LAS VEGAS—One of the more intriguing storylines of this year’s Stanley Cup Final centers on a couple of men who make their living behind the scenes: GM Brian MacLellan of the Caps and his counterpart with the Golden Knights, George McPhee.
They’ve known each other for 40-plus years, dating back to their time as bantam teammates in Canada. And, starting Monday, they’ll be on opposing sides, with hockey’s Holy Grail at stake.
Caps fans, of course, are familiar with McPhee’s work. He served as GM in Washington from 1997-2014 and drafted 13 players who are currently on the Caps’ roster. McPhee was also the Caps’ rookie GM the last time the franchise appeared in the Final 20 years ago.
But here’s what Caps fans might not know about the connection that MacLellan and McPhee share:
- They were born in a few months apart in 1958 in Ontario.
- They captured the Canadian Jr. A championship as members of the 1977-78 Guelph Platers.
- Both were on scholarship at Bowling Green from 1978-1982.
- They played together with the New York Rangers in 1985-86.
- And, finally, they worked side-by-side in Washington from 2000-2014. After working his way up from the scouting ranks, MacLellan replaced his managerial mentor, who had been let go following a disappointing season.
“It's kind of a weird experience,” MacLellan said. “We kind of have been texting back and forth how strange it feels to have this line up the way it has. It's a little awkward, but it's going to be a fun experience, I hope.”
At one point, MacLellan got choked up when talking about his relationship with McPhee, who’ll become the first GM in the expansion era to face a former team of which he served as GM.
“We played junior together and then we both went to Bowling Green on scholarships, so we lived together,” he said, fighting back tears. “It was fun.”
MacLellan also acknowledged that the two weren’t as tight—for a time, at least—after he replaced McPhee four years ago. McPhee also hinted at some strain, though he said the two men had dinner at the most recent GM’s meetings.
“Not as close, I don't think,” MacLellan said of his relationship with McPhee following McPhee’s dismissal. “A little bit of communication here and there. But I think it just took a little time for things to evolve. I think he needed a break from the game, needed a break from how it went down for him here and it just took time.”
When the two negotiated during last year’s expansion draft, which saw McPhee pluck promising you blueliner Nate Schmidt from Washington’s roster, MacLellan said the two old friends keep things “businesslike.”
“He was all business,” MacLellan said. “He wasn’t giving in on anything.”
Although McPhee drafted most of the core players who delivered the Caps to this year’s Final, MacLellan also deserves credit for getting this team over the second round hump. Among his first acquisitions were defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, a pair of vets that helped shore up a shaky defense. MacLellan also added forwards T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller via trade in recent seasons and, this year, added defenseman Michal Kempny, a particularly shrewd move that bolstered a blue line that needed a little tightening.
As weird as the next few days will be for MacLellan as he faces his old friend, it figures to even more strange for McPhee, who will look down from the GM’s suite on Monday and see not one, but two teams that he built on the ice. McPhee also pilfered a handful of current and former front office employees from Caps, including Goalie Coach Dave Prior, while building the Golden Knights.
“It’s just another chapter in this crazy book that is our season.” — George McPhee on facing his former team—and longtime associate Brian MacLellan—in the #StanleyCup Final. #ALLCAPS #Caps pic.twitter.com/BvPb6At6cY— Tarik El-Bashir⌨️🎙🏒 (@TarikNBCS) May 27, 2018
Indeed, the history between MacLellan and McPhee runs deep. But for the next couple of weeks, they’ll put aside their decades-old friendship as their clubs battle for the NHL’s ultimate prize.
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