Since my longtime love of Canada’s national obsession, hockey, is now approaching the three-decade mark, it’s strange to think that there was a time in my life that the game not only didn’t matter but flat-out confused me. (As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, the grade-school version of Adam even thought Montreal Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur played for the Vancouver Canucks.)
It wasn’t until my junior-high years in the mid-’80s that I finally started getting into NHL action, and my teacher in this regard wound up being a former student of my Dad, Joe Cooke, in the community of River Bourgeois, Nova Scotia.
He proudly wore the Habs’ Number 35 for just over eight years, and made two trips to the Stanley Cup Final during that time, etching his name on the NHL record books when the Canadiens defied the odds to win their twenty-third Stanley Cup in 1986. And even though he was traded the summer before the Habs won their twenty-fourth Cup in 1993, hockey fans and commentators were wishing that the Canadiens had a player of his heart, grit and determination only a couple of seasons later.
His name. still legendary in my part of Cape Breton and among Habs die-hards and moustache aficionados alike: Mike McPhee.
By the time I finally got a handle on this McPhee character in the spring of 1985, near the end of his first full season with the Canadiens, he had already earned his place among the game’s greats. Called up from the Habs’ Halifax-based farm club, the Nova Scotia Voyageurs (above), late in the 1983-84 season, McPhee garnered his first NHL assist while playing on a line with the aforementioned Lafleur, and scored his first NHL goal two weeks later at the legendary Montreal Forum against the Edmonton Oilers’ Grant Fuhr, who was in the process of winning four Cups in five years alongside that skinny Gretzky kid from Ontario.
Why did McPhee make such a great impression early on? As this hockey blog suggests, he might have built on the encouragement he received from his parents Stan and Monica McPhee:
“When 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!”
McPhee’s rise to the ranks of NHL regulars resulted in a renewed focus on the Montreal Canadiens in the Cooke house, particularly for my Dad, who was among young Mike’s teachers when the young lad was going through junior high in River Bourgeois. Dad got to know the family well, which is why I can say with some certainty that Stan McPhee let out a hearty “Holy Joe Crow!” every time his boy lit the lamp for the Habs. That amounts to 200 cries of “Holy Joe Crow!” during the regular season, beginning with seventeen in McPhee’s first full NHL campaign in 1984-85. Unfortunately, even though four more “Holy Joe Crows” came out of Stan’s mouth during that year’s playoffs, the Forum fell silent at the end of the second round when the Quebec Nordiques’ Peter Stasny scored this seventh-game overtime goal, cruelly ending the Habs’ Cup hopes.
About a month later, McPhee returned home to Richmond County to visit an elementary school in St. Peter’s and take questions from local youngsters. I brought along a key-holder that young Mike had made in his high school Industrial Arts class, and got him to autograph it for Dad. Looking back, I’m somewhat relieved that McPhee was willing to do that, given that I asked him two rather sobering questions – how he felt about Lafleur’s late-1984 retirement (which, as it turned out, was only the first of two NHL departures for The Flower) and what it was like to lose that playoff series to the Nordiques. I have no idea what possessed me to ask the second question; maybe it was the early sign of a budding journalist within me, or perhaps it was the fact that this particular Habs-Nords series marked the first time I ever paid attention to the playoffs. Either way, my mother recalls a whole lot of dirty looks aimed in my direction when I couldn’t overcome my curiosity about the sting of post-season defeat.
Fortunately, McPhee and his teammates would write a better script for the Habs the following year, with Number 35 scoring three times during a Stanley Cup run that few of the so-called “experts” saw coming. However, none of these goals had quite the impact of an assist that McPhee provided in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final against their equally-unlikely opponents, the Calgary Flames.
Having stunk out the Saddledome in a 5-2 loss to open the Finals, the Canadiens could ill afford to go down 2-0 against the upstart Flames, whose line-up included another Cape Bretoner on the rise: Port Hood-born defenceman Al MacInnis, who – like McPhee – had cut his teeth playing Junior “B” hockey with the Strait Pirates in Port Hawkesbury.
Tied 2-2 at the end of regulation time, the Flames and Habs prepared for what could have been a lengthy overtime and instead wound up being the shortest in playoff history. You can see the evidence in English at this link, or watch it in French at this link – or you can check out how McPhee tells it in his own words:
“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!”
Buoyed by this nine-second miracle – which still holds up as the fastest overtime goal in Stanley Cup Playoff history, over three decades later – the Canadiens won the next two games in Montreal 5-3 and 1-0, and then claimed the Cup in Calgary with a nail-biting 4-3 victory. McPhee once again set up Skrudland for a key go-ahead goal in the second period (which you can see at the 1:10 mark of this YouTube highlights package), and all of a sudden, the kid with the moustache from Richmond County, Cape Breton – who had earned the nickname “Spud” from his teammates – had himself a mighty big championship ring.
At this point, I gained a subtle reminder that just because your community has a hometown boy on a Stanley Cup champion doesn’t guarantee that everybody rallies around their native son or his team. Thrilled with the Canadiens’ Cup victory the night before, I strolled into my Grade 8 homeroom at Ecole L’Ardoise, picked up the chalk, and jubilantly filled two blackboards with celebratory symbols and slogans, accentuated by the giant words “MONTREAL VICTORIOUS!” I came back to that homeroom at lunchtime to find that someone had altered the main message to read “CALGARY VICTORIOUS!”
I never found out who altered my artwork (or how they equated losing four straight in the Stanley Cup Final to a “victory”) but it reminded me of a similar “chalkboard war” that I had with a Grade 7 classmate of mine during the Montreal-Quebec series a year earlier. Old rivalries and grudges apparently die hard among NHL fandom, even when there’s a local hero to celebrate. (Of course, given that several Montreal residents inexplicably launched the first of two straight post-Stanley Cup riots shortly after the Habs’ triumph at the Saddledome, perhaps I should have been thrilled that it didn’t get any uglier back on the home front.)
Back on the ice, Mike McPhee built on his Stanley Cup success by reaching career highs in playoff goals (seven) in the 1986-87 post-season and setting a career high for regular-season goals in 1987-88 with 23, a benchmark he would tie two seasons later. His strong two-way play made him one of the Canadiens’ most dependable players in the late ’80s and early ’90s, even earning him a trip to the 1989 NHL All-Star Game as the Montreal representative in early 1989. (To put this in perspective, bear in mind that the team’s roster included the likes of future Hall of Famers Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson, and Patrick Roy at this point.)
A return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals came three months later, and McPhee set a career high for playoff points during that post-season run, with four goals and seven assists in 21 games. He also opened the scoring in Game 3 of the final against Calgary (here’s the proof), with the Canadiens winning 4-3 in double overtime and taking a 2-1 lead in the series. However, the Flames would eventually prevail, becoming the first team to ever win a Stanley Cup on the Montreal Forum ice. While I grudgingly admitted that it wasn’t so bad to see McPhee’s fellow Cape Bretoner and Pirate alumnus MacInnis hoist the Cup (and win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the 1988-89 playoff MVP), it was bizarre to witness several of my St. Peter’s District High School classmates suddenly jumping on the Flames bandwagon, even though I could swear I’d seen many of them wearing Toronto Maple Leafs jerseys only weeks earlier. (In his book More! All-Star Poet, Stephen Scriver summed up my feelings by sarcastically wishing the Calgary fan base a “happy anniversary” and adding: “You must have been a Flames fan for a whole week now.”)
The Habs had some lean years after their ’80s Cup Final appearances, exiting the playoffs in three consecutive second rounds at the hands of the rival Boston Bruins, but that didn’t stop Mike McPhee from continually earning my respect and that of the hockey community in general. He continued his balance between dependable defensive forward and offensive sparkplug, and he and his linemates – speedy ex-Leaf Russ Courtnall and Selke Award-winning team captain Guy Carbonneau – regularly emerged as one of Montreal’s most effective trios. I was always thrilled to hear McPhee’s name whenever I tuned into French-language Radio-Canada broadcasts of Canadiens games during my college years; I was equally surprised and delighted when, after scoring a hat trick to help erase a 2-0 deficit and help the Habs defeat the Minnesota North Stars 5-3 in early 1991, the boy from River Bourgeois delivered a confident post-game interview in French.
Two of my favourite McPhee performances came a month apart, just over a year later, in two separate home games against the Hartford Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes). In the first, the Canadiens trailed 2-1 going into the third but took the lead when McPhee drove home two Courtnall passes from behind the net, within a matter of minutes. (Hartford coach Jimmy Roberts was so disgusted with the loss that he yanked off a microphone that CBC officials had given him for a “behind-the-scenes” feature involving the two teams.)
Then, in early February, in a game I will remember and treasure the rest of my life, McPhee opened the scoring against Hartford in the second period after taking a drop pass from rookie Paul DiPietro. Late in the middle frame, Habs defenceman Mathieu Schneider was serving a two-minute minor; while killing the penalty with fellow Montreal forward Kirk Muller, McPhee lost his stick and found himself a few feet in front of the Whalers’ Yvon Corriveau, who picked up the puck back at the blueline and prepared to fire it at the Canadiens’ net. McPhee dropped to the ice to block the shot; the puck bounced off the CH logo on his chest and bounced over to Muller, who scooped it up and sent it down the ice to Schneider, fresh from the penalty box. A near disaster turned into a breakaway goal that put the Habs up 2-0; McPhee received an assist without even touching the puck. And, after a 3-1 Montreal final, “Spud” also received the game’s first star.
Ironically, it was against the same Hartford Whalers that McPhee and the Habs found themselves in panic mode when the playoffs arrived. The Canadiens won the opening-round series’ first two games, but then dropped Games 3 and 4 in Hartford and were trailing 3-1 in Game 5 before the Montreal offense roared back to life and scraped out a 7-4 victory. Inexplicably unhappy with McPhee’s play, coach Pat Burns scratched him for Game 6, a Hartford victory; despite a double-overtime Game 7 win at the Forum (with Courtnall scoring the series-winner off his own rebound), the Habs meekly fell to the Bruins in four straight, with McPhee banished to the press box for the final game at the Boston Garden.
During that Bruins sweep, a rumour started in Richmond County that Mike McPhee’s days in Montreal were numbered and that his likeliest destination was an unthinkable one for Habs fans: Beantown. McPhee himself later suggested that he was expecting to head to the Philadelphia Flyers. Instead, Montreal GM Serge Savard shipped him to Minnesota for a draft pick in the summer of 1992. McPhee would later tell me that Savard was “respectful” during this transition period and made the move with the understanding that it’s tough to play for the Canadiens and that a fresh start – like the one Savard himself experienced in Winnipeg for his final two seasons in the NHL – can be the best possible outcome for a veteran player.
I can guarantee you that I have never been more torn about my allegiance to the Habs as I was following the McPhee trade. Was I finished with the Montreal Canadiens? Was I finished with hockey in general? Was it all just a meat market on ice? In the end, I was too emotionally invested in McPhee’s former teammates to not cheer for them the following year, especially as they scraped their way into the Stanley Cup Final and dispatched Wayne Gretzky’s L.A. Kings for a twenty-fourth NHL title that virtually nobody saw coming. But my folks and I were both disappointed that Dad’s former student had missed out on another Cup ring by only a year, betrayed by bad timing and the Canadiens’ playoff collapse twelve months earlier.
South of the border, the North Stars were only two years removed from an improbable Stanley Cup Finals appearance under coach Bob Gainey, another fellow ex-Hab. But McPhee joined the team for what proved to be their last year in Minnesota, as they missed the playoffs and prepared to move south to Dallas. Wearing Number 17 on the back of his Stars jersey(s), McPhee joined the club in the Lone Star State and rang up 20 goals in the 1993-94 season, which sadly proved to be his last as an injury forced him to miss the lockout-shortened 1994-95 campaign and eventually led to his retirement from the NHL.
Strangely, around the same time, the Canadiens went into a funk that led them to miss the playoffs in the spring of 1995, the first such occurrence for the club in a quarter-century. I vividly remember the Radio-Canada commentators showing their exasperation after a particularly ugly Habs home loss, lamenting the loss of veteran character players in recent years and wishing – in French – that the Montreal line-up could include “a Carbonneau, a Skrudland, a McPhee” – in short, a character player that could lead the club back to its former glory. (A quarter-century later, some would suggest that the Habs could still use that kind of player today.)
Fortunately, the passage of time has been kind to both Mike McPhee, his place in Nova Scotia’s athletic history, and his status as a hometown hero in Richmond County. The signage pictured above is visible at two highway entry points to the community of River Bourgeois; large tributes to McPhee have also been posted at the Richmond Arena in Louisdale and the former MacIsaac Memorial Arena in Port Hawkesbury, two rinks that young Mike knew well during his formative years. Named to the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame in 1999 (here’s the induction ceremony), McPhee was also honoured by a 2010 tribute night in River Bourgeois – here’s his speech to the crowd at the Tara Lynne Community Centre.
Having earned his MBA in Dallas following his retirement from hockey in the mid-’90s, McPhee is now headlong into a lengthy career as a financial advisor that has taken him from Wood Gundy and National Bank Financial (where he received the 2012 Wealth Management Excellence Award for the Ottawa/Gatineau and Atlantic regions) to his current post at RBC Dominion Securities. However, just as you can’t completely take the River Bourgeois out of the boy even though his River Bourgeois days are long behind him, there will always be a love and respect for organized sport from McPhee, whose daughter Aly and son Adam have each spent much of their formative years participating in varsity track and junior hockey, respectively.
One last thing: Having interviewed Mike McPhee twice during the ’90s for CIGO AM Radio in Port Hawkesbury, I can guarantee that he remains one of the friendliest, most thoughtful athletes – and people in general – I’ve ever met. As this bilingual profile shows, few participants in any sport have his depth and insight about athletic ability, the difficulty of playing in a hockey market like Montreal, or life in general.
(Or maybe he’s just relieved that nimrods like me have finally stopped asking him about Peter Stasny and the Quebec Nordiques.)