June 30, 2012

35 Minutes With #35, Mike McPhee

Guest interviewer Frederick LaVallee is back, and this time he spoke with former Montreal Canadiens star Mike McPhee.

Coming from a large family can be a crucial element in developing a good work ethic for a hockey player. Sharing a house with seven people asks for many sacrifices and requires teamwork at all times to make sure chaos doesn’t take over...and Mike McPhee knows what it’s like.

Born July 14, 1960 in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Mike McPhee lived with his parents, his three brothers and two sisters. However, he was raised in the small town of River Bourgeois, which had a population of no more than 1500 souls at the time!

"My two brothers also loved to play hockey and they played some minor hockey, but they didn’t play as much as I did. As for my sisters, they were not really into sports." remembers the son of Stan McPhee.

The young Mike grew up in River Bourgeois, and he played his minor hockey about 30 minutes away from home. He has fond memories of his time playing youth hockey in his home province…

"I started at a young age, about six or seven years, to play organized hockey. I went through all levels in my area, played pee-wee, high school hockey, midget hockey, and even Junior A in Port Hawkesbury. My coaches were a great inspiration to me and they gave me everything I needed to be a better player."

In 1978, the former Canadiens left winger went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Joe Juneau and Adam Oates studied there as well…), in the State of New York to play for the school’s hockey team, while studying for his degree in civil engineering. Hockey players that compete at the college level often dream of making it there, rather than going to play in the NHL.

"It’s like you just said. Yes, I wanted to play in the NHL, it is the dream of every young hockey player across the continent. However, my first goal was to graduate, and to pay for my tuition while playing hockey." proudly mentions the former left winger for the Engineers.

In 1980, the Nova Scotia native was drafted in the sixth round (124th overall) by the Montreal Canadiens. They liked what they saw from the college winger and thought McPhee’s discipline and work ethic would make him a good NHL fit. I asked him if it was a surprise for him to get drafted…

"Not really. I played against guys that were getting drafted, so I thought I had a chance too. I wanted to finish my degree before turning pro. To be honest, I thought I was going to be drafted by the third round, but I think my decision to stay in school weighed in my being drafted later, or maybe not..."

So the son of Monica McPhee played two more seasons at RPI to finish his degree. Unfortunately for him, a serious injury cut his final season short. Being used at defence to overcome a staff shortage at that position, he injured his knee and it was the end of his career in college hockey, just six games into the 1981-82 season.

In 1982, the Sydney native went back to Nova Scotia for his first taste of professional hockey. The Halifax-based Nova Scotia Voyageurs were the Canadiens AHL affiliate at the time. And so, Mike McPhee was back where he grew up, but he was back for big time hockey!

"And it was a great experience! I didn’t want play in the minors for my whole career, but I know I still needed to develop. Halifax is three hours of River Bourgeois, but my father often took us there to watch games. We knew them (the Voyageurs) well and we looked up to their players!" shared McPhee on the former AHL team.

On 1 March 1984, Mike McPhee played his first NHL game against the Red Wings in Detroit. And he got the surprise of his life when he saw the team’s roster in the locker room that night...

"Jacques Lemaire made me play with John Chabot and ... Guy Lafleur! I was in shock! Lafleur was getting close to retirement and he surely would’ve wanted to play on a better line, but it did not show in his attitude. He came to me and said: ''Mike, if you're in the NHL, it's for good reason. Let’s go and be the best line out there! ''. It was awesome ... and I had a good game. I must’ve got six or seven shots in that game…"

Two weeks later, March 15th,  the Habs number 35 scored his first goal in the NHL. That night, the Canadiens defeated the Oilers 3-2 in front of their fans at the mythic Forum. But, more importantly, there was a very special person in the stands…

"I scored against Grant Fuhr at the Forum. It was a great moment, and my father was in the stands. I will never forget that first goal. I also scored in Toronto the next game and I was getting the hang of it!" says Kevin Constantine’s former teammate at R.P.I.

The Habs finished their 1983-84 season with a losing record, but they were just good enough to sneak in the playoffs. Jacques Lemaire had replaced Bob Berry as head coach after 63 games, but he couldn’t really do better with a 7-10 record in the last 17 games. However, the Habs surprised everyone in the playoffs by making it to the semi-finals against the Islanders…which they lost in six games.

"Steve Penney was excellent, but what most people don’t realize is that it was Jacques Lemaire’s trap that caught the opposing teams by surprise! He is the best coach I’ve had in my career. He’s a teacher, a technician, and a fine communicator who is very approachable! Unfortunately, we couldn’t get past the Islanders…" concluded McPhee on those playoffs.

1986 is a year that the former number 35 will never forget. In his second full season in the NHL, McPhee lived the ultimate dream by winning the Stanley Cup amongst legendary leaders like Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson at his side. The Canadiens won in five games against Calgary, and the left winger was involved in a goal scored just nine seconds into overtime in Game 2 of the series…a record that still stands!

"I remember that goal very well. The period had just begun, the Flames were caught out of position in the neutral zone and I quickly ended up with Brian Skrudland on a two-on-one…I passed the puck to Skrudland and he scored quickly. Had we lost that game, it would have been very difficult for us to come back with a 0-2 deficit at the Forum. If you ask me, I would say this is definitely THE moment of my career that I remember the most!" proudly said the winger who scored 11 points in 20 games that spring.

1989 is another year that the mustached winger will remember. First, he is sent to the All-Star Game by coach Pat Burns to replace the injured Mats Naslund. Played in Edmonton, the game ended 9-5 in favor of the Campbell Conference and Wayne Gretzky, the Kings center, was named MVP in front of his old Edmonton fans…

"It was quite an honor for me to go play this game. It was fun to be in the same team as Ray Bourque and Cam Neely, because I played a lot against them and they were players that I respected. I was on a line with Bobby Smith and Kevin Dineen...it was a fun experience!"

But Larry Robinson’s locker room neighbour had to live with a bitter disappointment. After getting rid of the Whalers, Bruins and Flyers, the second place Canadiens faced the…first place Flames in the Stanley Cup finals. Unfortunately, the Habs lost the Cup to the Flames in six games, in front of a disappointed Montreal crowd…

"It was the most devastating loss of my career! We did not deserve to win. We didn’t play as well as we could’ve and we were playing against astacked team with the likes of Macoun, McInnis, Fleury, Gilmour, Loob, Nieuwendyk, Mullen, Roberts...after the first Cup, you want to win the second one even more…" remembers the former defensive  winger in disappointment…

After this loss, Mike played three more full seasons in Montreal before being traded to Minnesota August 17th, 1992. Throughout his time with the Habs, he averaged about 20 goals and forty points per season, on the third line. He could have improved these statistics in 1989-90 and 1990-91, but he missed several games because of injuries in these two seasons...

Playing behind guys like Claude Lemieux, Stephane Richer, Bobby Smith, Mats Naslund and Guy Lafleur over the years, McPhee never really was the highlight of the show. However, the media have recognized his contribution to the Habs success, making him the Jacques Beauchamp Trophy winner three times in 1988, 1990 and 1991, awarded to the Canadiens unsung hero. Was one more important than the others?

"I do not think there is one that is more important than the other two. This is a very nice form of recognition, since it is the media who vote to give this honor. I feel privileged to have won the Jacques Beauchamp three times!"

After the 1991-92 season, the Canadian traded McPhee to the Minnesota North Stars in return for a fifth round pick ( the Habs selected Jeff Lank!) on August 17th of 1993. With Corson, Gilchrist, Dionne and Leclair all playing left wing, there was no room left for a still young, though slowly aging McPhee…

"I did not want to leave Montreal, but Serge Savard was respectful. He asked me where I wanted to go. I wanted to go play for a team that was in need of a left winger. I thought I would end up with the Flyers…to finally end up in Minnesota! I spoke as a friend to Bob (Gainey) in July, but he didn’t say anything about trading for me. You know Bob, he doesn’t show his cards a lot!" shares a laughing McPhee on former teammate and four-time Selke trophy winner Bob Gainey before finishing with an anecdote on that matter... "I remember the date of the trade very well, because my nephew was born that day!"

The former Hab played two seasons for the North Stars organization, which became the Dallas Stars for the 1993-94 season, the last of his career. Mainly, he had to call it quits because of a bad knee, but he was still producing his average twenty goals or forty points a season…

"You don’t necessarily think the grass is greener elsewhere, and I did not ask to leave Montreal. But the trade rejuvenated my career! We had never lived in the States and we wanted to try. Living in Dallas was fun, it was always warm. My son could play hockey in the street all year and he loved it and the city had great fans, like those of Minnesota. They liked it rough in Dallas, though…!" says the one who’s no been married for 29 years, as of June 11th.

Mike McPhee had several good leaders as teammates during his career. He had the chance to skate alongside great leaders like Bob Gainey, Brian Skrudland, Mark Tinordi, Larry Robinson and Mike Modano 

"Robinson and Gainey were silent leaders. Bob didn’t speak a whole lot, but he worked hard on the ice and when he did speak, everyone listened. Robinson was similar. Brian Skrudland was more of a talker. Mark Tinordi was a natural, physical leader on the ice, while Mike Modano...he is simply the most talented player I've ever played with. He could do everything…he could deke, shoot…he was big and strong. Gainey made a more complete player out of him with the years!"

After his playing time in Dallas, the father of two decides to extend his stay in the United States. Being disciplined and hard-working off the ice as well, he obtained his MBA in 1996, and returned to Halifax for his life after hockey...

"I always wanted to be in business, but I did not know what to do. I had a good network in Nova Scotia, and everything seemed to point towards the finance industry. I've always been good with numbers, I had an engineering degree before, and my network was very important for me to make my way in this new environment." remembers the former Stars number 17 before continuing on his life after hockey…

"I live a good life here in Halifax, working for National Bank. My son works here too and my daughter went to McGill to see what she missed in Montreal! She graduated from there and worked there with athletes for a couple of years. So I can say that my children are doing well too, and I will be married 29 years next Monday (June 11). I feel fortunate to live a life like that with a good family and good job..."

Living in the capital of Nova Scotia since 1996 now since the last sixteen years, the hard-working former NHLer has been heavily involved in charity work. He is currently part of the director’s board of Kidsport Canada, the Digsby Golf Classic and the International Hockey Heritage Center. He continues to be physically active, like his wife who likes to run, and his two children who are both athletes.

Mike McPhee doesn’t watch much hockey nowadays, except in the playoffs, but he was disappointed that the Canadian teams and Sidney Crosby have been quickly kicked out of the dance. He was glad to see his old friend Robinson make his way to the finals…

"I like the playoffs better because there’s more intensity than in the regular season. There are many teams, and a lot more player trades than before! It is increasingly difficult to track players and identify with them as we could when there were twenty teams..."

As a fan of yesterday’s hockey, this little writer here couldn’t agree more. As with any other player I’ve interviewed, the former Habs number 35 gave me a fascinating…35 minutes of his time. He was kind enough to accept linking me to a former teammate, much to my delight. But that, my friends, is for another time!

I sincerely would like to thank Mike McPhee for his time and availability. A nice player, as well as a great man, I can only wish him the best for the rest of his career.

Best to you and your family, Mr. McPhee!

Frederick Lavallee - Frederick LaVallee is a 30 year-old Quebecer from Montreal who has loved hockey since the 1988-89 season. He is a Habs fan, but a hockey fan first and foremost. Most of his work is written in French, but he wanted to share his passion with more English readers. One day he hopes to become a hockey historian/journalist and travel around the world to write about the coolest sport on earth!

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