This is not the first National Hockey League season in which an expansion franchise may play for the Stanley Cup. But when the St. Louis Blues did it in 1968, losing four straight in the final against the Montreal Canadiens, there were 12 teams in the league and at least one of the six new ones was guaranteed to play for the Cup.
The Vegas Golden Knights were guaranteed nothing except a fighting chance, with the most generous expansion-draft guidelines commissioner Gary Bettman has allowed. But every team still got to protect the top half of its lineup, so every player who came to Las Vegas last summer was deemed expendable. Each of them was looking for a second chance. So was coach Gerard Gallant and general manager George McPhee, who on Wednesday was named a finalist for NHL GM of the year.
And then the remarkable Knights took two more games off the heavily favoured Winnipeg Jets – everyone has been a favourite against Vegas – to move within a win of a historic entry into the Stanley Cup Final.
The Knights’ began playing the week a gunman murdered 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas, and it is impossible to separate that horrible event from the season that has followed as the team became, in McPhee’s words, “a community hub” for grieving residents who longed for an identity beyond Las Vegas Boulevard.
We thought we’d ask McPhee to try to explain all of this. Fired in 2014 after 17 years as the Washington Capitals’ GM, McPhee went to the 1998 Stanley Cup in his first season in charge. He also made the 1994 final as Pat Quinn’s assistant with the Vancouver Canucks. His teams lost both series, and McPhee, 59, hasn’t been this close to the Stanley Cup since.
Sportsnet: Of the Knights’ accomplishment, what makes you most proud?
McPhee: There’s two things. We really like the people we’re working with. That means more than anything – to work with the high-quality people we’ve hired throughout the organization and the high-quality people we have playing the game for us. The other accomplishment would be how well the sport has been received in Las Vegas. We really needed this to work. The league needed it to work. Having a successful team in Las Vegas really increased the visibility of the NHL. We needed this to work, and it has worked well. And the roots can now grow deep.
Sportsnet: You told us that the Oct. 1 shooting accelerated the bond between the team and community like nothing else could have. Can you try to explain that for people who haven’t been to Las Vegas and felt that connection?
McPhee: It was a stunning and shocking mind-and-body altering event. I don’t know how else to explain it. Everywhere you looked, there was a lot of pain. It was almost incomprehensible. It had a deep and devastating effect on this community. Hockey players are resilient people, and these players decided immediately that they were going to do something about this and try to help this community. And the things our players have done have been amazing. There are so many things, things that people know nothing about, that our players just did. And they continue to do it. It was a way for our players not only to help the community grieve and heal and persevere, but it was a way for them to grieve and heal and persevere. These players, for the most part, were here on their own. It was their first experience in Las Vegas, and they had to bond together themselves so they could help bond and help the community.
Sportsnet: What would you say to people who think the Knights don’t deserve a Stanley Cup in their first season or that your success is somehow embarrassing for the NHL?
McPhee: First of all, I haven’t heard those comments. I guess I don’t read enough. I’m not sure how to respond to that. I do know that we have a bunch of players who have played their guts out for a long time now. They’ve played 96 games and have played their guts out all year long. And the fans who have supported this team are like nothing the NHL has ever seen in the first year. Any fan of hockey anywhere should be proud of what these players have done on the ice and in this community and how they have represented the game.
Sportsnet: Nobody expected this success. Can you fully explain it?
McPhee: No, I can’t. I can’t fully explain it. I’m not sure I want to try. It has been such a beautiful ride, we’re all just hoping for another day. We don’t want it to end.
Sportsnet: James Neal, one of the leaders of your team, said that this season is the most fun any Knights player has had in hockey. Is it for you?
McPhee: Yes, without a doubt, because we stand for all the right things. These players, they play their guts out on the ice and they’re gentlemen off the ice. They’ve done so much here. They play the game the right way. They play hard. They play honestly. They don’t embellish or take penalties or do stupid things. I wish you could bottle this and have it every year.
Sportsnet: You were 39 years old when you last had a team that made the Stanley Cup Final. How much does this opportunity mean to you?
McPhee: The older you get the more you realize how precious it is. I’ve been all the way down to the last two minutes of Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final (with the Canucks). It’s been the dream of a lot of young people and old people. We just have to keep the focus on winning the next game. We hope at the end of this, we get to win our last game.
Sportsnet: William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and many of your players have said they arrived in Las Vegas already bound by the fact other teams had let them go, and have played this season determined to prove people wrong. You can probably relate to those feelings because you were fired, too, and spent two years without a GM’s job. What was that like for you?
McPhee: It’s not an easy process. But it is, in the end, a healthy process. You are more complete as a person when you go through it. In a lot of ways, it’s healthy because you now have time to do things that you’ve never done before, which is the advice Cliff Fletcher provided. He called after I was fired and said: ‘You’re going to get back in the game, so go do the things you never could while you were in the game.’ And he was absolutely right. Family things. Family trips, kids’ events, things you couldn’t do before. But on the other side, there is an angst that’s always there. You feel you have a lot to offer and could really help a team, but you wonder if that will happen again. The game is going younger, including in management. Teams are going with more analytics guys and you wonder if they’ll go right by the veteran guys. You just don’t know.
Sportsnet: Gerard Gallant is up for coach of the year and you’re a finalist for GM of the year. What does that mean to you?
McPhee: It’s nice but that’s not why you sign up for these jobs. The one thing we’re all going for is the Stanley Cup. Does it feel good? Of course it does. But it reflects more on the organization (because) I have not made a single solitary decision since I came here. Every decision I make involves our group, and I’m very proud of that.
Sportsnet: Have you encountered blowback from other managers, jealousy or even hostility, because they feel expansion guidelines were tilted in your favour?
McPhee: I personally haven’t experienced any of that from colleagues. I had a very nice reaction from David Poile when we were talking right after the expansion draft about how we did and the players we were able to acquire, and he just kept saying: ‘Wow, wow, wow.’ He thought it was great. He thought it was great for the franchise and the league. And it is.