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T was the season to be jolly, and six days before Christmas, Tom McVie, coach of the New Jersey Devils, was in his office explaining that a hockey player had to be hungry to excel, and that there was nothing quite so detrimental to a hungry spirit as a Christmas goose. It was the coach's job, McVie maintained, to play Scrooge, and McVie has a spectacular "humbug!" His voice just naturally sounds like a blown speaker blaring through six inches of dirty laundry.
The phone rang and McVie answered. Someone was calling to remind him that the Devils' Christmas party would begin in 15 minutes. The Devils, who had staggered to a 2-18 start, had gone 5-5-2 since McVie replaced Billy MacMillan on Nov. 22, and morale was high. McVie, trying to explain to the caller why he wasn't rushing off to the party, told an apocryphal story. "My family was awful poor," he said, winking at those seated in his office. "So we never made much of a deal about Christmas. My father worked in the mines back in Trail, B.C., you know, and my sister was always his favorite. So one Christmas my sister and I ran down to open our stockings, and hers was filled with oranges and candy. I looked in mine, and you know what was in it?" McVie started to grin. "No, no, not coal—road apples. I couldn't believe it. I mean, I was always kind of a flaky kid, but I was never bad. My sister said, 'Tommy, what did you get from Santa this year?' So I said to her, 'Geez, Sis, I got a horse, only it ran away.' "
And then he laughed a deep gravelly laugh.
I got a horse, only it ran away. Someone should save that for Tom McVie's epitaph: It's the story of his life in the NHL. Three times in the last nine years McVie, 48, has endured catastrophic seasons. First came the 1975-76 Washington Capitals, then the 1980-81 Winnipeg Jets and now the McHapless McDevils—who reverted to their losing ways following the Christmas party, dropping six straight games in the next 11 days. Their record stood at 7-29-2, the worst in the league, as the new year began. Three of the most pathetic hockey clubs in NHL history, all stuffed into one man's stocking.
But Tom McVie isn't a loser. He's a coach who has survived losing. And we're not talking about surviving a little bit of losing. This is strictly big league stuff. When McVie took over the Capitals on New Year's Eve 1975, the team was 3-28-5 and on a winless streak that eventually reached 25 games, an NHL record. Then in the fall of 1980, the Jets, coached by McVie, played 30 straight games without a win, a record unrivaled in professional major league sports. Actually, McVie wasn't even around at the streak's conclusion. After the 25th game he was fired. His record for the season was 1-20-7; his NHL coaching record, 69-189-49.
Yet McVie was the first guy the Devils called when owner John McMullen and team president Bob Butera decided to relieve MacMillan as general manager and coach last Nov. 20. ( Max McNab, a club vice-president, took over as general McManager as part of the McDevils' housecleaning.) The decision to hire McVie followed a double dose of ridicule administered by the Edmonton Oilers' usually well-mannered Wayne Gretzky, who scored eight points in a 13-4 rout of the Devils on Nov. 19 and then labeled the New Jersey organization " Mickey Mouse" when talking to reporters.
Why did the Devils turn to McVie? Why the one man who had proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he could take a bad team and not turn it around? "The fact is, he was the only person," says Butera. "Tom was coach of our minor league team in Maine; he knew the players, and we didn't want to start interviewing someone from the outside in the middle of the year. Plus, Tommy gives us exactly what we were lacking—leadership. He's a disciplinarian, works extremely hard, is physically fit and lives properly, and therefore is a good influence on our younger players. If anything, having been with these types of franchises in the past makes him all the more qualified for this job. He's much more philosophical."
And why would McVie, who was coaching the Maine Mariners, a contending team in the American Hockey League, take on the Devils, who could be many years away from a .500 season? "I've had my heart broken a lot, been through the hard times and had all the false promises made," he says. "And I'm still like the little engine that says, 'I think I can, I think I can.' "
McVie did in fact grow up in the mining town of Trail, British Columbia, on the banks of the Columbia River. It was the old story—hockey provided him an escape from the lead and zinc mines in which his father worked for 40 years. He became a career minor-leaguer and scored 380 goals in the Western Hockey League between 1957 and 1972 without ever getting an NHL tryout.
Then, after 16 years as a player and 2� seasons of coaching and managing the Dayton Gems of the International League, McVie was offered the Capitals coaching job in 1975. Welcome to the big time. Washington, an expansion club, had already gone through three coaches in its 15-month history and had compiled a record of 11-95-10.