clock ticks toward zero on the TV, the broadcast cuts to the visiting management booth in Winnipeg, where McPhee is wrapping assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon in a can-you-believe-it embrace. After running away with the Pacific Division, Vegas opened its inaugural postseason with a tidy sweep of the Kings, followed by a six-game win against the Sharks, before dispatching the Jets. All three series ended with stingy defensive performances on the road, anchored by goalie and Conn Smythe favorite Marc-André Fleury (.947 playoff save percentage entering the finals). Now just one team separates the Knights from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup. Clearly, the hockey gods have a sense of humor.

Over lunch, McPhee calls up a text from Brian MacLellan—a childhood friend from Guelph, Ont., a college teammate at Bowling Green and the successor to his last head front office job … as general manager of the Capitals. Congrats on getting to the Stanley Cup finals, MacLellan wrote. Amazing accomplishment. At the time of MacLellan’s message, Washington was trailing the Lightning three games to two in the East, but the hands of fate—specifically Alex Ovechkin’s wicked one-timer and goalie Braden Holtby’s flytrap glove—soon went to work. Two nights later the Capitals shut out Tampa for the second-straight game, securing their finals first appearance since McPhee’s debut season in 1997–98. 

The Vegas–Washington matchup includes a tasty blend of juicy storylines. The fast and furious Golden Knights against the skilled and steely Capitals. Nate Schmidt is anchoring Vegas’s blue line after MacLellan left him exposed in the expansion draft last June. Fleury is aiming for a third straight Cup—though this time without Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. In one corner, a sadomasochistic sports city nursing the nation’s longest title drought; in the other, a neon land defined by winning and losing without any pro sports past at all. And what do both teams have in common? The same soft-spoken, craggy-knuckled architect who crafted their respective foundations.

Ladies and gentlemen, for the 2018 Stanley Cup: It’s McPhee vs. McPhee.

****

As he would in the desert two decades later, McPhee delivered instant success to the District in 1997–98. Before this spring, those Capitals were the only team in franchise history to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs. (They won the Eastern Conference too, but were swept by Detroit in the finals.) “It felt much more dramatic, more of a surprise than this, because Washington had never really gone anywhere in the playoffs,” says McPhee. “Twenty years ago, it was, Are we fluking our way? This year doesn’t feel like a fluke.”

Saddled by burdensome contracts and a cupboard barren of prospects heading into the 2004–05 lockout, Washington ownership settled on the long-term strategy of, as MacLellan says, “blowing it up.” They traded away their biggest names, including Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra and Sergei Gonchar in ’04. Rebuilding from rubble is never easy in the salary-cap era—ask Edmonton, Buffalo and Arizona—and Washington endured three straight sub-30-win seasons. Still, the seeds McPhee planted during those fallow years are bearing fruit; of the 20 men who dressed for Game 7 against Tampa, half were drafted while McPhee oversaw the front office. “That’s a huge feather in his cap,” MacLellan says. “It’s a hard thing to do to clean it out like that and start from scratch.”

Of course, lottery luck helped too. Among McPhee’s introductions to the superhuman powers of Alex Ovechkin took place during the 2005–06 season, when the No. 1 overall pick was living with the McPhee family as a rookie. An avid cyclist, the GM invited Ovechkin along for a 20-mile ride along the Potomac River. McPhee awoke early, ate a healthy breakfast and stretched. Five minutes until their scheduled departure, Ovechkin rolled out of bed, chugged a Coke and then smoked his new boss up every hill.

McPhee cultivated relationships with others too. Colleagues recall how one of his first acts in Washington involved removing a glass door that separated hockey operations from other departments. On the ice, McPhee drafted center Nicklas Backstrom in 2006, two years after Ovechkin, Holtby and power play quarterback John Carlson in ’08, dynamic defenseman Dmitry Orlov in ’09 and electric center Evgeny Kuznetsov in ’10. “They get to be like your kids if you’ve been with them long enough,” McPhee says, and indeed any player needing somewhere to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas was invited to sup with George and his wife, Leah.

But year after year the Capitals came up short. Four coaches cycled through town in McPhee’s final nine seasons in the Beltway, not to mention a revolving door of right wingers deployed alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom. Patience finally ran out following the second season under coach Adam Oates, 2013–14, when the team missed the playoffs and McPhee traded rising star Filip Forsberg for—shield thine eyes again, Caps fans—Martin freakin’ Erat.

MacLellan soon found himself in an “awkward” transition: promoted from assistant GM to replace the lifelong friend who had recruited him to join Washington’s pro scouting staff in 2000. “[McPhee] just spent 17 years in an organization, doing a really good job, and had one hiccup, and his life is changing,” MacLellan says. But all signs indicate that it was the right decision. Whether through bargain signings (defenseman Matt Niskanen for $5.75 million annually, winger Brett Connolly for $1.5 million) or trade acquisitions (forwards T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller), MacLellan deserves credit for bringing the Caps to the brink, even if McPhee paved the way.

Thousands of miles away, McPhee still maintains close ties to Washington. He picked up former Capitals, Schmidt and center Cody Eakin, at the expansion draft; hired goalie coach Dave Prior, cap specialist Andrew Lugerner, scouts Vojtech Kucera and Wil Nichol, and longtime executive assistant Katy Boettinger, who left her job as an English teacher in Tampa to reunite with the band. No hard feelings exist between McPhee and MacLellan, either; they had dinner during the annual GM meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., in March. And when Ovechkin played in his 1,000th game on April 1 McPhee was quick to fire off a congratulatory text. McPhee chuckles upon rereading his old houseguest’s reply: 

tnx!!!!! time fly

***

The frozen pond was nestled past a thicket of branches and brush, only visible through an opening in the canopy overhead. Located less than 10 blocks from the McPhee home in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the family had moved to support son, Graham, 19, while he was part of the U.S. national team development program, the outdoor rink became a sanctuary during George’s two-year hiatus between GM jobs. He and 12-year-old daughter Adelaide, youngest of his and Leah’s three children (the oldest, Grayson, is 22), would grab their toques and sticks, and skate for hours unbothered.

McPhee stayed around the game, managing Team Canada to world championships in 2015 and ’16 and working as an advisor to Islanders GM Garth Snow. But he itched for more, interviewing for two NHL GM jobs that ultimately went to other candidates. “While it’s nice to have time to regroup, there’s still this angst that you feel,” McPhee says. “You wonder, Will I get back in? Will I get another chance? And all you want is a chance.”

It is the same competitiveness that defined McPhee’s playing career. “He was scary tough for a little guy,” says longtime hockey executive Brian Burke. “He weighed about 175 pounds, and he fought everybody.” Though skilled enough to win the 1982 Hobey Baker Award as a senior forward at Bowling Green, the 5' 9", 170-pound McPhee did what was necessary to survive in the NHL, even if that meant brawling with heavyweights like Philadelphia’s 6' 5", 225-pound Dave Brown. “I remember that clear as a bell,” says former Rangers winger and now agent Jeff Jackson. “Everyone on the bench going, Oh George, what are you doing, you dummy? Leave that guy alone.”

“Oh my god, [he] could take a punch, he could give a punch,” says Flames VP of hockey operations Don Maloney, another New York teammate. “He was fearless.”

McPhee never seemed to know he was overmatched. His players in Vegas seem to be the same way. All castaways from other clubs, they feel slighted enough to dub their group text chat, The Golden Misfits. A tight-knit roster that regroups swifter and forechecks faster than any other team, the cast is littered with motivated standouts from winger Jonathan Marchessault (team-high 18 playoff points) to tough guy Ryan Reaves, a deadline acquisition from Pittsburgh, whose tip-in won Game 5 against Winnipeg. “This team fits George and his personality,” Maloney says. “Maybe not the biggest names or the flashiest players, but they’re relentless.”

If McPhee built Washington through draft picks and patience, the Golden Knights hit the jackpot on the first pull of the lever. The success has been a boon for television ratings—the Vegas-Winnipeg series was NBC Sports’s highest-rated Western Conference finals not involving Chicago since 2002—and bittersweet for sportsbooks; local oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro estimates they lose between $20,000 and $30,000 at the South Point Casino every time the Golden Knights take the ice. Each morning hundreds of fans flock to the team’s practice facility and wait in line just to enter the store. 

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From College Hockey to Vegas, the Journey of Haula and Schmidt Could Include the Stanley Cup

The team has come a long way its first hockey operations meeting. Over Labor Day weekend 2016, staff members posed for a group photo wearing golf shirts branded with owner Bill Foley’s cattle company because the team had neither a logo nor a name. “There’s not a guy in hockey that’s not cheering for George right now,” says Burke, “in spite of the fact that he’s making us all look silly.”

Indeed, consider the deals McPhee brokered leading into the expansion draft last June: Vegas was gifted a second-round pick from Pittsburgh to take Fleury. The Panthers traded Reilly Smith (14 points this postseason) after Vegas selected Jonathan Marchessault (eight goals). They got Alex Tuch (six goals) for choosing Erik Haula (seven points) from the Wild, and two draft picks (a first and second rounder) from Columbus in exchange for William Karlsson (team-high 78 points in the regular season) and the bloated contract of the essentially retired David Clarkson. And still, McPhee has 18 players under contract for 2018–19 with nearly $20 million of cap space left.

“He’s laid the foundation on both teams,” says Schmidt, who signed with Washington after his junior season at Minnesota in April 2013. “Maybe ours [in Vegas] materialized a little bit faster. But he still had the same type of concept behind it.”

Both McPhee and the Capitals are in better places since their breakup, but it’s hard to leave 17 years altogether in the past. McPhee still feels pangs watching Washington; he tapes their playoff games so he knows the result beforehand. But he’ll now be watching both of his teams live. And no matter where he looks, he can feel some degree of ownership over what he sees. But, of course, there is no mistaking which side he sits on now; only under one scenario will his name be etched on the Cup. “He’s a misfit too,” Schmidt says. “We’re the Golden Misfits together.”

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