GEORGE MCPHEE AND DAVID POILE
The Washington Capitals last appeared in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1997-’98, George McPhee’s debut season as the hockey club’s general manager. McPhee had a pretty good run during his D.C. tenure, winning seven Southeast Division Championships; logging eight 40-or-more win campaigns; and registering a franchise-record 121 points in 2009-’10.
But the team couldn’t shake its reputation as a regular season powerhouse which morphed into nothing but a house of cards in the playoffs. The Caps couldn’t win the Cup and that was that.
On April 26, 2014 after seventeen years McPhee was given the gate. With pink slip in hand and time on his side McPhee stayed around the game. He managed Team Canada to world championships in 2015 and ’16 and assumed the titles of alternate governor, vice-president and special advisor to general manager Garth Snow of the New York Islanders.
He interviewed for two NHL GM jobs he did not get.
In July of 2016 he became the first general manager of the Las Vegas Golden Knights expansion franchise, a team which turned the hockey world on its ear by making the Stanley Cup Finals in their 2017-’18 inaugural season.
Why, the Washington Capitals of course; one McPhee-stamped unit against another.
David Poile is the winningest general manager in NHL history, 100 years strong. A 4–2 Nashville Predator comeback victory over the Edmonton Oilers on March 1st. — the 1,320th. in his long and storied executive career — vaulted Poile ahead of Glen “Slats” Sather, the front-office architect of the Oilers’ dynasty in the 1980s who later assumed the managerial reins of the New York Rangers.
The son of Hockey Hall of Famer Norman “Bud” Poile, the younger began his NHL days as an administrative assistant with the expansion Atlanta Flames in 1972 and five years later he was named the club’s assistant general manager.
On August 30, 1982 Poile became the Vice-President and General Manager of the Washington Capitals, serving in those dual capacities for fifteen years and compiling a record of 594–454–121.
He was replaced by McPhee of all folks in June of 1997, drawn to another expansion franchise the Preds, in advance of their 1998 debut. The team’s only GM in their twenty year history, Poile guided Nashville to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2017 and won the NHL’s 2017 General Manager of the Year Award.
McPhee, again following Poile, won it in 2018.
George McPhee is not stuffed comfortably or tidily into the hockey lifer mold; a lot spills over.
He interned on Wall Street for two off-seasons while playing for the New York Rangers in the 1980s; he studied law at Rutgers following his retirement from pro hockey; and he clerked for a judge on the U.S. Court of International Trade.
He spends his summers on Martha’s Vineyard attending lectures on sundry topics such as marine robotics, biophilia hypothesis and island tree growth. “Something stimulating,” he postulates.
His in-season reading list errs on the side of lighter material such as John Grisham novels but when he can’t fall asleep he may pick up something like the autobiography of late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. No dis to Bradlee intended, just a laser focus on sawing logs.
“In the pressure of the playoffs, if I’m going to read something, it has to be really light and help me fall asleep,” he said. “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.”
McPhee is also wired to recognize and then seize a good opportunity should one arise.
When Knights owner Bill Foley hired him, he left his family behind in Washington, checked into a hotel in the Vegas suburb of Summerlin about twenty minutes off The Strip and discovered a new and different world. The opportunity would prove to be golden, pardon the pun.
He had an all-in owner with plenty of dough to devote to the cause: building a first-class franchise geared toward competing for the Stanley Cup sooner rather than later. He had a state with no income tax and a city with nice weather in hockey season. Commuting was easy. All advantages in the recruitment of staff and players.
Oh yes. There was also the shiny new 17,500-seat $375 million T-Mobile Arena on The Strip and a state-of-the-art 120,000 foot $25 million practice facility in Summerlin to go with it.
McPhee the artist had a blank canvas and everything he needed to create a masterpiece.
“You realize you just got really, really lucky,” McPhee reflected, “because you don’t want any constraints. You don’t want any handcuffs on the ability of your franchise to succeed. You don’t want any excuses…You look, and you see all the elements are there to be able to succeed. You don’t know that for sure when you’re interviewing for the job, but when you take the job and you really get a good look at it and then you realize how enthused the community is…You feel really, really lucky.”
David Poile — as McPhee and most hockey people are wont to do — shuns the spotlight, preferring to talk about others rather than about himself.
The league’s only general manager to record more than 500 victories with two franchises, he credits his family, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, mentor Cliff Fletcher, his coaches, front-office staff and whomever else played a role in his hockey life.
Poile quickly became the talk of the town in ’82 about a week into his tenure as the Capitals GM when he pulled the trigger on a 6-player deal which netted him future Hall of Fame defenseman Rod Langway from Montreal but sent center Ryan Walter north of the border. Walter was owner Abe Pollin’s favorite player.
“I didn’t expect that,” mused team President Dick Patrick at the time. “But he came in and wasn’t shy. He didn’t wait around for half a year to get his feet wet. He jumped right into it.”
Recalled Fletcher of the blockbuster deal, “I don’t know of another young GM that would have had the gumption to do that. When he did that, I said, ‘He doesn’t need any help. He’s going to be fine.’”
The Caps would make the playoffs for the first time that season and in each of the next thirteen years.
Humility runs deep. The NHL-record number of wins, the 24 years he has guided teams to the playoffs and the 2017 run to the Stanley Cup Finals never could change his hat size.
New Jersey Devils Assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald, the Predators’ first captain, remembers some sage advice Poile laid on him back in the day. “He said, ‘…this is about checking your ego at the door and putting the team first. This is not about me, but about we.’”
And about delegation of authority and then standing back.
Poile has had only five head coaches in 36 seasons as a general manager: Bryan Murray, Terry Murray and Jim Schoenfeld in Washington; and Barry Trotz and Peter Laviolette in Nashville.
“Some teams have had five coaches in six years and he’s had five coaches his whole career,” marveled Fletcher. “That just speaks for itself, with the continuity and consistency in his organizations. That [shows] people have confidence working with him because they work well together.”
Poile and McPhee share other personality traits aside from their humility: fair-minded firmness and toughness stemming from their fiercely competitive natures. Soft-spoken and mild-mannered on the outside with raging fires burning in the belly.
For Poile it’s about delivering a no-nonsense message when necessary in a calm way. Devils General Manager and former Preds Assistant GM Ray Shero remembers. Shero’s coaching staff choices for Nashville’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee didn’t work out as anticipated many years ago and Poile had to make a change.
Shero was to select the replacement and later updated Poile on the search. “I told him that I was leaning toward one guy, and he kind of pauses, looks up at me from his notes and says, ‘Just make sure you get this one right,’” Shero recounted. “I’m like, ‘Holy (crap), really? Holy (crap).’…David definitely has that firmness about him.”
With McPhee now 60, perhaps a sense of calm has ultimately eclipsed the scrappiness which defined his playing days.
“He was scary tough for a little guy,” reminisces longtime hockey executive Brian Burke. “He weighed about 175 pounds, and he fought everybody.” He did what he had to do to stay afloat in the NHL even if it meant throwing his 5’9” body into the fray with the likes of Dave Brown, a Philadelphia heavyweight at 6’5” and 225 pounds.
Smiles former Rangers winger and present-day agent Jeff Jackson at the recollection, “Everyone on the bench going, Oh George, what are you doing, you dummy? Leave that guy alone.”
Embellishes another former New York teammate Don Maloney, a tough guy himself and now the Flames VP of hockey operations, “Oh my God, [he] could take a punch, he could give a punch. He was fearless.”
Humility. Respect. Competitiveness. Fearlessness. Relentlessness. God-given talent and sagacity.
A pretty good recipe.
Heat as desired, stir and serve.
This is what you get.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in July 2018.]