For the first time in what feels like a lifetime, two of hockey’s most respected hockey minds are on the sidelines as the NHL regular season sits just one week away.
It’s a foreign feeling, to say the least, for George McPhee and Ray Shero -- the two former generals of that Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry.
Now both former general managers are taking a moment to reset and refresh, because you better believe they’ll be back.
"It’s the first time in this business I ever got fired," Shero told ESPN.com on Wednesday in his first public comments since the Penguins relieved him of his duties last May. "But you always know in this business it’s going to happen. Not many people as GMs retire and get to stay in the organization, like for example Paul Holmgren did in Philadelphia [Holmgren became the Flyers president after Ron Hextall became GM]. That was fantastic for him.
"So, for George and me, I mean if George had won a Cup or I had won another one, I’m sure we’d still be doing what we were doing with our respective teams. But that didn’t happen. We’re both in a good place. We’ve chatted a number of times, which has been good, he’s a real good guy, and we’ve always had that mutual respect when we had those great games in that [Washington-Pittsburgh] rivalry."
Those were heady days indeed, both organizations rising from cellar-dwellers to contenders at the same time, delivering some breathtaking, head-to-head games, a memorable playoff series, and of course the first "24/7: Road to the Winter Classic" HBO series.
"It was really kind of magical," McPhee told ESPN.com Tuesday, recalling the heyday of those Caps-Penguins years. "It was fun to see what happened with both franchises, to fill the buildings again, to create real strong hockey markets again in both of those places. It was a lot of fun going to the rink then."
In many ways, McPhee and Shero are linked because of it, not to mention both GMs getting their pink slips 20 days apart last spring.
"Ray and I have talked a few times," McPhee said.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those conversations.
Between Vancouver and Washington, McPhee spent 22 straight years in NHL management. Between Ottawa, Nashville and Pittsburgh, it was also 22 straight years in NHL management for Shero.
Being on the sidelines as the regular season approaches just isn’t something they’re used to.
"Quite an adjustment," McPhee said.
"It really is," added Shero.
"You’re on the train, the next thing you know you hop off and walk into town and there’s nobody in town," joked Shero. "You’re used to things being really busy."
McPhee said it was akin to going from 150 mph to 20 mph.
"But I’m starting to accelerate again by going to a lot of games," said McPhee, whose severance pay from the Caps will cover him for this year. "I had great discussions with Dean Lombardi about scouting after termination. He said it was clarifying -- that he regained perspective of all the leagues, and what he wanted to do with his next team. Sure served him well."
Lombardi landed as a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers in between his GM jobs in San Jose and Los Angeles, and yes, he certainly used his retooled philosophy to gain great success with the Kings, handing that franchise its first two Stanley Cup championships.
And so McPhee has decompressed after being fired in April following 17 seasons as GM in Washington. He is fine-tuning his hockey perspective by attending a number of games at different levels, one NHL team extending the offer to cover his expenses as he scouts games, which he’s graciously accepted.
Shero, who has two years remaining on his Penguins deal, will keep busy by doing work with USA Hockey.
"I appreciate the opportunity, and it’s always nice to give back," Shero said. "I want to stay involved and be in touch with people, so I’ll do some scouting for USA Hockey, which will involve some stuff with the world junior evaluations, which will be really good for me in terms of getting back on the amateur side. But also, obviously, will watch some NHL games. It’s important to see how different coaches are coaching and using different systems, different adjustments. What I do find right now is that when you’re not affiliated with one team, it’s a lot easier to get information from managers and coaches. You try to make yourself better that way."
Both have looked back at their former jobs to analyze what perhaps they could have done better. That’s natural.
"You look back because you want to learn," said Shero, who guided the Pens to the 2009 Stanley Cup championship.
"With the team we had, could we have been back to the finals again? Yeah, that’s the disappointment. That’s the reason I’m talking to you, we didn’t get back there. There were expectations, and we didn’t meet them. We didn’t meet my expectations, either. We tried hard to do it. But it didn’t happen."
Shero says he does wish he could have persuaded Jordan Staal to stay (Staal rejected a 10-year extension, which propelled a trade to Carolina where Jordan was reunited with brother Eric).
"We really wanted him to come back," Shero said. "We missed him after he left, but hopefully it works out long-term for Pittsburgh and Jordan."
McPhee’s Caps went to the 1998 Cup finals but never returned, building some entertaining teams around Ovechkin over the past several years but never getting over the ultimate playoff hump.
"I knew at the time what the issue was, and I should have addressed it," McPhee said in diagnosing his last few years in Washington. "I was trying to be patient and hope things would work out. It’s easy in hindsight. But if I say anything else, then I’m pointing fingers, and I don’t want to do that."
For both men, there are no grudges. Life goes on.
"Change will be good for Pittsburgh, and change will be good for me. I’m in a good spot," Shero said.
McPhee also leaves Washington on very good terms.
"There’s nothing to be bitter about at all," he said.
And by the way, guess who called him Tuesday just to check on him and say hello: Ovechkin.
The break from the rat race, meanwhile, has allowed both men to focus more on family time, which both greatly appreciate.
In fact, McPhee and his wife decided at the end of August to move their family to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
"My son is playing for the U.S. national development here, the U-17s," said McPhee. "So, we decided this would be a great year to keep the family together. Because he was up at Shattuck’s [high school hockey] in Minnesota for two years, and it’s hard when your kid goes away at 14. So this is a year to spend time together. And it’s been great getting to know him again."
There’s genuine happiness in McPhee’s voice.
"The quality of life is really good right now. It’s been really fun," he said.
McPhee did have a very good job opportunity this summer but decided this was a year to reconnect with this family.
"We can all talk about putting family first, talk a good game, but until you do it, it doesn’t mean anything. It was the right thing to do," McPhee said of turning it down.
Shero has two sons who have left home as, Kyle, 16, is attending Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire where his older brother, Chris, 18, graduated from last year. Chris is playing hockey this year in the USPHL for the South Shore Kings (Boston) and is supposed to attend Boston College next year (another twist that ties McPhee and Shero -- McPhee’s son also committed to Boston College last year).
Unemployment will allow Shero more time to go see his sons this year.
"So the timing is really good that way," Shero said.
But both men, in their 50s, are eager to get back into the NHL by next season.
That’s their hope, anyway.
"Absolutely," said McPhee. "The difficulty right now not working is that you feel you have all this knowledge and experience that is going to waste. You’d like to help someone. Certainly if there are opportunities next year, I would like to be involved."
Obviously Shero also wants a chance to run a team again, but he is respectful of the fact there are only 30 jobs.
"I never lived my hockey career thinking only of being a GM," Shero said. "I like being involved in the game. I was 14 years as an assistant GM, that’s a long time. I finally got a chance to be a GM and that was great. But had that never came to pass, I would still be happy to be an assistant to David Poile in Nashville. That was a great job."
So for now, the NHL resumes without them, likely not for long.
Too much hockey knowledge between these two guys; too much know-how not to find themselves back in the fire soon enough.