LAS VEGAS – So what are the odds of two kids playing for the same bantam team, then going on to the same U.S. college, playing in the NHL despite neither ever being drafted, then becoming GMs and leading their teams to the Stanley Cup final in the same year? Well, probably about the same odds as the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights meeting in the championship series in 2018.
And the men who run the hockey departments for those two teams – George McPhee of the Golden Knights and Brian MacLellan of the Capitals – have a relationship that dates back more than 40 years to their days of playing minor hockey in Guelph, Ont. But that’s only part of the story. McPhee and MacLellan also played for a Jr. A team that not only won the Centennial Cup national championship, but also placed three players, a referee and a coach in the NHL. And that number likely would have increased by one had Terry Cullen, the brother of former NHLer Barry and uncle of John, not broken his neck while playing college hockey.
But back to McPhee and MacLellan. The two first met way back when they played for the Bantam travelling team in Guelph in the early 1970s. Back then, McPhee was a supremely talented forward who (literally) punched much higher than his weight class and MacLellan was a hulking defenseman. Their friendship endured through their college days at Bowling Green University and their respective NHL careers and when McPhee, who was the Capitals’ GM at the time, was looking for a pro scout in 2000, he turned to MacLellan. Fourteen years later, MacLellan took McPhee’s job when the latter was fired. And now, after one of the most unlikely success stories in the history of sports, McPhee finds himself in the Stanley Cup final with an expansion team, going against MacLellan, whose team has finally gotten over the psychological hump that had stalled them for so long.
“It’s funny how life goes,” McPhee said on the eve of the Cup final. “Two years ago I was walking around Ann Arbor (Mich.) kicking stones and couldn’t get a job.”
Yes, life is funny sometimes. Particularly when a confluence of events finds McPhee and MacLellan going head-to-head in the Cup final. McPhee has been credited with doing the heavy lifting to build both teams, but MacLellan was McPhee’s assistant GM for seven years. And he has made some key moves to put this team in a position to win a Stanley Cup. The two are still close, having one of those comfortable relationships where they can go long periods of time without talking, then pick up without missing a beat.
“I describe it as a brother-type relationship,” MacLellan said. “You’re not always hanging out, but you always have that bond. Sometimes he can say two words and we laugh. He’s got stuff on me and I’ve got stuff on him.”
McPhee called the fact the two are meeting in the final, “just another crazy chapter in this crazy book that is our season. It’s sort of gone this way, and hard to believe, but we’ll enjoy it. It beats some of the jobs we had when we were kids, and we’ll see where this goes.”
They can’t both win the championship, something they did manage to do in 1977-78 when they played for a Jr. A team called the Guelph Holody Platers and won the national title with McPhee scoring 110 points in 48 games and racking up 150 penalty minutes. MacLellan’s PIM are not available, but they were plentiful. Just ask Paul Devorski, who would later go on to become an NHL referee, who also played on that team. Remarkably, so did former NHL goalie Brian Hayward. And the team was coached by Ron Smith, who would go on to coach the Vancouver Canucks.
“George was a goalscorer and he could make plays, and George could fight,” Devorski said. “He wasn’t afraid to mix it up. Brian was more of a playmaker on defense, but if he had to fight, he would fight. I don’t think Mac ever lost a fight. He doesn’t have a mean streak, whereas George did.”
From there, both McPhee and MacLellan went on to play four years at Bowling Green, Hayward went to Cornell and Devorski played senior hockey in Guelph before catching on as an on-ice official. Devorski’s paths crossed a number of times with MacLellan and McPhee, but it seemed as though it was more with McPhee, who played only 115 games and earned 257 PIM. But Devorski knew what kind of person and player he was dealing with. The two grew up two blocks from each other in Guelph and Devorski’s introduction to McPhee came when Devorski was skating down to the outdoor rink in the neighbourhood – you could apparently do that – and McPhee punched him in the stomach for no apparent reason.
“George came to me one time before a game and said, ‘Hey, if I go nuts, don’t get pissed off,’ ” Devorski said. “And I said, ‘Well, don’t get pissed off if I throw you out of the game.’ And sure as sh--, I threw him out of the game for being third man in. He wouldn’t stop. He said, ‘I knew it was coming.’ ”
But as was the case with MacLellan, McPhee and Devorski maintained a close friendship. McPhee is the godfather to Devorski’s son, Luk, and Devorski was supposed to be the best man in McPhee’s wedding. We say supposed to because on the day of the wedding, Devorski was due to fly into Washington from San Jose, but his flight got delayed. He missed the start of the wedding so Pat Quinn had to stand in for him. “Guess who gave me sh—when I got to the wedding? Pat Quinn,” Devorski said. “But I was used to getting sh—from Quinn.”
McPhee gained much of his approach to the game from Quinn, then passed a lot of that down to MacLellan, who worked his way up through the Capitals system from pro scout to director of player personnel to assistant GM. So last summer when McPhee was putting his new team together, the one team he knew best was the Capitals. McPhee was intent on taking defenseman Nate Schmidt, whom McPhee signed out of college as a free agent when he was the Capitals GM. MacLellan did not want to lose Schmidt and did make an attempt to get him back after the expansion draft, but McPhee acknowledged on Sunday that he set the price so high that it made the deal impossible. It turned out to be one of many astute moves McPhee made and a major reason why the Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup final.
“We made our selection, and then (MacLellan) called and asked if there’s any way we could do a deal for him to get Schmidt back, and I said, ‘I don’t see anything, but we’ll try to come up with something to give you a chance to say no,’ ” McPhee said. “So we made a proposal that I didn’t think would work, and it didn’t work because our guys like Schmidt. So we overreached on the ask, and that’s the way it went.”
No hard feelings from MacLellan’s end. Seeing how some of the teams that made deals to protect certain players have transpired, it could have been a lot worse. MacLellan knew he was going to lose a good player regardless of what happened and knew he was dealing with a shrewd GM. And over the next two weeks, he hopes his team will be good enough to beat the one run by his good friend.
“I’m excited for him and the job he’s done, how the story has turned out to be,” MacLellan said. “It’s incredible. It’s not like we’re playing each other. We’re sitting in booths with two teams. We’re just basically watching our teams play.”
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