Back in the late summer of 1982, Dick Patrick was brought on board with the Washington Capitals as a minority owner and the team’s executive vice president. Then-owner Abe Pollin gave Patrick his first task in that new position: find the team its next general manager. The late Roger Crozier had been serving as interim GM for about 10 months at that time.
Washington had three general managers in the first eight seasons of its NHL existence and it had no playoff appearances during that span. Patrick ended up hiring David Poile, who led the Caps to 14 straight Stanley Cup playoff appearances before he was relieved of his duties in the spring of 1997. That’s when Patrick hired George McPhee as Washington’s GM. McPhee’s 17-year tenure as the Caps’ GM came to an end last month.
Soon after leaving Washington, Poile became the GM of the expansion Nashville Predators. Nearly two decades later, he still serves in that capacity and is the only GM the franchise has ever known. In Poile and McPhee, the first two GMs Patrick hired in the NHL have gone on to serve a combined (and impressive) total of approximately 49 years as general managers in the NHL.
Earlier this week, Patrick and majority owner Ted Leonsis promoted assistant general manager Brian MacLellan to the position of senior vice president and general manager.
Both Poile and McPhee were in their thirties and were the youngest GMs in the league at the time of their initial hires. And both were serving as the assistant GMs of other clubs in the league before coming to Washington. Poile was working under Cliff Fletcher in Calgary and McPhee under Pat Quinn in Vancouver. The 55-year-old MacLellan was an assistant GM under McPhee for the better part of a decade prior to his promotion.
Patrick hired his first GM in 1982, another one in 1997 and a third in 2014. While some aspects of the process have changed drastically over the years, the process of identifying and hiring a qualified candidate is basically the same.
“I’m not sure that it is that much different in a lot of ways,” says Patrick. “What was different was that I had just become involved in the National Hockey League a few weeks before I started looking for David. That was my first assignment from Abe Pollin when he brought me on and I became a part owner and was an executive vice president at the time. He wanted to make a change in the general manager.
“I knew people through growing up and from having a family that was involved in hockey. So I called people in hockey, the people I knew and that I trusted their opinion. I called Emile Francis, I called Scotty Bowman, I called my cousin Craig Patrick and I talked to my dad [Murray “Muzz” Patrick] about who in the league would they think would be a qualified general manager candidate. That’s how I made the list and I went from there.
“Fast forwarding to this go round, I knew a lot of the people that we were going to bring in and talk to. I knew the ones that had been general managers prior to now. I obviously knew pretty well other assistant GMs; I knew their reputations and have seen them around, but at the same time I got opinions from a couple of people who know them better and whose opinions I trust just to get a take on them.
“We chose our list from that and started bringing in people. At the same time, you get a lot of people calling or emailing and recommending someone. And you look at that, too. Sometimes there is something that didn’t occur to you that deserves to be looked at. You don’t want to miss somebody because you want to get the process done with. You want to just be complete with it and do the best job that you can.”
Leonsis had mentioned the need for a “new voice” and a “fresh set of eyes” a month earlier when the firings of McPhee and head coach Adam Oates were announced. Those comments seemed to make the possibility of a MacLellan promotion a longshot.
At Tuesday’s press conference to introduce MacLellan and new Caps coach Barry Trotz, Patrick noted that roughly 15 candidates had been considered before MacLellan emerged as the best of the bunch.
Leonsis and Patrick had to know that MacLellan would easily be the most difficult sell of the 15 candidates, but they hired him anyway.
“I think like Ted said, we went in with an open mind,” relates Patrick. “Sometimes somebody you’re familiar with isn’t going to be as exciting to you because it’s not something new.
“I don’t know how people even ask [MacLellan] questions like, ‘How are you different from George?’ Every person is different from every other person. I don’t even understand that question. I’ve seen Brian work for years. I’m in the war room on trade deadline days and I go to the drafts. I see how he works and how he expresses himself, and it’s a lot different from George’s style. One’s not necessarily good and the other bad, it’s just that everybody is different.”
One other difference between McPhee and MacLellan is their respective academic backgrounds. Both went to Bowling Green University and earned bachelor’s degrees while playing four years of collegiate hockey, but McPhee earned a law degree after his playing days were over while MacLellan has an MBA. A law degree will always be valuable in the arena of pro sports management, but in an era where the use of analytics is becoming more and more prevalent in the major sports, an MBA is also potentially beneficial.
The NHL is far different now with 30 teams each having a large staff of scouts, executives and coaches to evaluate, draft, develop and manage talent. When Muzz Patrick was the GM of the New York Rangers for a decade during the league’s Original Six era, NHL club staffs were far more skeletal.
“I think what has happened in both leagues, but especially in hockey,” says Patrick, “is that the front office has expanded. Back in my father’s day, you had a general manager and a coach and that was it. I think my father hired the first assistant GM in the league, which was Emile Francis. I don’t think teams got assistant coaches until quite a few years after that. And then pretty soon you had to have two assistants, and then this team gets a nutritionist so you had to have a nutritionist. This team has a psychologist, so we should get a psychologist.
“I remember Billy Wirtz, when he was the owner of the Blackhawks, talking about all the assistant coaches. And in his own special way, he said, ‘Now they want me to hire a psychologist. Can you imagine that? A psychologist for a hockey team. I told them to go ahead. If it doesn’t work out for the hockey team, at least the family can use him.’”
The process of identifying and interviewing candidates and then narrowing the field down to “the one” took a month. And now that it’s over and MacLellan is on the job, Patrick and the rest of us still have to wait more than four months before watching the Capitals play any meaningful hockey. But MacLellan and Trotz are both already hard at work, laying the groundwork for the season and seasons ahead.
“Part of me is happy that we got this process behind us,” admits Patrick. “It’s a very arduous process; there is a lot of time and a lot of thinking involved. But you meet great people. It makes you feel good about the National Hockey League because there are so many quality people that can come in and do a job like this. You also feel a little bit sad that you have to call so many people and tell them, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not going to be you,’ because these are hard jobs to get.
“I was glad to have that process done. Like I said, we didn’t want to rush it; we wanted to make sure we worked hard at it and did it right and got through the process with respect. And now, yeah, it would be nice if we could start playing hockey. But we can’t control that; we have to wait.
“As far as the hockey side of it, I won’t have to do much more this summer but both Barry and Brian will. They’ll be working hard throughout. I know that the coach wants to meet all of his players, which will probably involve going over to Europe. And Brian has a lot of work to do. Probably the only time of year that a general manager in hockey can take a break is during August. The draft is the last week in June, then free agency starts July 1, and then rookie camp starts soon after that. Right through July these guys are really busy. Then you have a little bit of a break and then you start back up with camps in September and you’re off to the races.”
While the process of hiring a general manager may not have changed much over the last three decades, the speculation and impatience on the part of the media and the fans has ramped up significantly since both of Patrick’s previous GM hires.
“Actually I think it’s a lot different,” says Patrick. “When I hired David Poile [in August, 1982], the biggest question early that summer was whether the Caps were going to move [out of town] or not. And that was resolved. There were two newspapers in town then, and one of them had a hockey writer and the other didn’t yet. There was no focus on it from local media. It was long before the internet and Twitter and all these outlets.
“Now, as soon as there is an opening like this, there is speculation throughout the media world of who could be the candidates and who would fit. No one is going to be happy with who you pick so you get all these wisecracks and criticism, not from the mainstream media but from anybody with a Twitter account.”
Such is life in our modern social media society. In a perfect world, Patrick won’t have to worry about finding another GM for another 14 or 17 years.