Dismissed as the Capitals’ general manager on Saturday, George McPhee wore a black suit for his farewell news conference with reporters at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Monday.
But he made it clear he was not attending his own funeral.
“Well, I didn’t die, you know,” McPhee said, drawing a few laughs. “It felt like that a few times. But listen, I did the best I could because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
“I put everything I had into it, so I don’t have any flowery final words other than it’s been a great ride and I feel very, very lucky and fortunate.”
McPhee had plenty of flowery words for the people he hired, the teams he built and the friendships he made during his 17 years as general manager of the Caps.
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But there was no escaping the hurt he felt when he learned that for the first time since 1997 he will not be guiding the Capitals into another season.
“Am I disappointed? I was terminated, of course,” he said. “But it's not the end of the world. I've had worse days in my life. I've got lots to be thankful for and my family's got lots to be thankful for and lots to look forward to.
“I've told you a number of times, no one's ever told me I have to be a GM for a living. I signed up for this. There are some dark days, but there are a heck of a lot of good ones.
“It's been a fabulous experience. It's been a fun ride. That's what it's supposed to be. This is sports. We're not trying to feed the world. This is sports. It's supposed to be fun and for the most part it has been.”
Under McPhee, the Capitals reached the playoffs in 10 of his 17 years as general manager, but those teams won only three playoff series and, after missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years, Caps owner Ted Leonsis dismissed McPhee and head coach Adam Oates, saying the team needed a new voice and a fresh set of eyes.
Perhaps angling himself for another NHL management job – he is technically under contract with the Caps until July 1 -- McPhee said he’s leaving the Capitals in an excellent position in terms of both talent and salary space.
The Caps enter the offseason with about $13 million in cap space. McPhee said that with a few key additions the Caps have the potential to be in the Stanley Cup Final within three years.
“I honestly believe they can win a Cup,” he said.
One of the key factors that led to McPhee’s dismissal was his inability to find a coach to carry a talented team deep into the playoffs.
The Capitals recorded a league-high 121 points in 2009-10 under Bruce Boudreau but were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs that season. When Boudreau failed to get the Caps past the second round of the playoffs in four tries, McPhee replaced him with Dale Hunter, who led the Caps to the second round of the 2012 playoffs but his abrasive style wore thin on his players.
McPhee said he “loved” working with Boudreau and Hunter, but declined to comment directly on his relationship with Oates or captain Alex Ovechkin.
“I’m ducking those,” McPhee said. “I don’t want to be negative about anything. You raise different people’s names and say this person isn’t doing this or that, I’d like to pass on that kind of stuff.”
McPhee said he thought it was “unfortunate” for Oates to lose his job after coaching the Capitals for only a season and a half.
Asked specifically again about Ovechkin, McPhee said, “If you’re asking me if we can win with him, I believed we could win with him.”
McPhee also was asked if he was given full autonomy as GM of the Caps.
“I made the decisions,” he said with a wink.
McPhee has been linked to other managerial jobs in Vancouver and New Jersey and said he would be “delighted” to get a phone call.
“The job, for me, it's got to feed the soul,” he said. “It's got to feel good. I've got to work with good people.”
As for advice he would give to whoever replaces him as general manager in Washington, McPhee paused.
“Enjoy the journey, that’s what it’s about,” he said. “Have fun and enjoy the journey. And when the head worms start going, call somebody.”
With that, McPhee walked away from the podium outside the players’ locker room, shook hands and chatted with Capitals veterans Troy Brouwer and Jason Chimera, then left Kettler Capitals Iceplex, perhaps for the final time.