George McPhee remembers the day he was hired to run the Washington Capitals 17 years ago.
After talking with the three print reporters on hand to cover the announcement, including the late Dave Fay, longtime hockey writer at The Washington Times, McPhee walked to what would soon be center ice at the still unfinished Verizon Center in downtown Washington and stared into the upper reaches of the building.
"I remember looking around and saying, 'Holy smokes, this place is huge.' And then it dawned on me that I've got to fill this place," McPhee said on Monday at Kettler Iceplex in his last press conference as the Caps' general manager. "And we filled it. It has been filled for a long time. I didn't know that we'd ever be able to do that without winning the [Stanley] Cup, but we played so well and had some really fun teams to watch that we've done it."
But entertainment only lasts so long and after the Caps missed the playoffs for the first time in six years, owner Ted Leonsis decided it was time for a change. McPhee's contract with the organization expires July 1 and he learned Saturday that it would not be extended. Meanwhile, the team fired coach Adam Oates.
"That's the business. Am I disappointed? I was terminated, of course," McPhee said. "But it's not the end of the world. I've had worse days in my life. I've got lots to be thankful for and my family's got lots to be thankful for and lots to look forward to."
McPhee spoke for over 30 minutes and fielded questions on a variety of topics, including why his teams began to dip after winning the Presidents' Trophy for the best record in the NHL in 2009-10. Washington has always disappointed fans come playoff time and that was no different under McPhee save for his first season when the team reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. But McPhee consistently refused to answer pointed questions about star winger Alex Ovechkin or his relationship with Oates, whom he hired in 2012.
"We won a division title last year and played really well and went to a Game 7 and it didn't work out for us," McPhee said. "We got 90 points this year in a year where I thought we were a little thin. I'm not gonna pin anything on anyone. I'm the manager and I was supposed to get it done and it didn't happen this year."
And so McPhee is ready to move on. His son, Graham, is 15 now and will spend next season with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program based in Ann Arbor, Mich. He will play for the under-17 US national team. McPhee's oldest daughter, Grayson, a senior at Georgetown Visitation, is off to Rollins College, where she will play lacrosse.
And so the McPhees are ready to move on to the next stage of their lives. Whether that will include another general manager job elsewhere in the NHL remains to be seen. But at age 55, McPhee's career as an executive is far from over. There are challenges ahead.
"If there's another [general manager] job in the future and someone gives me an opportunity, I'd love to do it again," McPhee said. "And I'd go to Iceland to do it. Doesn't matter where it is."
McPhee met briefly with team president Dick Patrick after the season ended on April 13 and then had a two-and-a-half hour meeting with Patrick and Leonsis last Thursday after those two men conducted extensive exit interviews with members throughout the organization. He learned his fate first from a phone call with Patrick on Saturday morning.
McPhee remains bullish on the Caps. He believes the team is in good position for a new general manager to build them quickly back into a contender. He sees a restocked farm system, a core group of veterans still in their primes and no bad long-term contracts on the books, giving the new front office flexibility to go in whatever direction it chooses. He just won't be the man running things anymore. That hurts after all these years, but it is a pain McPhee always knew would come.
"No one's ever told me I have to be a GM for a living. I signed up for this," McPhee said. "There are some dark days, but there are a heck of a lot of good ones. It's been a fabulous experience. It's been a fun ride. That's what it's supposed to be. This is sports. We're not trying to feed the world. This is sports. It's supposed to be fun and for the most part it has been."
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