I first interviewed ex-Caps general manager George McPhee in the fall of 1997, a couple of months after he took over the reins from David Poile. That was the first of countless conversations we had over the years. McPhee was always good to us here at washingtoncaps.com and later, here at Dump ‘n Chase and Caps365 and now the Monumental Network.
McPhee once invited me to sit in the war room with him in the hours leading up to the trade deadline. He allowed me to have a seat at the NHL Entry Draft for a few rounds one year. He allowed me to sit in on a couple of trade calls with the NHL and on dozens of pre-draft interviews with teenaged prospects, some of whom now rank among the biggest stars in the NHL.
The draft and the trade deadline are probably the two busiest times of the year for an NHL general manager, and you could often see that stress and that lack of sleep in McPhee’s face and his eyes around those times of year. Even so, he always granted us an exclusive one-on-one interview just before every draft and every trade deadline. Not only that, he was more expansive and candid than most of his peers around the league in those conversations, and that graciousness made winners out of the readers and the viewers.
I learned a lot about the game on and off the ice from McPhee over the years. That same tenacious competitive drive that fueled him as a player was one of his best traits as a general manager, too. That, and the way he treated people. McPhee went about his business with class, style and grace and the Capitals’ organization is a better one today than it was when he first arrived here in the District nearly 17 years ago.
I’m grateful for the access McPhee gave me and the trust and the confidence he showed in me. I’m also grateful for the education.
As you all know, McPhee was informed last Saturday morning that the Capitals would not be renewing his contract. He could have just ridden off into the sunset then, but he came into work as usual on Monday for the sole purpose of making himself available to the local media. After conducting a 33-minute press conference, McPhee went upstairs to box up the few personal effects he had in his office and to turn out the lights and close the door one last time. And before he did that, he was gracious enough to grant me one last expansive interview, a little stroll down memory lane, if you will. We spoke for over an hour, and here’s a transcript of that conversation.
What did you see as the main challenges when you took over this job?
“The biggest challenge at that point for me was wondering what I got myself into. It didn’t feel like a hockey market; I was really worried about it. All of our games weren’t on TV. We started the [1997-98] season 4-0 and then 7-1 and we came home for a couple of games and there was nobody in the building. I was really concerned about the level of interest in the team. I thought the team itself was solid, was good. David Poile did a good job and I thought it was a team that could do something. Not unlike today – I think our team is a good team and the players are younger, so there is even more upside. But those were my concerns initially. Did anyone care about this hockey team?”
Injuries aren’t usually seen as good fortune, but when Bill Ranford got hurt on opening night that season, it gave Olie Kolzig a chance to take the ball and run with it and it wasn’t long before you had a franchise goaltender that you might not have realized you had …
“That’s not entirely accurate, because I remember talking to Ronnie Wilson about Olie and telling him, ‘I saw Olie Kolzig play a game at Madison Square Garden last season and the guy was really good. And there is something there.’ And I remember [then-Lightning GM] Phil Esposito calling me in training camp and asking me if I would trade Kolzig. And I said, ‘No, I’ve got to find out what we have here.’ And when he realized we wouldn’t trade him, he said, ‘My brother loves this guy.’ And that was a pretty good endorsement of what we had.”
Poile put his mark on this team right away, but you sort of sat back and assessed and didn’t do much until the deadline. And then you made a deal for Esa Tikkanen. That turned out to be critically important.
“He was a good hockey player. He shadowed [Jason] Allison in the Boston series and [Alexei] Yashin in the Ottawa series. He could do that really well and drive people crazy. But when he got the puck on his stick, he was really good, too. Good defensively, good offensively. He was a heck of a player for a little while. It helped us get to the Stanley Cup final. I thought it was what put us over the top, to have a good veteran guy who had won a lot of Cups who we could get a lot of ice time out of and who we could use in so many different ways: power play, penalty kill, shadow, defensive play, face-offs, five-on-five. It was a really good move for the club.”
The addition of Brian Bellows was also significant that spring. You pulled him out of Germany after his season ended there, and got him here on a loophole in the league rules, which was closed up soon after. How did that move go over around the rest of the league with your peers? It seems like it might have ruffled some feathers.
“It did. I remember getting a call from Bob Clarke right away and then having a discussion with Glen Sather a little while after that. Bob Clarke said, ‘You shouldn’t be allowed to do that,’ and he told me why I shouldn’t be allowed to do it. And Glen Sather was the opposite. He said, ‘Hey, that was a really smart move.’
“I felt we needed a right winger, a right shot. Sometimes it falls into your lap. His agent had called and said, ‘This guy might be available; his season is over in Europe.’ And that was the key; his season was over. Because if our season hadn’t gone so long [because of the Olympics], he’d still be playing. But we were able to put him through waivers and use him, but someone else couldn’t. Ronnie [Wilson] had him in Anaheim, and we talked about it. He said, ‘I think this could work and if you want to do it, I’ll play him. This guy has probably got enough left in the tank to do this.’ So we did it.
"And I remember playing a joke on Ron Wilson and telling him that someone else had claimed him. But we were a pretty complete team by then. The defense was good and Olie was playing well. We needed a couple of veteran forwards and we got them.”
To me, the job description of a GM is to put together a team that is good enough to make the playoffs and compete for the Cup once it gets there. But breaks, good fortune and good luck are also huge factors. And you guys had a lot of those going in your favor there in ’98. Not so much since.
“There is a randomness to it. And you’ve got to sometimes get the right match-ups. Sometimes you go into the playoffs and at the end of the series, if you won it you say, ‘That was a good match-up for us.’ You look at a couple of match-ups this year, you’ve got Chicago and St. Louis in the first round, and L.A. and San Jose in the first round. My goodness. A good team is going to be out of the playoffs after having a phenomenal season, and they’re going to be out of the playoffs in 10 days. You’ve got to hope you get a good match-up. I think we had some of those. But that [’97-98] team was in a good place. It was a good veteran team and they knew it. Once you get the one good break it can really catapult you through the series, and even the ones after.”
That team stayed together for the most part the following season, but that was the year from injury hell, with 510 man-games lost to injury. You were really active at the deadline that year, but in a different way. You sent a lot of guys to a lot of places where they’d have one last kick at the Cup.
“It was interesting. I had said to Dale Hunter, ‘It’s your choice whether you want to stay here or go. You’ve been here a long time. Or I’ll get you to a team that can win a Cup. And he said, ‘I want to win a Cup,’ He was only going to play one more year, but he said he wanted to win the Cup. Which is always the right answer.”
Was there any part of you that wanted to reboot and rebuild then, after that 1998-99 season?
“It was an older team. I knew Dale was near the end. If I wasn’t sure guys were going to be with us a while, it was time to give them a chance someplace else. I actually had a late-round draft pick [from another team] for Chief [Craig Berube] but I gave him to Philadelphia for future considerations, but it was really nothing. We just expressed it that way, but I knew it would mean a lot to him to go back to Philadelphia. So I gave him to Philadelphia, and he’s still there. It was about trying to give guys chances someplace else and to start rebuilding on the fly.”
When you took over, you were the youngest GM in the league. What was that like to have to navigate and what was it like to work amongst that peer group and integrate yourself into it?
“I thought it was daunting. I was nervous about it. There was a lot of bluster; I was talking like I knew what I was talking about but I had a lot to learn. I remember being nervous to talk to some of the senior guys in the league like Bob Clarke, Bob Pulford and Harry Sinden. I had so much respect for those living legends that I was nervous. But it’s kind of neat talking about that now after all these years and remembering those moments. I don’t reflect on them very often but you just brought it up. It’s kind of neat.”
That first draft [in 1997], you had been on the job for all of 12 days, and you conducted that draft with Poile’s staff. What was the process like?
“I allowed those guys to pick who they thought they needed to pick. They had been out in the field all year. I had been doing so many things in Vancouver at the time because my boss was GM, president and coach, so I was doing whatever he couldn’t do. So I didn’t know the draft like I know it these days. So I let those guys make their picks.”
How did you go about setting up your own staff?
“Just trying to find the best human talent I could find. I knew [director of amateur scouting] Ross [Mahoney] from Vancouver and trusted that he would find good people. It took a little while to put the staff together and it took more than a little while to get good. It was a great learning process because we didn’t draft very well early on. One of the things I’m most proud of is learning to draft well with the same people that weren’t drafting well. We changed a lot of the things we did but we didn’t change people.”
How was that achieved?
“Just changing how we did things and making sure that I had their backs and they could do what they thought was right. But it was more systemic in how we were doing things. How do we conduct interviews? How do we conduct meetings? What’s the mandate in terms of what we’re looking for in players? How do we put our list together? All of those things.
“We were learning as we went, and we kept reviewing drafts and saying, ‘We’re not good enough. We’ve got to be great at this.’ And we kept changing things – and we still refine things – until we got to where we needed to be. I really believe this is one of the best drafting clubs in the league.”
It sounds like you went to school on your mistakes.
“Yes. Absolutely. And I’ve done that in every part of the organization. If something wasn’t working in the way that we were hoping that it would, then we kept reviewing how to do it. Whether it’s the draft or trades or hires, you always review it. I don’t like looking back on anything but there are things that have to be analyzed. It’s a great lesson in how to do things. The most important one is, put all of the time with hires into the hire. Put as many hours as you need into it so that once a guy is hired, you don’t have to go back and think about firing him anytime soon. And we’ve hired some people who have been here a long, long time.”
I’ve always thought you guys have had good chemistry throughout the hockey ops department.
“It’s a really fun group to work with because they’re intelligent and they work hard. But they’ve all got a sense of humor and there is a lot of mutual respect. It’s been a real good team upstairs.”
Back in 2001, there was a belief that the piece that you guys needed was a big center who could go up against the likes of Eric Lindros and Mario Lemieux in the playoffs. The team was on a five-game winning streak leading up to the trade deadline, and you swung a deal for Trevor Linden and Dainius Zubrus, giving up Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik. Were there second thoughts about pulling the trigger on that one given how hot the team was at the time?
“It was really hard and it didn’t feel right. I liked the players we were getting, but what we really needed to do that year was add and not take anything out of our lineup. And we made the mistake of taking out of our lineup to get the other pieces we thought we needed. And it was a great lesson in how to strategize for the trade deadline. You’ve got to have a plan for every deadline, whether it’s traded deadline, draft or free agency. Have a plan, and don’t veer from it.
“We knew we wanted to add a big center in Linden, and I knew him from having worked with him, and another player in Zubrus. But we should have given up picks and players who weren’t with our big club yet to do it instead of taking a couple of young guys off our club to do it. That was the mistake.”
Why do you think the Jaromir Jagr trade and subsequent signing didn’t work out?
“I said at the time, ‘This is the right player at the right time for us.’ But I wasn’t sure that it was the right player at the right time for us. We were building our organization with bricks and when we did that, we suddenly went to siding or a different material. We got on a different bus. It’s always about team construction and we weren’t really constructed the right way to absorb him. And it wasn’t a great period in his life. He had lots of things going on. He wasn’t in a good place. He wasn’t excited to be here. It was really difficult for him to be traded out of Pittsburgh, and I think it took him a long time to recover from that. He’s learned a lot, now.
“But I remember telling [majority owner] Ted [Leonsis] at the time, ‘Ted, I’ve seen this movie before.’ We traded three young players for Alex Mogilny when we were in Vancouver and it didn’t work out. And halfway through the season we were wishing we had those three young players back: Mike Peca, Mike Wilson and a [first-round] pick that turned out to be Jay McKee. I remember telling him that and he said, ‘It’s my team, it’s my money, and I want to do it.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ The good news is we didn’t give them anything.
But it’s kind of a shortcut.
“Yes. Your team has got to be right there, close to winning. And he’s the final piece. But we weren’t.”
It seemed like that whole episode was an overreaction to Pierre Turgeon and Jeremy Roenick saying ‘no’ in free agency 10 days or so before that.
“It may have been, but what was more important was the lesson. You’ve got to draft and develop your own stars. That’s how you win. Draft and develop your own guys and your own elite players. And if you want to add somebody else’s star late in the game, you can. But getting someone else’s star to change your team, I’m not sure that culturally that’s the right thing to do.”
Can we touch on the preseason game with the Hawks in Columbus [in 1999]? As a player, you were a competitive and fiery guy. And I know you’re the same way as a GM. I’ve sat close enough to you during games during your time as a GM and I’ve seen and heard how your react to things that happen on the ice. After that incident did you feel any need to try to dial that back?
“It’s not going to change. But what I did was wrong; I never should have gone down there. I thought that what [the Blackhawks] were doing was really, really bad for the game. And it was. But that doesn’t mean that you take matters into your own hands. I shouldn’t have done it because I embarrassed their team and their coach. It was the wrong thing to do.
“But in terms of being emotional during games and everything else, I have tried to sit and be analytical. It’s not me. It’s not me. I’ve learned that you work long days in this business, and if you go to a game tired, it’s not healthy because that’s when you are more emotional and everything else. You’ve got to make sure that when you’re at the game, you’ve had enough rest. You can handle anything when you’re well rested. But that part of me won’t change. That’s who I am.
“If you’re not nervous before every game … I’ve always had butterflies coming to the game and going from the dressing room up to the press box [before the game] is a long, cold walk. The few nights that I haven’t felt that way going into a game, we lost.
“It’s almost like you have the same sort of feel as a team. And sometimes that comes from the travel schedule and everything else. You’re just off a little bit because your team has traveled so much or the schedule is different. And you go upstairs and you don’t feel quite right. It doesn’t happen very often. But there are a few games when you’ve gone through that and you’re not feeling it with your team and you’re not nervous, you don’t win that game. At least that’s been my experience. We don’t win those games. If you don’t have butterflies, it doesn’t work. That’s what the competition is all about. It keeps you sharp.”
In 2003, you got into the playoffs and lost to Tampa Bay after winning the first two games. Going into the next season, you had a solid team on paper and one that had the fifth or sixth highest payroll in the league. But things got off track quickly in 2003-04, and the fire sale commenced early, starting with the trade of Steve Konowalchuk to Colorado in October. At what point did you make the decision to basically tear down what you had for a post-lockout rebuild?
“We had a meeting the spring before that [in 2003], after we were eliminated by Tampa Bay. But we actually had a meeting – between [Caps president] Dick [Patrick] and Ted and I – the spring before that, too. Dick had suggested that maybe it was time for a reboot then, because we had the big lockout coming down the road. And Ted and I sort of wanted to push ahead and see if we could get better. And so we did, but the team didn’t do well. And at the end of that year, even though we had made the playoffs, we were all in agreement. It was time to reboot.
“After the playoffs, with one year to go [until the lockout] we thought, ‘It’s time. It’s an older team with expensive contracts.’ All three of us agreed it was time to reboot. That wasn’t easy. I spent the whole season – and started early with Kono – to get it going. And what was amazing was I was telling GMs that we were going to downsize here and that we were going to move everybody. Nobody seemed to believe me until I moved Kono. And then people got serious and there was a lot of discussion after that. We were only five or six games into the season, and I had to get going on it because we had so much to do.”
What was that experience like?
“That was a difficult year. It’s one thing to say you’re going to tear it up and downsize and rebuild it and it’s another to actually do it. And when you’re tearing it down, it’s not much fun, because you’re taking good guys and good players and trading them for futures of who knows what. And you’re taking a beating from the fans and the media.
“What you learn quickly is what happens when you’re coming out of it. You’ve got a team that’s not very good. There is no respect from opposing teams, from referees, from the league and from fans. You’re just a doormat and you’re treated that way. Going through it is not easy. And there is no guarantee it is going to work. And the risk is, if it doesn’t work, your franchise is in big trouble. Lots of teams have tried to do it and it didn’t work, and they’re perpetually drafting in the top 10. It’s not an easy task. It was a tremendous education to do it. It worked for us. We built a team fast that had a chance to win it all.”
It was a five-year plan and it got done in three.
“Yeah, we were back in the hunt in three years with a team that I really thought could win it. We made the playoffs the last night of the regular season, and everybody was really happy just to get in. And I was certainly even more delighted that we got in, but I kept looking at that team and thinking, ‘We can win a Cup this year. We’ve got everything. We can win a Cup this year.’”
Part of the reason that team was in a position to win a Cup that year was what you were able to accomplish at the trade deadline that year, bringing in Sergei Fedorov, Cristobal Huet and Matt Cooke. That’s an amazing haul for a team looking to make the leap from also-ran to Cup contender. What was that day like? I think you stunned some people that day.
“I thought we did a good job in the [war] room. I thought we got pieces we really needed. We got a goaltender, we got an elite center who still had something in the tank and another veteran gritty winger. But it didn’t really sink in until I came out to talk to the media and everyone else after the deadline had passed. The feedback was that we had done a hell of a job and people were stunned that we could pull it off. Your instincts tell you certain things, and reactions tell you others.
“I was proud of what we did in the room that day. And then once we got everybody going you could see that we had a heck of a team. Fedorov might be the best player I’ve ever worked with, of all the great ones we’ve worked with, because he had absolutely everything. The only thing he wasn’t then was young. But talk about being able to play both ends of the rink, and play with speed and size and make plays. That guy had everything. He had everything. He was just the best all-around player.”
It had to feel pretty good watching Fedorov score that goal with five minutes left in Game 7 of the Rangers series the following spring. That was your first series win since 1998.
“That was amazing. Al Koken called it about two or three minutes before the goal. I’ll never forget that. I was listening to the game upstairs from the box and [Koken] said, ‘We’re going to hear from this guy.’ That was the kind of big-time, veteran clutch play that you can expect from a guy who has been through it. That was the kind of leadership we needed and we had it. I think I jumped six feet when that thing went into the net, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard the building louder than it was for the last three or four minutes of that game.”
That was the next thing I was going to bring up. It was only a one-goal lead and there were five minutes left. And we’ve seen this year how volatile even a two-goal lead is when the Cup is the incentive. But I felt like the crowd here that night basically willed the Caps through the last five minutes of that game, and even ensured that [Rangers goalie Henrik] Lundqvist wouldn’t be able to get off the ice for an extra skater until it was too late.
“Every player that stepped onto the ice for us when the crowd was doing that, they looked like they were seven feet tall. They were winning all the battles, they were in all the right places and they didn’t let anybody through.”
The Pittsburgh series got off to a great start, you won the first two games at home. I feel like you should have won that series; Ovechkin had two great chances early in overtime of Game 3 and if you win that game, I felt like it would have been over.
“It was seven to two in power plays [in favor of the Penguins] that night. Seven to two. It was not unlike the Rangers series last year when we went up there for Game 3 and it was six to three in power plays [in favor of the Rangers] and you’re like, ‘What the [expletive].’ That series was phenomenal, and Crosby and Ovechkin had a hat trick in the same game. And I really felt like the winner of that series was going to go on to win the Cup.”
The Montreal series [n 2010]. When you guys did not win that series, was there a “come to Jesus moment” where you thought maybe we have the right players but we’re not going in the right direction? Or were there conversations about tweaking things systematically?
“Yeah. There were lots of conversations about why we didn’t prevail. And one of the things you learn is that you’ve got to drown out the noise and analyze it. The lesson I learned is, we had a hell of a team. Sometimes, what happens in the playoffs just happens. We dominated the entire series.
“In Game 6 the shots were [54-22]. I remember [Penguins GM] Ray Shero calling me from Pittsburgh and saying, ‘George, you guys had the puck the entire series. You just dominated and didn’t get the breaks.’ We didn’t get that break in Game 7. We scored that goal and the referees waived it off.
“I feel like we were the best team. We couldn’t have played any better. What really threw us off, I believe, was when we were up 3-1 in the series and we’re trying to fly back to Dulles [from Montreal] and we get fogged out. And you’re sitting on the tarmac [at BWI] until 4:30 in the morning and you’re not out of the airport until 5:15 or 5:30 and most guys are then taking cabs to go to Dulles and then getting their cars and going home. And we had to kill a scheduled practice for that day.
“You can’t miss a night’s sleep and be sharp for a couple of days. And right off the bat in the next game, they scored a couple of goals early and it’s a different series. They hung on to win that game and now they’ve got a little life and the seeds are planted.
“But other than the first 10 minutes of Game 5, we couldn’t have played any better. It’s the sort of thing teams go through. It’s the sort of thing Boston went through [in 2010] and somehow got through once, and now it’s their time [in 2011]. They’re just a really good team and they’re confident and that know that despite the situation, they can win. We needed one of those [springs] where we went three or four rounds and knew we were close and dealt with the big upsets and the adversities. And we didn’t get one.”
You got off to a great start in 2010-11. The team was I think 18-6-3 to start the season and then we had the HBO spotlight and the eight-game losing streak in December of that year. It’s kind of hard to see clearly when you’re going through something like that, but I feel like those eight games were an aberration. You had some bad breaks, a couple of goals disallowed, but the game in New York was the one real stinker. For most of the other games, it was a lot like the Montreal series. You had the puck, you were dominating; you just weren’t winning games.
But there’s always that pressure to win games, and it seemed to be magnified with HBO hovering around that month. And that streak led to the decision to change horses in midstream, so to speak. I’ve always wondered how things might have been different if the system had stayed the same.
That said, I still think it’s remarkable that you were able to change systems in midseason and have the incredible results you had the rest of the way. It was two different half-seasons, and you went into the playoffs on a roll. Roared through the first round, had to wait a week to see who you’d play next and ended up playing Tampa, which had just come back from a 3-1 hole to knock the Penguins out.
“The last thing you wanted was to play a team that just came back from being down three games to one, because they’ve got so much momentum. But that’s the randomness of the game.
“But to go back, I remember when we lost in Dallas to start that eight-game losing streak, and they way we lost it, I remember saying to [then-Caps coach] Bruce [Boudreau] after the game, ‘This is how bad losing streaks start.’ I didn’t want to jinx anything, and I thought he had done a good job during the game. But I was really worried. I couldn’t shake the feeling that ‘This is how the bad ones start.’ And it started.
“One of the things you go through as a manager is, there is a point where you start losing some games because you’ve gotten some bad breaks or you’re not playing the way that you can play. But you reach a point where now you’re losing because you don’t believe anymore or now you’re losing because your team is losing confidence. That’s where you really feel like it goes right off the track and bad things start to happen. And that’s what I started to worry about under the HBO spotlight, that this thing was going to end bad.
“We had a good team; it just needed to win a game. In the Boston game, we outshot them like [26 to 2] in the third period. But we lost again and I’m going, ‘We’ve got a really good team and a good coach and I don’t want to change it.’ But that’s when you see your team starting to come out of it and we did. We won the next night. But we get into the playoffs, win the first round and we were waiting around and we just caught a team that had a lot of momentum. And then we lost [Mike] Green on the blueline and Carly [John Carlson] was playing hurt. We just were not good enough on the blueline to win.”
There was a good bit of activity the summer after. You signed [Joel] Ward, [Jeff] Halpern, [Roman] Hamrlik and [Tomas] Vokoun and traded for [Troy] Brouwer. That might be one of the most active summers we’ve seen here. And when camp opened, Bruce was still here. But it almost seemed like going into that season that he was trying to be a different kind of coach.
“Right. A lot of people were calling for his dismissal at the end of that season. That’s where again you’ve got to be smart and drown out the noise. I didn’t think it was his fault. And it wasn’t his fault that we lost in the second round. We got banged up on the blueline and there aren’t many teams that can win in the playoffs when you get thin on the blueline. So I wasn’t going to fire him.
“But when we came back to camp, something was different. I really think that Bruce was feeling a lot of pressure and as much as I tried to allay his fears and everything else, I think he felt that if he didn’t deliver soon that bad things were going to happen. And he wasn’t the guy he had always been, and I understand that.”
With respect to this past season, [then-Caps coach] Adam [Oates] wanted to change the way the goalies played, which ran entirely counter to [former Caps goaltending coach] Dave Prior’s philosophy on that. Looking back, it seems like the clash between Adam and Dave last season ended up hurting the team a bit.
“You can’t change people. You can help them, but you don’t want to change their styles. Dave was a big loss for the organization. That was really one of the toughest decisions I had to make because I really didn’t want him to go. I tried to referee it the first year, but when it was clear over the summer that the two of them weren’t going to get along, and the head coach wanted to do what he thought was right to win. So you throw your support behind the head coach, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But it was a big loss for the organization.
“Dick had mentioned to me before the season that the thing he was worried about was how the guys are when they come back from the Olympics. And I said, ‘We need a big year from the goalies.’ It’s time for the goalies to have a big year for us, and coming back from the Olympics, how is it going to be? We didn’t get the big year from the goalies, but that doesn’t mean that Braden Holtby isn’t going to be a hell of a goalie, because he is. He is a good goalie. He’s a character guy who doesn’t wilt under pressure and he battles. He is going to be a good one. But that hurt us this year. It hurt us a lot.”
The decision to go with three goaltenders in December, was that more your decision or Adam’s?
“I honestly can’t remember how we got to that. But Grubauer was playing so well, and I don’t mind keeping a guy here when he is hot. And he was playing great. But I remember going into New York in January and I thought it was time for him to go down. He was struggling. I actually saw it in the pregame skate in the morning that it was time; he was wilting. It happens with young guys. He was wilting and I had a really bad feeling in the morning skate that he was going to have a tough time in the game and he did. But it was after that game that I walked into the coach’s office and said, ‘Enough. This kid is going down. No more three goalie stuff.’ And it wasn’t open for debate. There just aren’t enough nets for three goalies.”
What was the one thing that surprised you the most during the 17 years on the job?
“How the marketplace responded when we went on the run and won 11 of the last 12 games, including the last seven to win the division on the last night and make the playoffs [in 2007-08]. It was the thing we had always hoped for and dreamt about, that we could turn the market on. And we did, but what really surprised me is that everybody stayed. They came back the next year and the following year and the following year and we’re a hockey market now. I didn’t know whether they would stay. But they did.”
You’ve spent about a quarter of your life here, which couldn’t have seemed possible when you got here.
“No. I remember when my wife and I first came here, the two of us and our seven-month-old daughter. We were giddy and tickled that we had a three-year contract to manage an NHL team. And we were just hoping that we might get another one someday, but just hoping that we’d get through the first one. I can’t believe even when I say it: ’17 years.’ I know I’ve been here 17 years, when I say it … I never imagined it. I’m proud of it, but it makes me sad that I have to now leave.”
Well you should be proud of it. What are you most proud of?
“We really made it a hockey town. I think it’s a great place to play hockey now. I’ve gotten lots of texts and emails from people that said, ‘We started watching these exciting teams of yours and now we’re locked in. We like it, our kids like it and we’re hockey fans for life now.’ So I think we’ve captured a whole generation and I think it’s all warmed up to win a Cup. The fan base is here, the team is here and I think they can do it. And I think we’ve gotten there because we’ve done things right and we’ve treated people right. There’s no other way to do it.”