Thirty years ago this spring, a young minor league hockey player received a phone call at season’s end. The call came to join the parent club just days before the start of the NHL playoffs.
After finishing up his first pro season with the Tulsa Oilers of the old Central Hockey League, was George McPhee expecting that call from the New York Rangers?
“No, I wasn’t,” McPhee admits. “A couple of us were called up at the end of the season and we met the team on the road. We practiced a couple of times.
“Craig Patrick was the [Rangers’ general] manager, and he used to skate with us. At the pre-game skate, I was skating around after practice. And he just came over and said, ‘You’re playing tonight.’ They wanted to change things up.”
And that’s how it happened that McPhee made his NHL debut in the Stanley Cup playoffs, just as Capitals right wing Tom Wilson will do tonight against McPhee’s old team, the New York Rangers.
While the 19-year-old Wilson will draw into the Washington lineup in the middle of a playoff series, McPhee got his NHL baptism in Game 1 of the first round of a Patrick Division semifinal series against the Flyers in Philadelphia. That debut came at the old Spectrum in Philly.
“Well I sure didn’t sleep that afternoon,” remembers McPhee. “I couldn’t sit still; just completely wired. I couldn’t sit still. A player never forgets his first game. I was just an awesome experience all the way around.”
When did the nerves go away?
“I’m not sure they ever did,” says McPhee. “Once you get into the game, you’re playing. I do remember playing the second game, and the ride home on the bus – back to New York from Philly – was memorable. I got an assist in the first game and scored in the second game. I felt good about the way that I played. I felt like I helped.”
The Rangers won those first two games in Philly, and ended up sweeping the Flyers in three games in what was a best-of-five set in those days.
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Wilson will skate Washington’s fourth line with Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle. McPhee’s first NHL linemates were Eddie Johnstone and Mike Allison.
“I remember we came back to the bench once,” relates McPhee, “and I had a question for Johnstone. So I said, ‘Eddie …’ and he interrupted me. He said, ‘First of all, don’t call me Eddie. I don’t know who you’re talking to. Call me Ziggy. I don’t know who Eddie is.’
“That was really funny. They were fun to play with, lots of good advice.”
Wilson has been playing playoff hockey for weeks now. He played two rounds worth of Memorial Cup action with the OHL Plymouth Whalers, totaling nine goals, 17 points and 41 penalty minutes in a dozen games. Recalled to AHL Hershey after Plymouth was eliminated, Wilson got his pro baptism in three Calder Cup playoff games with the Bears.
He scored his first pro goal for the Bears last Sunday afternoon at Giant Center in the third period of Game 4 of the series between Hershey and Providence.
“He’s in good shape, at the top of his game,” says McPhee of Wilson. “The games in Hershey helped him a lot, just to understand that it’s a much more controlled environment. Teams manage the puck a lot better than they do in junior, obviously. But as a player, you don’t know what to expect. You expect it to be better, but you have no idea how much faster, stronger and smarter the players are.”
Wilson spent a week in Arlington last summer at Washington’s annual summer development camp, and he was also invited to the Capitals’ abbreviated training camp this past January, joining the Caps in a handful of practices prior to the start of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
McPhee believes that January showing may have helped the Caps more than it did Wilson.
“It couldn’t have hurt because he’s probably a little more familiar with the area and the rink and getting around and everything else,” notes McPhee. “I don’t know how much the practices could have helped, although he did say that he was really surprised at how quickly the defensemen moved the puck. You try to get to a guy and it’s on his tape and gone and on the tape of somebody else.
“It probably helped us as much as it helped him, though, because I think everyone really took note at how much his skating had improved, and how much quicker he looked than he did in the summer.”
Tonight, Wilson becomes just the fifth teenager to appear in a Stanley Cup playoff game for the Capitals, and the first player to do so in 27 years. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Bobby Carpenter (19) and Scott Stevens (18) skated for Washington in the 1983 Stanley Cup playoffs. Kevin Hatcher (18) did so in 1985 and Hatcher (19) and Yvon Corriveau (18) did so in 1986.
What are the Caps looking for from Wilson in tonight’s critical Game 5?
“Just a solid six or eight minutes,” says McPhee. “[Caps coach] Adam [Oates] wanted a right-hand shot and some size. [Wilson] brings it. He can move. He’s quick. But just be solid for six or eight minutes. Forecheck hard, cycle hard an put pucks to the net and hope he fits on the line.”
McPhee played in all nine Rangers playoff games that spring, totaling three goals and six points in nine games. The Caps' GM doesn’t talk to players before games, but I wondered what advice he’d have for Wilson, as guy who was in those skates some three decades ago.
“Just enjoy the experience,” says McPhee. “And when in doubt, shoot.”