- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2000

No one has ever accused George McPhee of running from a confrontation. Stan Fischler, the author of 73 books about professional hockey, calls McPhee "pound for pound, the best fighter I ever saw in the NHL."

Fischler was describing McPhee as a gritty, undersized player not as vice president and general manager of the Washington Capitals. But the label would apply there, too.

Incensed by goon tactics employed by the Chicago Blackhawks during a September exhibition game that left Trevor Halverson with a potentially career-ending concussion, McPhee barged into the Chicago dressing room and basically challenged the entire organization.

"I have no problem whatsoever with a team wanting to play tough and physical," McPhee said. "I do have a problem with a coach sending out players to fight, or manufacture fights."

A scuffle broke out between McPhee and several players and officials. Chicago coach Lorne Molleken ended up with a black eye. McPhee ended up with a torn suit, a broken thumb and a one-month suspension, plus a $20,000 fine from the league. But that wasn't all that came of it.

"He stuck up for his team in a radical way," said Fischler, who chronicled McPhee's pugilistic talents in a book called "Bad Boys." "Something dirty was done, and the referee didn't do anything about it. I think what George did probably did more to unite the team than anything."

Coach Ron Wilson agrees, somewhat. The Caps struggled for the first month, "but I like to believe it did have a positive effect," he said. "Not in terms of winning and losing, but in knowing management is there, 100 percent, through thick and thin."

Said McPhee: "It feels like a long time ago. It was wrong. But it's hard to feel that you're wrong if you believe what you're doing was right, if that makes sense."

In his third season with the Caps, McPhee might simply have been defined by that incident, or by being the youngest GM in the league at 41, except for what followed. The Caps have had a terrific season, fashioning a total turnabout from last season's injury-filled disaster. McPhee's fingerprints, not his fistprints, are all over it.

Whether the Caps get to smudge up the Stanley Cup with their own hands remains to be seen, but they are a legitimate contender despite a recent slump. A younger, hungrier and healthier team than the one that finished 12th out of 14 teams in the Eastern Conference last season, Washington will be among the top five playoff seeds.

"George is a very thoughtful person, and he has a plan," said Ted Leonsis, who bought the club last spring and immediately hit it off with McPhee. "It just so happened that the plan he articulated was the plan I wanted."

The plan accentuates fiscal responsibility and signing players with as much character as ability. Where some clubs, notably the New York Rangers, have spent wildly with disastrous results, the Caps under McPhee have become more competitive while actually decreasing the payroll, from $34 million to about $28 million.

More than a dozen players who were not with the club when McPhee and Wilson were hired before the 1997-98 season have contributed. We're not talking here about $6 million superstars, real or alleged. These are players like Craig Billington, a solid backup goalie obtained from Colorado; Ulf Dahlen, Jeff Halpern and Joe Sacco, who were signed as free agents last year; and Jim McKenzie, Joe Murphy and Terry Yake, plucked off waivers this season.

"The easy thing would be to do what the Rangers did, go out and buy all the free agents," said Caps co-owner Dick Patrick.

But, McPhee said, "managing a hockey team is more about creating the right chemistry in the room and putting the team first, ahead of the individual. [Character] is the most important intangible you can have in a player. There are tangible skills, like skating and passing the puck, but the intangibles are just as important. Anybody that comes into the organization has got to be hard-working and has got to have great character."

"I think a team can perform better when it has a lot of good players, rather than a couple of superstars and a bunch of plebes. Because of the economics of this business, you can jeopardize a team if you're paying one or two players a lot of money, and they don't perform or get injured. Then you're in trouble. And other players become too reliant on them."

McPhee also worked internally, beefing up scouting and broadening the duties of Shawn Simpson, the director of hockey operations, and Frank Provenzano, assistant to the GM. At 31 and 30, both are even younger Turks than McPhee.

There has been no mortgaging of the future. McPhee pulled off the difficult task of making the big club better while also fostering improvement in the farm system. The Caps' Portland affiliate in the American Hockey League finished with 101 points, a 46-point jump from last year. The Caps are sitting on 99 points (they had 68 a year ago), setting up the rare daily double of big club and top affiliate each reaching the 100-point mark.

Another part of the equation is McPhee hiring Wilson away from Anaheim immediately after joining the Caps and the special relationship they enjoy. They are close friends, going back to when Wilson was an assistant coach in Vancouver and McPhee was still in law school and working there in an intern-like position. They also share some common experiences. Both lost their fathers early in life, both were limited NHL players. Both have ascended to where they are from the bottom floor.

Most important, Wilson has no desire to be a general manager, and McPhee would hate to be a coach.

"I don't know if there's a coach and a general manager in the league that get along as well as we do in terms of understanding our roles are," Wilson said.

McPhee: "Ron realizes he has a lot of autonomy. I provide the players, and he makes it work."

Although Leonsis said McPhee owns one of the "loud voices" in decision-making along with Wilson, Patrick and occasionally himself McPhee in reality is low-key. Words commonly used to describe him are "thoughtful" and "cerebral." He is a graduate of college and law school and was just 39 when he was hired by Patrick from Vancouver, where he was vice president of hockey operations.

Today McPhee is one of the hot commodities in hockey. Fischler, an inveterate New Yorker, said the McPhee-Wilson tandem would suit the beleaguered Rangers perfectly.

"He's very sharp," Fischler said of McPhee. "He's got excellent street smarts."

The Rangers shouldn't get their hopes up, though. McPhee loves it here, and his contract, which runs through next season, is expected to be extended soon.

When he was searching for a GM to replace David Poile, Patrick said he considered McPhee "high-risk but with plenty of upside" because of his age and background.

"I liked him as a player," said Patrick, who also holds a law degree. "He had plenty of grit and determination. He was a role player and a bit of a tough guy. I liked his background, coming from a blue-collar, Canadian family. After that, law school, then back into hockey. He had a nice resume. We was at the point where he was ready to take a big step."

A native of Guelph, Ontario, McPhee won the Hoby Baker Award at Bowling Green as the nation's top college player. He played seven years with the Rangers and New Jersey Devils before injuries put an end to that. One of McPhee's mentors, Devils president and GM Lou Lamoriello, recommended law school as a means toward a career in management, and McPhee ended up with a law degree from Rutgers.

Another law school grad and Lamoriello protege was Brian Burke, then the assistant to Vancouver GM Pat Quinn. Burke brought McPhee to Vancouver, and he eventually succeeded Burke.

Under Quinn, who also has a law degree and has served as another guru, McPhee handled negotiations for a financially strapped franchise and developed a reputation for being somewhat hard on agents. Make that very hard on agents, although McPhee takes issue with one report that said he actually "hates" them. He said he doesn't even dislike agents. Not all of them anyway.

"There are a handful of very good agents that are a pleasure to deal with, who are very good at making the right decision for the player and the team," he said. "I'm disappointed in the agents who don't care about the game and respect the game."

During his first year with the Caps, the team surprised everyone by advancing to the Stanley Cup finals. McPhee only tinkered, adding a Brian Bellows here, an Esa Tikkanen there. The shakeup began last season, when the Caps crashed and burned. McPhee dealt veterans Dale Hunter, Joe Juneau and Craig Berube just before the trade deadline, and change has been constant without being dramatic, occurring on an as-needed basis.

"I don't think it's right to come in and rip things up, sort of put your stamp on something," McPhee said. "That will happen over time through the natural course of managing. I think it's important to be patient and read people and determine where to go with the people you have."

Said Wilson: "George has done an excellent job of adding. It's like making soup. You have decent ingredients, but it just doesn't taste right. What's missing? This spice or that. Then it's going out and finding it, especially when it's in short supply."

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