Photo credit: Rod Lamkey Jr.
George McPhee has not seen a season this tumultuous since the events that led up to the acquisition of Alex Ovechkin back in 2004. He’s dismissed a coach and watched his team fall from the top of the standings to a precarious spot on the proverbial bubble.
Now, as the Washington Capitals prepare for one last playoffs push, McPhee has the challenge of managing assets at all stages of their careers. That includes 37-year-old Roman Hamrlik, who was signed over the offseason to a two-year, $7 million deal, and 39-year old Mike Knuble, who will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end — both of whom have been scratched from recent games.
McPhee’s attitude towards his veteran players, however, is anything but cynical. In his 14 years as general manager of the Capitals, McPhee, whose nickname is The Undertaker, has revealed something of a softer side.
On Tuesday in a wide-ranging interview with DC101’s Elliot Segal, McPhee admitted that he never had any intention of trading Hamrlik or Knuble, despite their building frustration with being scratched. “We were never in that place, as I mentioned ten days ago. We weren’t interested in moving anybody out. The only thing we were going to do, unless someone knocked our socks off, was try to add something if something made sense.”
McPhee, however, did entertain the hypothetical.
“If I was ever going to trade one of those guys, if I knew I was going to trade them and we had something going, then I would go talk to the player before we did it. I would talk to a Roman, I would talk to a Mike Knuble and say,’Listen. This is what’s happening. How do you feel about it?’ That sort of thing.”
“With respect to Mike Knuble,” McPhee continued, “He’s got his family here and everything else, and I’m not going to send him out to the West Coast or anything like that without asking him how he feels about it. Certainly, I have to do what’s best for the team and the organization — the individual comes a close second. But there are times when you can talk to people and see if it’s right for them and right for you.”
One such example came in March of 1999, the season after the Capitals made it to their first ever Stanley Cup Final. Washington had just suffered a crippling 3-2 loss to the Boston Bruins, and the playoffs were in serious doubt. McPhee then approached his team’s captain and future Hall of Famer Dale Hunter about being traded. But it had nothing to do with benefitting the team. The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell explains:
McPhee offered to let Hunter stay and play every game or be traded wherever he thought he had the best chance to win the Cup. Instead, Hunter asked McPhee where he should be traded.
“Colorado,” McPhee said.
“[Then] that’s where I want to go,” Hunter told McPhee, according to the GM.
At that moment, McPhee made one of the rarest promises you’ll ever hear in sports. The NHL trade deadline was 3 p.m. “At 2:59, if I can’t get anything for you,” McPhee said he told Hunter, “I’ll give you away for nothing.”
Instead, Hunter’s grit, experience, leadership on the ice and clubhouse energy were so highly respected that Colorado traded a valuable draft pick – lowly Vancouver’s second-round selection in this year’s entry draft – for the soon-to-be-39-year-old Hunter and the Capitals’ third-round pick in 2000.
The positive ending to that player-GM relationship allowed McPhee and Hunter to develop a different kind of relationship later, one that eventually brought the Caps alumni and Hall of Famer home to coach his old team. Even though Hunter was already years into a cushy and profitable gig coaching the London Knights, when George McPhee made that call this season, Hunter was more than willing to pick up the phone.
If the current version of the Capitals can’t rally and make the playoffs, McPhee will face heavy scrutiny during the offseason. With a law degree from Rutger’s university and seven years of pro experience however, George is that rare combination of brains and experience, and under his management the Capitals have risen to prominence. He’s shown time and time again that he’s a shrewd dealer, but it’s his respect for the players and understanding of the human element that has truly made him successful in Washington.