By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 10, 1997; Page C1
Standing in the midst of bustling construction workers at MCI Center, Washington Capitals owner Abe Pollin added a few important planks of his own yesterday, naming George McPhee, 38, the team's new general manager and Ron Wilson, 42, its new coach.
"We were convinced that these two young, vibrant people were going to be a great addition to our club," Pollin said. "George and Ron have all the tools necessary to take the Capitals to new heights."
The moves come almost two months after the Capitals finished their worst season in 15 years. In the interim, Pollin decided not to renew the contract of general manager David Poile and fired coach Jim Schoenfeld, who was hired as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes yesterday.
That cleared the way for McPhee and Wilson to become one of the youngest general manager-coach tandems in the NHL. McPhee was formerly the Vancouver Canucks' vice president of hockey operations; Wilson coached the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim until he was fired late last month. Terms of their contracts with Washington were not disclosed, although sources said Wilson got a three-year deal with an option for a fourth year at an average salary of about $700,000 per year.
The pair, who worked together when Wilson was an assistant coach in Vancouver from 1990 to '93, spoke of similar philosophies yesterday, promising to make the Capitals more exciting offensively.
"You can get to the playoffs with a grinding team and you might win a round, but you have to have speed and skill and balance to win the Stanley Cup," McPhee said. "You can teach good players to play well defensively, but you can't teach defensive players to score."
He also said he wanted a team with "an emphasis on speed and skill," although he'll take some time before making roster changes. He will also leave the scouting staff intact for now, he said, as the June 21 draft looms.
As for the assistant coaches, McPhee said, "My preference in that area is to let Ron pick his first guy and then his second guy we'd have to agree on." Keith Allain and Tod Button were Washington's coaches under Schoenfeld. One of Wilson's assistant coaches in Anaheim, Tim Army, is a top candidate for a Washington job, although Allain also coached under Wilson for Team USA at last summer's World Cup of Hockey.
Wilson coached the United States to a gold medal in that tournament before leading Anaheim to the second round of the playoffs this season, falling to eventual champion Detroit. Still, despite leading the Mighty Ducks to their best season in the team's four-year history, Wilson (120-145-31) was fired after as a series of conflicts with upper management. He quickly became the league's most coveted available coach, interviewing in Washington, Phoenix and San Jose.
"It was like being the flavor of the month," Wilson said. "Everybody's taking a lick, but you don't know if they're going to buy the whole ice cream cone. The Capitals wanted the whole cone."
Wilson said he was immediately attracted to Pollin and team president Dick Patrick's sense of family. Wilson's father, Larry, and uncle, Johnny, both played and coached in the NHL. He was also attracted to the Capitals' roster, calling Washington the "gem job" of the NHL's current openings.
"What I like about the Capitals is that there is potentially a lot of offense at the blue line," he said. "We've got great goaltending and great defense that can get the puck up, so our focus is going to be spending less time in our own zone.
"Of course, it's going to take some time, because the players have to learn to trust me and break lot of habits."
Wilson said he intends to change the team's practice style, shortening the duration and number of practices while making them more action-oriented. He also intends to focus on team-building, a skill that won him praise at the World Cup. This season, several Capitals complained about a lack of team cohesiveness.
"I don't have a particular style of play -- more a style of dealing with people," he said. "The important thing is to create an environment where, as warriors, players have to be able to go into the trenches and make sure the guy in the trench with them isn't ducking."
McPhee and Wilson vowed to take a closer look at the numerous injuries that clouded the last two seasons. Wilson said a lighter practice schedule may solve some of the problems, as might adjustments in the team's travel schedule.
"I looked at the list yesterday and was astonished with the number of injuries and the severity of the injuries," McPhee said of the Capitals, who lost 361 man-games to injuries this season. "We will definitely want to take a closer look at that."
McPhee, now the NHL's youngest general manager, will have the same responsibilities and autonomy Poile had, Patrick said, although Pollin stressed again yesterday that he is becoming more involved with the team's day-to-day operations.
McPhee said he will move his family to Washington soon, although he will be going back to Vancouver this weekend to take care of personal business and meet with Craig Channell, the team's chief amateur scout, who is based in western Canada.
Wilson's younger daughter is entering her senior year of high school, and he said he still is "negotiating" where his family will live during the season. No matter where he is this summer, however, he hopes to get to know the players before training camp starts in September.
"I like to communicate a lot with the players and it goes both ways," he said as a construction worker began laying cement behind him. "Right now, everything's an open, empty book."
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