A newly hired general manager likes to recruit people he knows and has worked with in the past. That’s the standard modus operandi in the NHL. A team hires a GM and, he brings in his crew, sometimes over a few seasons, sometimes on Day One.
Examples abound. In Montreal, Marc Bergevin came in from Chicago in 2012 and convinced Blackhawks colleague Rick Dudley to join. Jim Nill moved from Detroit to Dallas in 2013 and brought in Joe McDonnell as amateur scouting director and Mark Leach as McDonnell’s winger. All three had been key figures in the Red Wings’ war room going back to the 1990s.
Yes, everybody knows just about everybody in the business. Paths cross, small talk is made. Still, how much do you really know about a guy until you’ve actually worked with him? That’s the conversation a new GM has with himself and, under pressure to get immediate results, he hires the guy he knows he can rely on.
George McPhee, GM of the NHL’s yet-to-be-named Las Vegas franchise, is trying to be an exception to the phenomenon. McPhee maintains that he wants to avoid the appearance of cronyism while putting together his staff during the season-long run-up to the expansion and entry drafts.
“What we’re out to do is not hire friends,” he said. “It never seems to work. My obligation is to this franchise and the people of Nevada, not to friends.”
His first big hire was entirely consistent with that. In early August, the team hired Kelly McCrimmon away from the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings to be his No. 2.
“I never worked with Kelly, [had] never even met him or spoken with him,” McPhee said over the phone from Slovakia, where he was scouting the Ivan Hlinka Memorial under-18 tournament. “I knew of him, of course, and for years I had only heard great things about him. He always had great teams in Brandon and turned out great players.
“It wasn’t that he bought them. He didn’t do it with a chequebook,” said McPhee, who held the GM position in Washington for 17 years. “He did it with hockey smarts and hard work. He identified good players and developed them. Along the way, he developed relationships with pretty well everybody in the game.”
The 55-year-old McCrimmon is a recognizable and well-liked hockey man, one many considered to be a CHL lifer. His playing career dates back to an era when a CHL player could cross over to the NCAA and he did just that in the late 70s and early 80s, going from a couple of seasons in Brandon to four years with the University of Michigan.
McCrimmon was the whole show in Brandon: the Wheat Kings’ owner, GM and coach. In a pinch he would have driven the bus. He joined the team as an assistant coach in 1988 and moved up the ranks in the years that followed, from head coach and GM to team owner. (He became the sole proprietor of the club in 2000.)
His numbers as a coach are pretty astonishing: 423-223-36-38. There might have been others in the CHL with records as gaudy but none were more highly respected. He never did coach a Canadian team at the world juniors and it was Hockey Canada’s misjudgement that he didn’t. He was an assistant to Dave Lowry at the tournament this past winter but it’s hard to see how McCrimmon didn’t have the lead role in Finland, based on his record and service to the game at the junior level.
Established NHL teams have tried to get McCrimmon out of Brandon. (Though he wouldn’t mention names, rumour had it that the Toronto Maple Leafs gave him a call last summer.) When he passed up those offers, many presumed that he was comfortable with his lot in life and preferred to oversee his CHL investment.
As it turns out, McCrimmon was looking to take the next step but last summer was just a year too soon.
“We made the [WHL] final in the 2014–15 season and I wanted to take that next step with that group of players,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave with any regrets. We won the league this spring, lost our first two games at home [in the playoffs] and then went 16-3 the rest of the way. Even though we never got to that same level in the Memorial Cup, I felt good about our team and our players. Now the timing just feels right to go to the NHL.
“I love coaching. The closer you are to the ice and the closer you are to the players on a daily basis, the more it’s like still being a player,” he said. “Still, I always feel like my strength was management—that’s my own self-assessment.”
When McPhee mentions hearing about McCrimmon over the years and the glowing reports about his work in Brandon, it doesn’t take much to connect the dots. McPhee’s longtime head of amateur scouting in Washington was Ross Mahoney, who was based in Regina. (When the Capitals pink-slipped McPhee at the end of the 2013–14 season, Mahoney was promoted and installed as the club’s assistant GM.)
Another source of his intel on McCrimmon, though, wouldn’t have been so obvious to those who track comings and goings in NHL management.
“I brought up Kelly’s name in conversation with [Toronto coach Mike Babcock] and heard nothing but good things,” McPhee said.
If you’d presume that going from a stranger to a first lieutenant would be an involved process with a lot of feeling out, you’d have it all wrong in the case of McCrimmon’s hiring.
“It happened fast,” McPhee said. “I went right at it. I said to him that I have [the AGM position] to fill and you seem like a perfect candidate. Five minutes into our first conversation on the phone I knew that he was the right guy for the job.
“He was talking to a couple of other teams. I told him we’re committed in Vegas and we have the resources to be committed. I told him, ‘If we do our jobs, everything is here to win,’” said McPhee. “I think that was the key to him, the idea of being in a good position and having a say in everything we do. I got off the phone with him and thought, ‘I would really like to get this guy.’ Six days later we had a deal.”
It might seem like very early days for the Las Vegas franchise—after all, the team is still without a name.
But McPhee and McCrimmon say they’re on the clock.
They have made a few hires—most prominent among them, David Conte, the former head of New Jersey’s scouting department, as a special advisor for hockey ops.
“I’ve known him since I was in college at Bowling Green,” said McPhee, who consulted former New Jersey GM and current Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello about working with Conte. “Lou could not have endorsed him more strongly.”
They’ve also hired Vojtech Kucera as director of European Scouting. Kucera had previously worked McPhee in Washington.
Still, there are a lot of posts to fill between now and the start of the NHL, AHL, CHL and NCAA seasons.
“Kelly and I are working on hiring directors of pro scouting and amateur scouting McPhee said. “The emphasis is on the amateur side of it. We’ve identified several scouts that we would like to have on our staff but we’d like to have a director in place before we offer any of them contracts. If we can’t do it that way, well, we’ll move on a few of these guys because they’re that good. Some people have been on hold for a while and I’m sympathetic to that.”
McPhee said that he had candidates for the amateur scouting director’s post but he had hit a snag—the candidate was currently under contract to another NHL club in a lesser role with a lesser title. McPhee would not disclose the name of the candidate, but he did say that the team has not released him from his commitment.
“[The GM] asked for two weeks before getting back to me and now he’s asked for another two weeks,” he said.
Executive recruiting can be a delicate matter at this level of management but usually a team won’t play hardball with an employee under contract if he stands to get a promotion with another franchise. During his time in Washington, McPhee released several scouts from their contracts so that they could join previous Capitals GM David Poile in Nashville. He also let Larry Carriere leave Washington for an AGM’s job in Montreal under then-GM Pierre Gauthier.
“You don’t want to stand in someone’s way and wind up with a guy who doesn’t want to be there,” said McPhee. “It poisons your relationship with him and it sends a bad message to others who work in your organization.”
As it stands, McPhee sounds pessimistic about filling the scouting director’s job with his targeted hockey man and figures that he’ll have to start signing scouts to the Vegas staff or risk losing them to other organizations.
Following McPhee’s time with the Capitals, he spent a year in an advisory role with the Islanders before signing on with Vegas owner Bill Foley. Yet the GM figures he doesn’t know the pool of scouting directors and scouts as well as his assistant at this point. A deluge of resumes landed on McPhee’s desk and applicants left messages that filled his mailbox, but he estimates that he didn’t know as many as 70 per cent of the candidates by reputation or even name.
McCrimmon, on the other hand, figures he’s talked to most of them before.
“As a junior coach for all those years in a program that turned out a lot of NHL players, you wind up talking to a lot of scouts about players,” McCrimmon said. “You build relationships over time with the scouting directors or the guys who cross over [that is, scouts who work beyond their own regions].”
McPhee and McCrimmon used their time at the under-18 tournament to get to know each other, but it was more than a bonding exercise. They also used the trip to talk to candidates for their European scouting staff—McPhee said they’ve talked to six so far.
A couple of the recent hires have strong connections to McPhee, one on the hockey-ops side, the other as a juggler of numbers and contracts.
McPhee hired Wil Nichol as director of player development. Back in 2011, McPhee brought in Nichol, previously the coach at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, to work on the Capitals staff.
McPhee likely would have hired Don Fishman, who was his salary cap specialist in Washington, but he’s still under contract with the Capitals and any job that he might have been able to offer Fishman wouldn’t constitute a promotion. So McPhee opted for Andrew Lugerner, a lawyer from New York who trained under Fishman.
“Don is one of the very best in the business—we never had cap issues in Washington, in part because we always had good young players coming in and in part because of our payroll management,” said McPhee. “Andrew is very similar to Don in intellect and temperament. He’ll be handling our all our contracts and cap management.”
Still, it might strike someone outside the game as odd that someone with an abundance of quality and qualified connections as McPhee has would seek out a stranger as his No. 2.
And while McCrimmon didn’t know McPhee until a couple of weeks ago, he does have some familiarity with a startup. After he landed in Brandon, the Wheat Kings missed the playoffs the first three seasons.
“I had to tear the belly out of the beast,” he said of a franchise that had fallen on hard times.
In the years since, McCrimmon’s team missed the playoffs just twice. McPhee’s hope is that what happened in Brandon doesn’t stay in Brandon.
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