Alexander Ovechkin. The name elicits a response from casual sports fans, hockey diehards, and residents of the District alike. Love him or hate him, one thing is certain: he is one of the faces of the National Hockey League.
Since 1978, the Washington Capitals had seen little success in the NHL. When the team won, it was never enough to bring home the Stanley Cup. When it lost … well, Caps fans choose not to remember their inaugural season—the worst in league history. But he burst onto the scene in 2005-06, scoring 106 points and earning the Calder Trophy. And since then, he has won three Hart Trophies and six Rocket Richards to go along with 11 NHL All-Star Teams.
To Washingtonians, he is their hero, a man who legitimized a franchise that had been mired in a long history of losing.
To Boston College freshman Graham McPhee, he was just another face around the house.
McPhee’s father, George, played six years in the NHL and was then the general manager of the Capitals. He was the man responsible for bringing Ovechkin to D.C. When he was first drafted, Ovechkin lived with the McPhee family for a little while. When McPhee, himself a forward, was in elementary school, he got to learn one-on-one from the most electric player in the NHL every day.
According to McPhee, Ovechkin was the nicest guy. Despite learning a new language and culture on top of a busy NHL practice schedule, Ovechkin was never too busy to play with McPhee and his friends. And even when Ovechkin moved out of the McPhee house, McPhee was still exposed to extremely high-level hockey.
“It was awesome being around the rink every day, being in the locker room … being in an NHL environment, and really learning little things from the guys,” McPhee said.
Watching professional sports is great, and getting a front-row seat to practices is even better. But what do kids want to do while they watch professional sports? They want to play.
McPhee was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to play on the ice at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex after practice. That time came with some invaluable tips. When he’d go out on the ice, Caps players and coaches would occasionally come back out and play with him, giving him advice and helping him improve.
Hockey had been present for his entire life. He’d seen a lot of great players, watched how seriously they took practice, and carried the lessons they taught him into his own game. Through determination and practice, McPhee honed his natural abilities into potent skills. As early as the third or fourth grade, he decided that he would play college hockey. It was a lofty goal, but he knew he could reach it.
He was so young when he made his decision that he didn’t even know where he would go to high school, let alone college. But McPhee still had a particular school in mind. His father played college hockey at Bowling Green State University, where he won the 1982 Hobey Baker Award under the direction of none other than Jerry York. So, from a young age, McPhee was exposed to York and his legendary coaching career—and this exposure helped him choose where he wanted to go when the time came.
“Watching Boston College play, growing up, I really wanted to be a part of it,” he said.
McPhee made his decision to shoot for college and professional hockey early on, but that doesn’t mean it was guaranteed. Nothing is as easy as making a choice and having everything fall into place—there was still a lot of hard work that went along with developing as a player and getting the opportunities to play at a high level. Eventually, in 2012, McPhee left the D.C. area to move to Minnesota and play for Shattuck-St. Mary’s School.
Shattuck-St. Mary’s has produced some pretty good hockey players. Some guy named Sidney Crosby, the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2004 (the same year Ovechkin was drafted, coincidentally), played at the school for a year. So did Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews, among a host of others. On the women’s side of things, Shattuck-St. Mary’s graduates Brianna Decker and Amanda Kessel won the Patty Kazmaier Award in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
With a strong hockey tradition, Shattuck-St. Mary’s was instrumental in helping McPhee develop even more. McPhee played there from 2012-14, and he improved and excelled during these years.
In the 2012-13 season, McPhee emerged as a serious threat for Shattuck-St. Mary’s. He played for the school’s Bantam team that year and appeared in 61 games. McPhee scored 35 goals and recorded 54 assists, finishing with 89 total points. In 2013-14, McPhee played for the Midget U-16 team. He scored 28 goals and added 30 assists, earning 58 total points over 58 total games. Cale Politoski, McPhee’s Midget U-16 coach, characterized his former player as a “very hard working young man.”
“Graham always had this ‘swagger’ about him,” Politoski said. “There was no doubt that he had some skill to his game, and a good sense of the game. He carried himself with confidence. I liked that about him.”
The season, according to Politoski, wasn’t always easy, but McPhee didn’t let any team difficulties deter him from playing at the highest level he could.
McPhee also has experience playing for the United States National Team Development Program (NTDP). On the U-17 team, he contributed 13 points in the 2014-15 season. On the U-18 team, he contributed 19 points in the 2015-16 season. It was at Team USA tryouts that McPhee first met Will Lockwood, who would go on to play with him for two years on the NTPD.
Lockwood, who currently plays for the University of Michigan, had high praise for McPhee. Sometimes, Lockwood said, you’re on the ice, but it seems like there’s nothing you can do—you can’t create opportunities out of thin air, after all. But McPhee has the ability to turn even the dullest situations into exciting plays.
“He has some of the quickest hands I have ever seen,” Lockwood said.
This sentiment was echoed by Politoski, who said that McPhee’s playmaking ability is one of his strongest assets. According to Politoski, he also has the ability to frustrate opponents, get under their skin, and disrupt their focus. This skill is invaluable—McPhee can make plays, contribute points, and knock opponents off their game.
McPhee’s hard work and dedication pushed him into an elite status. Sometime along his path, he got the first call from York—prompting joy and happy relief from his family, who knew that BC had been his favorite school for years. In 2013, he achieved his childhood dream and committed to play college hockey at BC. Politoski’s proudest moment coaching McPhee was when he finally committed to play for the Eagles.
“You could really tell that was where he wanted to be,” Politoski said.
McPhee’s love for BC extends beyond just hockey. He comes from a Catholic family, so the prospect of attending a Jesuit, Catholic institution was enticing. Beyond that, he was attracted to the strong academics and student life.
And he didn’t stop improving after committing to BC. Earlier this year, McPhee was the No. 149 overall choice in the NHL Draft, selected by the Edmonton Oilers. On draft night, his family was overjoyed for him—who wouldn’t be? But his father said they were even prouder that McPhee chose to invite his best friend, who’d suffered a family loss less than two years prior, to the draft along with the McPhee family.
“Graham thought beyond himself on one of the most memorable nights of his young life, and helped a friend have a good day,” George said. “The very next day, Graham was dropped off at BC for summer session—with his priorities in the right order.”
Steve Santini. Ian McCoshen. Miles Wood. Adam Gilmour. Alex Tuch. Thatcher Demko. Zach Sanford.
Yes, BC lost these players on top of the seniors after last season, and yes, this year’s team will probably look pretty different. Even so, McPhee isn’t worried about the Eagles losing seven members of their roster. After all, it’s hard to have doubt surrounded by high-class players and the most successful coach in college hockey history.
“Coach York does a great job of building teams with whoever he has,” McPhee said.
McPhee has already begun to impress during his time on the ice. In a scrimmage against Carleton last weekend, McPhee showed off his talents while helping the Eagles to a 4-3 victory.
In the third period, McPhee received the puck near BC’s goal. He took off along the boards, beat a defender one-on-one, and fired a shot to the top shelf, scoring his first collegiate goal for the Eagles.
He also showed impressive puck-handling skills and quick hands. He sometimes lost possession of the puck trying to deke defenders out, but overall showed great skill and potential in his first action for the Eagles.
McPhee hasn’t set any goals for himself this season—he doesn’t want to box himself into fulfilling certain expectations. Instead, he’s going to work his hardest and let things naturally play out. It’s hard to imagine that he won’t be one of the biggest threats for BC, though, especially under York’s influence.
“It would be hard to find a finer human being than Coach York,” George said.
It’s been more than 10 years since Ovechkin was drafted. McPhee is no longer the elementary school kid watching Caps practices in awe and hoping to get some time on the ice after the pros leave. He’s now a bonafide hockey player—a great talent on a great team. He made a name for himself in his career at Shattuck-St. Mary’s and the NTPD. And now he’s ready to take on college hockey head-first.
Featured Image by John Quackenbos / BC Athletics