"The Capitals had nothing but a bunch of rejects from other teams," says McVie. "I went to the first practice, and guys were smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee in the locker room and wandering in late. I was in good shape and all pumped up to finally be in the NHL, so during the drills I was skating around like Rocket Richard, and they were looking at me like 'This guy's nuts.' So I called them all over and asked, 'Is there something wrong here?' No one said anything. Then finally Bobby Paradise, whom I'd played with in Seattle, said, 'No one else will admit it, but we're all thinking the same thing: We're going to lose every game we play, so what's the point of this?'"
McVie checked the weight charts and found that all the Caps had gained at least 10 pounds since training camp. One had gained 17. So McVie worked them hard. He's still a taskmaster. "They thought I was a maniac, but I'm not crazy," says McVie, a fitness buff who has worked out an hour a day for the past 13 years. "When you're playing the Montreal Canadiens and there's not one guy on your roster who could make their team, you have to work harder than they do."
The next season the Caps arrived at training camp in shape and improved their record to 24-42-14, five more wins than they had in the first two seasons combined. McVie was runner-up to Montreal's Stanley Cup-winning Scotty Bowman for Coach of the Year honors. "The owner [ Abe Pollin] put his arm around my wife and said, 'I should give him a 20-year contract,' " McVie recalls. "When he fired me, my comment was that I still had 19 years to go. I gave my soul to that team."
McVie was abruptly released two days before the start of the 1978-79 season, after the Caps had regressed to 17-49-14 in his third year. "There were no real specifics given as to why the change was made," says McNab, then Washington's general manager. "I guess that's the story of Tom's life. He's deserved a better fate everywhere he's been."
McVie was crushed, and not for the last time. On Feb. 28, 1979 McVie took over as coach of the Jets, then in third place in the World Hockey Association. He coached them to the Avco World Trophy Championship over the Gretzky-led Oilers—the only time in his coaching career that he did indeed have the horses. The next year brought the merger of the rival leagues, with the result that Winnipeg was torn asunder under the terms of the merger—only nine players remained from the championship team—and McVie was saddled with another expansion club. The Jets struggled through the 1979-80 season with a 20-49-11 record. Then came The Streak—two months and four days without a win.
" Vince Lombardi once said that winning is a habit—unfortunately, so is losing," says McVie. "It's just like an avalanche. You can't stop it. The harder I tried, the more I did, the worse things got. It's a disease. I tried to push the players harder, and when I saw that this wasn't working, I tried to relax them."
From there it was back to the minors for McVie, who lived in motel rooms for one season in Oklahoma City and one and a quarter more in Maine. When Tom was fired by Winnipeg his wife, Arlene, gave up the moving-van life and returned to Portland, Ore., where Tom had finished his playing career, with Denver, the youngest of their three sons. (The other two are Tom Jr. and Dallas.) Then came the call from the Devils. McVie again had a team of little talent and no confidence. "You start to question whether you can play in the league," says nine-year NHL veteran Mel Bridgman when asked about the Devils' 2-18 start. "The older guys were told to help stabilize the younger guys, but how can I help a Pat Verbeek when I can't even get my own game together?"
"We were like amateurs playing professionals," says goalie Chico Resch, the team's best and most overworked player. "It was like being the youngest kid in the schoolyard. They had the ball the whole time, so you lost your zest for the game."
"You get guys thinking 'It can't be me,' and there wasn't a feeling of responsibility for your teammates. MacMillan was probably more patient with us than he should have been. Then Tommy comes in and says, 'Patience? I'll get patiented right out of here if we don't win some games.' He's brought a fear into the locker room that wasn't there before. He never looks the other way."
Indeed, when one of the Devils messes up a drill in practice—and it happens endlessly—McVie will stop play and holler. If one of the Devils ever changes on the fly during a game when the puck is in his own zone—a common practice under MacMillan—McVie has threatened to slam the door to the bench on him and, if the player then tries to climb over the boards, to stomp on his fingers with his boot. While practicing the power play recently—the Devils are a horrendous 22 for 177 on the season—McVie grabbed a stick, leaped in front of the net and, without equipment, shouted at the point men, "Go ahead. Shoot at me! Shoot the sonofabitch! Shoot at my head, I don't care. Shoot the puck!"—all the while jostling with a defenseman and tipping pucks as they flew toward the net.