LAS VEGAS – He doesn’t have any players, or a coach, or an equipment manager or even a PR person, yet there was George McPhee, on Labor Day, hard at work at an upscale building in the Las Vegas suburb of Summerlin.
That building, bought 14 months earlier to house one of billionaire businessman Bill Foley’s title insurance companies, is doubling as the administration office for Foley’s newest baby — the 31st National Hockey League franchise.
The team will debut at T-Mobile Arena — off the Las Vegas Strip between New York-New York and Monte Carlo — next October.
McPhee, who spent 17 years with the Washington Capitals, was hired to manage the soon-to-be named team in July, and wasn’t the only one working on this national holiday. So was Katy Boettinger, McPhee’s director of hockey administration with the Capitals and his first hire in Sin City.
“Oh, shoot,” McPhee said, realizing he locked himself out of the office. He dialed Boettinger’s cell. “Katy, I left the thing — the key card — on my desk.”
It had been a busy weekend for McPhee. Two days earlier, he bought a house, a car, two beds, checked out a church and toured two schools for one of his three children — 11-year-old Adelaide, who will remain in Maryland with mom, Leah, this school year — to attend.
After two years of speculation that the NHL would become the first of the four major professional sports leagues to call Las Vegas home, McPhee will get to build the franchise from the ground up.
“It hit me when I was filling out my change-of-license form for the DMV,” McPhee said. “I was writing down my address, ‘Las Vegas, Nevada,’ and was like, ‘Holy cow, we’re here.’
“Most managers would probably fantasize getting an expansion team one day and being able to build it from the bottom up, and I certainly did. But when I arrived here and I saw the arena, not only the great location, but the arena itself, I couldn’t believe it.
“We have it all here. It’s easy to get around, it’s a beautiful place to live, no state income tax. My first news conference in Washington, there were, I think, three media people there. Here, there must have been 40. I was a little startled, thinking, ‘This is big time.’ ”
Team name, logo to come
On Nov. 22, the franchise will unveil its team name — likely the Desert Knights, Silver Knights or Golden Knights — and logo.
McPhee has 35 employees — and counting — on the hockey side, including more than a dozen scouts. Because so much can change in the NHL, McPhee doesn’t plan to hire a coach until after this season.
“I literally walked upstairs from my introductory news conference and started making phone calls, and it hasn’t stopped,” McPhee said. “The first couple weeks were incredibly overwhelming the number of people that called, texted and e-mailed. I couldn’t keep up.”
Murray Craven, after two years of advising Foley during his pursuit of a franchise, is senior vice president. He’s in charge of special projects such as finding an American Hockey League affiliation, hiring the training staff and medical team and taking the best ideas from all the practice facilities in the NHL and putting it all into one for a 120,000 square-foot practice facility that broke ground 20 minutes from the Strip last month.
But back on Labor Day, as McPhee sat in a giant boardroom and stared at a wall, his only focus was the following day, Sept. 6.
“Tomorrow’s going to be a historic day for us,” McPhee said, smiling. He was preparing for the first scouting meetings. which started with a team photo, included a swanky dinner at the Bellagio and a bonding outing to TopGolf.
Scouts received laptops, iPads, instructions on how to work the franchise’s customized scouting program, decided on the best way to do expenses and received initial coverage schedules.
But most importantly, they talked culture and the type of player McPhee wants to play in the entertainment capital of the world.
“Hockey’s a great game and it should never be boring,” McPhee said. “We’ll never be a team that sits back and doesn’t challenge. Teams that can score goals are fun to watch.”
Expansion draft key
Las Vegas will begin fielding a roster with the aid of an expansion draft. Teams must submit their protected lists June 17. On June 20, Las Vegas must submit its selections, to be announced the following day.
The franchise must select one player from each club, including 14 forwards, nine defensemen and three goalies and have a minimum of 20 players under contract for 2017-18 at an aggregate value of at least 60 percent ($43.8 million) of this season’s $73 million salary cap ceiling.
McPhee also will be permitted to sign pending unrestricted and restricted free agents who are left unprotected.
“So are we doing mock drafts every month?” McPhee said. “I’d like to. Even though I know it’ll be a total guess and things will change constantly as to who may be available to us, it’ll also allow us to become familiar with all the rules and really understand what kind of team we can start with.”
Vegas pro scouts Mike Foligno and Jim McKenzie already have taken in some Wild games.
NHL draft even more important
On June 23-24 at the NHL draft in Chicago, Las Vegas will get its first crack “at hopefully drafting our own Auston Matthews,” McPhee said.
Even though the expansion draft rules will make Las Vegas better equipped to succeed faster than past expansion teams, McPhee says the amateur draft is key to long-term success.
Las Vegas will be given the same odds in the 2017 draft lottery as the team finishing with the third-fewest points this season. As a result, Las Vegas will be guaranteed no lower than the sixth overall selection.
“We have to do really well in the draft,” McPhee said. “We’re going to have to have some lottery picks initially the first few years, but we don’t want to be doing that a long time.”
The final of Foley’s three installments to meet the NHL’s $500 million expansion fee is due April 1. After that, everything’s official. McPhee will even be permitted to start attending Board of Governors and GM meetings.
“I almost feel the same way today that I do the night before training camp, like a kid a couple of days before Christmas,” McPhee said. “It’s nice, I guess, at 58 years of age to feel that way. But I also feel there’s a tremendous amount of responsibility here. A lot of people are counting on us.
“The NHL is counting on us to succeed. Bill Foley’s put his name and his reputation on the line. There’s a lot of people here in Las Vegas that are really delighted to have a pro team and feel they’re a legitimate town now. So there’s a big responsibility here.”