John Locher / AP
Friday, June 16, 2023 | 5:52 p.m.
The Golden Knights scored nine times Tuesday night.
It wasn’t until the eighth goal — the one that completed Mark Stone’s hat trick — that George McPhee really believed that the Golden Knights were going to win the Stanley Cup.
“For me, I guess it’s what drives you,” said the Golden Knights’ president of hockey operations. “Stay in the moment and make sure you win.”
It’s understandable why McPhee would be apprehensive in that situation. This was the fourth time a team he constructed was in the Stanley Cup Final. The other three times ended in heartbreak, the most recent with the Golden Knights in 2018 — ironically against the team he built for nearly two decades, the Washington Capitals.
But now, McPhee holds the distinction that he heard from everyone for years, that “no one can take it away from you.” McPhee, after almost 40 years of being involved in the NHL in roles from player to executive, will now get his name on the Stanley Cup following the Golden Knights’ five-game series win over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.
When McPhee finally held the Cup, along with general manager Kelly McCrimmon and owner Bill Foley, it almost felt too foreign for him.
“It was humbling, actually,” McPhee said Friday. “In some ways, you don’t feel you’re worthy.”
McPhee’s two prior front-office stints were met with success. As the director of hockey operations in Vancouver from 1993-97, there were four playoff appearances and one Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1994.
His run as Washington’s general manager lasted 17 years, the first resulting in a Stanley Cup Final appearance. The Capitals were swept by the Detroit Red Wings, and Washington never made it past the second round again.
Then came the opportunity in Vegas. McPhee was named general manager in 2016, even before the team was dubbed the Golden Knights. It would’ve made sense to stick to the approach that worked in Washington; build through the draft and establish longevity.
But the Golden Knights went on their Cinderella-like run in their inaugural season and made the Cup Final. Suddenly, that accelerated the timeline for what McPhee wanted to do.
That also added to the heartbreak. McPhee was now 0 for 3 in the Cup Final. More importantly, though, he wanted to win in Year 1 for the city of Las Vegas in the events that unfolded on Oct. 1.
“That was the big regret there, and we didn’t deliver,” McPhee said. “The most important thing in all of this in winning is, yes, it’s great to have your name on the Stanley Cup. Yes, it’s great to get a Stanley Cup ring, but the experience with this group of players, that experience is great and rewarding. But the uplift you give to a city is really what matters.
“Despite all the parties and everything else, the last couple of nights for me, if I could’ve gone home that night and walked around the neighborhood with my wife with nobody around and said, ‘we delivered. We delivered to this city,’ that says it all for me. We delivered for this city, too.”
McPhee has taken a back seat in the management seat since promoting Kelly McCrimmon to general manager in 2019, but he’s still had his hand in the Golden Knights’ key roster and personnel decisions. From trading for Mark Stone, signing Alex Pietrangelo and trading for Jack Eichel, those are the three moves that the Golden Knights have considered most essential during this run to the Stanley Cup.
McPhee and McCrimmon acknowledge the moves they’ve made along the way haven’t always been the most popular. In McPhee’s mind, it’s the organization first and the individual a close second. Hence the decisions to trade fan favorites Marc-Andre Fleury and Nate Schmidt, and to make three coaching changes in six years.
“There’s no question that we want to win. We’re trying to win,” McCrimmon said. “This isn’t Bill coming down on us saying we better get going here or else. This is George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon that want to win. We’re not rebuilding, we’re not retooling, we’re not trying to catch the last playoff spot and maybe win. We’re trying to win and that’s what our objective is.”
That third coach turned out to be the charm with Bruce Cassidy, the man McPhee hired in Washington at just 37 years old. Cassidy’s tenure with the Capitals lasted less than two season.
McPhee took a lot of heat after firing Cassidy 25 games into his second season, but also felt guilty because that Capitals team was a “hard team to coach” with a lot of difficult personalities to manage.
Cassidy and McPhee found their way back together when Cassidy was hired by the Golden Knights on June 14, 2022 — 364 days prior to the Golden Knights winning the Stanley Cup.
The 64-year-old McPhee is still in shock each time he looks at his TV that’s tuned to NHL Network, and it continuously shows that the team he helped build just won hockey’s biggest prize.
A four-decade journey that’s now validated and worth it.
“It’s still hard to believe. The Vegas Golden Knights won the Stanley Cup,” McPhee said. “Holy cow.”