Friday, January 14, 2011

Catching Up With Mike McPhee

When Habs fans think about the 1986 Cup win, certain indelible images come immediately to mind, like an involuntary slide show. There's Patrick Roy in his plain white mask, long neck stretching and twitching. There's Claude Lemieux, running with his hands up after scoring the OT winner in Game Seven against Hartford. There's Bob Gainey, sweating and grinning, with the Cup held upright in his hands. Then there's Mike McPhee.

McPhee will never be mentioned among the heroes of that Cup win the way Roy or Lemieux are. He wasn't a captain or one of the future Hall-of-Famers in that lineup. So, when we think of Mike McPhee that year, we remember one thing. In our minds, he picks up the puck at centre and cuts for the right wing on a two-on-one. He fakes a shot, then lets fly a perfect pass right onto the tape of Brian Skrudland for the fastest OT goal in playoff history. Nine seconds into Game Two against Calgary in the Finals, Mike McPhee, glorious mustache and all, fell as the puck went into the net and the rest of the team piled on top of him.

It's descriptive of the kind of player he was that when McPhee recounts highlights of his NHL career now, it's not a great goal or individual play that makes the top of the list. It's that assist. He was always about helping the team however he could.

"The moment I remember most in my career was the second game in Calgary," he reminisces. "We had lost Game One, and went to overtime in Game Two. We ended up scoring 9 seconds into overtime. Skrudland's nine-second goal. That was huge. I assisted on the goal, so it was a big goal for both of us. I can remember when we were up 3 games to 1, going into that fifth game, I think I didn't sleep much that night. I hoisted the Stanley Cup a few times in my dreams, so it was pretty exciting to be there and know we could win it. The rest of the summer was a blur. A lot of partying and a lot of fun."

As McPhee will tell you, he was never an offensive dynamo on the ice. Yet, fans remember him well because he was the epitome of the hard-working support guy every team needs to have if it hopes to win. You might say he was a star in the world of grinders. He thinks that's why fans still remember him.

"I didn't do anything great, but I did a lot of things well. I tried to put 100% effort into every game, and I think fans appreciate that," he states. "Also, I tried to speak French while I was there. I took French in junior high and high school. My dad was actually a French teacher for a little while, so I had a little bit of a background, but I made that effort. I think the people in Montreal appreciated that. And the other thing was longevity. I played nine years or more with the Canadiens. It's funny because they invited the top sixty players in terms of games played to the 100th anniversary. For fun I went on the website, I googled a list sorted by games played, and I was 41st in terms of games played for the Canadiens. That kind of blew me away a little bit."

All careers run their course eventually, even for the greatest workhorses. After nine years as a Hab, the Canadiens traded McPhee to Minnesota. Even under those circumstances, McPhee says the organization treated him well.

"It was the right time for me. I didn't ask to be traded, but we had lost two years in a row to Boston in the first round," he recalls. "I'm a left winger and we had about five younger left wingers on the team...Shayne Corson, Brent Gilchrist, Gilbert Dionne had just had a big year, John LeClair was there...then there was me, the oldest of the lot, so I guess I could see the writing on the wall. Credit to the organization, though, Serge Savard came to me and said, "We're gonna trade ya, we have to make some changes. Where do want to go? You've given us nine or ten good years, so we'll try to send you to a team where you want to go." I didn't want to get traded, but I knew it was probably best for the team and for me. I told him, number one, I'd like to play in the States for the experience and, number two, I want to go to a team that needs left wingers. I was treated very well at the end."

McPhee's career lasted another two years with Minnesota/Dallas, until bad knees forced him to retire. After hockey, he returned to school to get an MBA, and now he's working in Halifax as an investment advisor at National Bank Financial.

"I have my own client base. I'm growing something. I can be an entrepreneur. I have flexibility," he reveals. "If I want to go away on vacation next week, I just go. I tell my assistant and she takes my calls. It's exciting because you're building something. You're taking care of your clients and you're helping someone. It's a really exciting business."

He says playing for the Canadiens gave him the base he needed to get into the financial planning business.

"I always say the best training for this type of business was playing in Montreal. In Montreal there's so much adversity with fans and media. You win a couple of games, you're on top of the world. You lose a couple and you're a bum. There's obviously a little bit of volatility in the stock markets. The ups and downs in Montreal are helping me out in the ups and downs of this business," he laughs.

Still, even though he's out of the hockey world himself, he's not forgotten the game to which he devoted so much of his life. He says he grew up a Boston fan in Cape Breton, but when he got drafted by Montreal he became a Canadiens' supporter for life.

"I go up five or six times a year. They treat us pretty well," he smiles. "I keep in touch with Bob Gainey through email, and when I go up there we get together. Russ Courtnall I keep in touch with, and I talked to Brian Skrudland on the weekend. There are some guys I hadn't seen since...I have to do the math...20 years or more. Guys like Rick Green. Then I saw Rick Green last year, Mike Keane, Lyle Odelein. They were all up for the 100th anniversary. It's as if you played the year before. It comes right back. I think being on a winning team, you have something that ties you together, so it's easy to go back to those days."

McPhee says he doesn't watch a whole lot of games today, but he does see some big changes between his kind of hockey and the modern game. Some are positive, like the crack-down on hooking and other stick fouls which he says "wouldn't have been great for me." Other changes are not so great, like the attitudes of some of the younger players.

"It applies to society in general," he attests. "When I came up to Montreal, I sat next to Larry Robinson for five or six years and I had so much respect for him, I always wanted to call him Mr.Robinson. I found even throughout my career, the young rookies who were coming in, especially as they were being paid more and more, they didn' t have that. That's true in society too. There's less respect for your elders. That's a big pet peeve of mine. I don't like to see that. Especially a kid, a hockey kid, who doesn't respect authority or their parents. I don't have any time for that."

So, what does he think of the accusations to that effect thrown at the Canadiens' P.K.Subban recently?

"I don't see it with him," he says. "I think he's got some maturing to do, but I think he just wants to win. I talked to Jacques Martin last summer at a golf tournament, and he said he can deal with that. P.K.'s young and he's going to make mistakes. Even last year in the playoffs when he saw his team was down he tried to do things himself and he got himself into trouble. That's experience. He'll hit anybody, whether it's Crosby or whoever. He'll play the same way against everybody, which is good. From what I see, he's a very skilled player, he's well-spoken. Whether it's jealousy or whatever, I just see him out there playing as hard as he can, that's all."

Hard work is one thing Mike McPhee recognizes. When other names of other players come up these days, like Patrick Roy or Guy Lafleur, there are many opinions about their legacies and different fans remember them in different ways. There's no waffling about McPhee. He knew his job and he did it well every night.

"I'm most proud of having done my best," he says. "I tell my kids, everybody's got different potential. I was never going to be a 50-goal scorer. It was not going to happen. But as long as you take the talent you're given, and do the best you can with it, that's all anyone can ask. I think I maximized that, and that's probably the thing I'm most proud of."

That's what he's bringing to the business world now, and it's how he's happy to be remembered as a hockey player...even if the mustache he sported while falling under a jubilant pile of teammates 25 years ago this spring is long gone.


Anonymous said...

Just curious, was this your interview with him?

J.T. said...

@anon: Yes, I spoke with him on Tuesday. I just got around to writing it now.

moeman said...

Awesome. Loved reading every word.

Anonymous said...

Awesome, then! That was a good read!

dishonest john said...

Always liked McPhee. I remember him as an honest worker, with good speed and he wasn't afraid to drop them when he had to. I also very clearly remember that overtime assist. It was good to read about him after all this time. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

one of my favourites

Anonymous said...

I remember Mike playing for RPI, Troy New York. I was really happy for him to go to Montreal. Mike was one of the most hard working players that I have ever seen. No quit in him.
Cash, Troy New York

Anonymous said...

JT. I remember the Rangers overtime game. Still have that on tape. Funny thing is Dick Irvin blew the call. He said it was a blocked shot but very clearly the d fenseman fanned on the shot to send McPhee on his way.

Will always remember that playoff series. Skrudland, McPhee were instrumental in that series. Though Patrick was even more amazing than Halak was last year!

Shawn said...

I remember one year McPhee played in the all-star game as an injury replacement. Maybe for Mats Naslund.
Which of today's 3rd or 4th liners will stay on the team for nine years?

yvresgyros said...

Thanks a lot for that piece, how lovely it is to hear from the heroes of our youth. Sure, we had some awesome names on the team, but the works of the Keane, Skrudland and McPhee will always have their special place in my memories.

Ian Cobb said...

Mike McPhee is the type of player that every team must have on the roster before a cup can be won.!

Anonymous said...

It's funny. Savard says to him where do you want to go, and they jerked Lafleur around. None of these guys in administration have any cajones. They were worried about being the guy that traded Lafleur.....

Anonymous said...

Mike Mcphee a great hockey player, he put everything into his game. Very likeable player.

Anonymous said...

I lived in Calgary for 8 years. In 1986 a friend of mine had two seasons tickets to the Flames games. He invited me to third game of the Habs Flames playoff series.
I've been a Canadiens fan all my life. When McPhee set up Scrudland for the goal 9 seconds in I leaped to my feet and cheered as loud as I could.
Then I noticed I was the only one celebrating.
The place was like a morgue.
I quickly sat down and shut my mouth.
But I was grinning inside like the cat that ate the mouse.
Thanks to my buddy & Flames Fan Konrad Dynerski for inviting me to my one and only Habs playoff game

Tom Grand

Anonymous said...

A beauty write-up on a beauty hockey player!!

Anonymous said...

Great read. Glad to see Mike is doing well. Great team back then that was built through skill and
character. It's a shame the team got away from that over the last generation.

Anonymous said...

This was a good read, J.T. Thanks

Anonymous said...

My buddy and I always maintained Mcphee was a Plugger Genius. Every once in a while he would ull a genius play out of his jockstrap

CDK said...

I think it was Mike McPhee that was "running with his hands up" after the OT winner against Hartford and not Lemieux.

J.T. said...

@CDK: You made me doubt my memory, so I went and looked up the goal. Here's the link:

Anonymous said...

MacPhee and Skrudland are the Moen's and Halpern's of today's team. You must have the mucker and grinders that can contribute in all facets of the game.

Habs in Hammonds Plains!

CLHabs said...

I just woke up and turned on RDS2, and started listening to the interview, i didnt recognise Macphee, (without the hair) like me!!! I'm 58, i grew up a Hab, and was a great fan of MacPhee, i like the hard hitting, grinding, not scared to drop em kinda guy who can set up a big goal and thats exactly why I loved his ways, thanks Mike, i will never forget you