T was the season to be jolly, and six days before Christmas, Tom McVie, coach of the New Jersey Devils, was in his office explaining that a hockey player had to be hungry to excel, and that there was nothing quite so detrimental to a hungry spirit as a Christmas goose. It was the coach's job, McVie maintained, to play Scrooge, and McVie has a spectacular "humbug!" His voice just naturally sounds like a blown speaker blaring through six inches of dirty laundry.
The phone rang and McVie answered. Someone was calling to remind him that the Devils' Christmas party would begin in 15 minutes. The Devils, who had staggered to a 2-18 start, had gone 5-5-2 since McVie replaced Billy MacMillan on Nov. 22, and morale was high. McVie, trying to explain to the caller why he wasn't rushing off to the party, told an apocryphal story. "My family was awful poor," he said, winking at those seated in his office. "So we never made much of a deal about Christmas. My father worked in the mines back in Trail, B.C., you know, and my sister was always his favorite. So one Christmas my sister and I ran down to open our stockings, and hers was filled with oranges and candy. I looked in mine, and you know what was in it?" McVie started to grin. "No, no, not coal—road apples. I couldn't believe it. I mean, I was always kind of a flaky kid, but I was never bad. My sister said, 'Tommy, what did you get from Santa this year?' So I said to her, 'Geez, Sis, I got a horse, only it ran away.' "
And then he laughed a deep gravelly laugh.
I got a horse, only it ran away. Someone should save that for Tom McVie's epitaph: It's the story of his life in the NHL. Three times in the last nine years McVie, 48, has endured catastrophic seasons. First came the 1975-76 Washington Capitals, then the 1980-81 Winnipeg Jets and now the McHapless McDevils—who reverted to their losing ways following the Christmas party, dropping six straight games in the next 11 days. Their record stood at 7-29-2, the worst in the league, as the new year began. Three of the most pathetic hockey clubs in NHL history, all stuffed into one man's stocking.
But Tom McVie isn't a loser. He's a coach who has survived losing. And we're not talking about surviving a little bit of losing. This is strictly big league stuff. When McVie took over the Capitals on New Year's Eve 1975, the team was 3-28-5 and on a winless streak that eventually reached 25 games, an NHL record. Then in the fall of 1980, the Jets, coached by McVie, played 30 straight games without a win, a record unrivaled in professional major league sports. Actually, McVie wasn't even around at the streak's conclusion. After the 25th game he was fired. His record for the season was 1-20-7; his NHL coaching record, 69-189-49.
Yet McVie was the first guy the Devils called when owner John McMullen and team president Bob Butera decided to relieve MacMillan as general manager and coach last Nov. 20. (Max McNab, a club vice-president, took over as general McManager as part of the McDevils' housecleaning.) The decision to hire McVie followed a double dose of ridicule administered by the Edmonton Oilers' usually well-mannered Wayne Gretzky, who scored eight points in a 13-4 rout of the Devils on Nov. 19 and then labeled the New Jersey organization "Mickey Mouse" when talking to reporters.
Why did the Devils turn to McVie? Why the one man who had proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he could take a bad team and not turn it around? "The fact is, he was the only person," says Butera. "Tom was coach of our minor league team in Maine; he knew the players, and we didn't want to start interviewing someone from the outside in the middle of the year. Plus, Tommy gives us exactly what we were lacking—leadership. He's a disciplinarian, works extremely hard, is physically fit and lives properly, and therefore is a good influence on our younger players. If anything, having been with these types of franchises in the past makes him all the more qualified for this job. He's much more philosophical."
And why would McVie, who was coaching the Maine Mariners, a contending team in the American Hockey League, take on the Devils, who could be many years away from a .500 season? "I've had my heart broken a lot, been through the hard times and had all the false promises made," he says. "And I'm still like the little engine that says, 'I think I can, I think I can.' "
McVie did in fact grow up in the mining town of Trail, British Columbia, on the banks of the Columbia River. It was the old story—hockey provided him an escape from the lead and zinc mines in which his father worked for 40 years. He became a career minor-leaguer and scored 380 goals in the Western Hockey League between 1957 and 1972 without ever getting an NHL tryout.
Then, after 16 years as a player and 2½ seasons of coaching and managing the Dayton Gems of the International League, McVie was offered the Capitals coaching job in 1975. Welcome to the big time. Washington, an expansion club, had already gone through three coaches in its 15-month history and had compiled a record of 11-95-10.
"The Capitals had nothing but a bunch of rejects from other teams," says McVie. "I went to the first practice, and guys were smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee in the locker room and wandering in late. I was in good shape and all pumped up to finally be in the NHL, so during the drills I was skating around like Rocket Richard, and they were looking at me like 'This guy's nuts.' So I called them all over and asked, 'Is there something wrong here?' No one said anything. Then finally Bobby Paradise, whom I'd played with in Seattle, said, 'No one else will admit it, but we're all thinking the same thing: We're going to lose every game we play, so what's the point of this?'"
McVie checked the weight charts and found that all the Caps had gained at least 10 pounds since training camp. One had gained 17. So McVie worked them hard. He's still a taskmaster. "They thought I was a maniac, but I'm not crazy," says McVie, a fitness buff who has worked out an hour a day for the past 13 years. "When you're playing the Montreal Canadiens and there's not one guy on your roster who could make their team, you have to work harder than they do."
The next season the Caps arrived at training camp in shape and improved their record to 24-42-14, five more wins than they had in the first two seasons combined. McVie was runner-up to Montreal's Stanley Cup-winning Scotty Bowman for Coach of the Year honors. "The owner [Abe Pollin] put his arm around my wife and said, 'I should give him a 20-year contract,' " McVie recalls. "When he fired me, my comment was that I still had 19 years to go. I gave my soul to that team."
McVie was abruptly released two days before the start of the 1978-79 season, after the Caps had regressed to 17-49-14 in his third year. "There were no real specifics given as to why the change was made," says McNab, then Washington's general manager. "I guess that's the story of Tom's life. He's deserved a better fate everywhere he's been."
McVie was crushed, and not for the last time. On Feb. 28, 1979 McVie took over as coach of the Jets, then in third place in the World Hockey Association. He coached them to the Avco World Trophy Championship over the Gretzky-led Oilers—the only time in his coaching career that he did indeed have the horses. The next year brought the merger of the rival leagues, with the result that Winnipeg was torn asunder under the terms of the merger—only nine players remained from the championship team—and McVie was saddled with another expansion club. The Jets struggled through the 1979-80 season with a 20-49-11 record. Then came The Streak—two months and four days without a win.
"Vince Lombardi once said that winning is a habit—unfortunately, so is losing," says McVie. "It's just like an avalanche. You can't stop it. The harder I tried, the more I did, the worse things got. It's a disease. I tried to push the players harder, and when I saw that this wasn't working, I tried to relax them."
From there it was back to the minors for McVie, who lived in motel rooms for one season in Oklahoma City and one and a quarter more in Maine. When Tom was fired by Winnipeg his wife, Arlene, gave up the moving-van life and returned to Portland, Ore., where Tom had finished his playing career, with Denver, the youngest of their three sons. (The other two are Tom Jr. and Dallas.) Then came the call from the Devils. McVie again had a team of little talent and no confidence. "You start to question whether you can play in the league," says nine-year NHL veteran Mel Bridgman when asked about the Devils' 2-18 start. "The older guys were told to help stabilize the younger guys, but how can I help a Pat Verbeek when I can't even get my own game together?"
"We were like amateurs playing professionals," says goalie Chico Resch, the team's best and most overworked player. "It was like being the youngest kid in the schoolyard. They had the ball the whole time, so you lost your zest for the game."
"You get guys thinking 'It can't be me,' and there wasn't a feeling of responsibility for your teammates. MacMillan was probably more patient with us than he should have been. Then Tommy comes in and says, 'Patience? I'll get patiented right out of here if we don't win some games.' He's brought a fear into the locker room that wasn't there before. He never looks the other way."
Indeed, when one of the Devils messes up a drill in practice—and it happens endlessly—McVie will stop play and holler. If one of the Devils ever changes on the fly during a game when the puck is in his own zone—a common practice under MacMillan—McVie has threatened to slam the door to the bench on him and, if the player then tries to climb over the boards, to stomp on his fingers with his boot. While practicing the power play recently—the Devils are a horrendous 22 for 177 on the season—McVie grabbed a stick, leaped in front of the net and, without equipment, shouted at the point men, "Go ahead. Shoot at me! Shoot the sonofabitch! Shoot at my head, I don't care. Shoot the puck!"—all the while jostling with a defenseman and tipping pucks as they flew toward the net.
"I motivate with my enthusiasm," says McVie, who has been living at a Holiday Inn since taking over the team. He arrives at his office at 7 a.m. and stays as late as 1:30 a.m. on game days to review the tapes. Before practices he hands out inspirational poems with titles like Don't Quit, The Battle of Life and Think Like a Winner, as well as Rudyard Kipling's If.
McVie would certainly like to be rehired next season, but he probably will be asked to return to Maine. "I say I'll give everything I have 24 hours a day, and if that's not good enough, I'll hop in my car like Paladin and ride away," he says. "I don't buy houses anymore. I can be out of town in 20 minutes, 30 if I have stuff at the cleaners.
"I'm not a golfer, but I'm told that even if you shoot a hundred and you're in the woods all day, back and forth, in and out of the sand, that it's the 40-foot putt you sank on the seventh green that brings you back. That hope—no, I don't like the word hope—that chance of winning is what keeps you going. The chance of winning. Every time you lose, it's like dying a little bit. But every time you win, it's sort of like you're reborn."
A child again, racing down to his Christmas stocking to see if, at last....