For Caps’ Patrick, a legacy engraved
Name on Stanley Cup is a family tradition
In the summer of 2018, the Stanley Cup lived a globe-trotting life: Moscow and Minnesota, Sweden and Denmark, Manitoba and Washington, D.C., just to name a few. In the summer of 1928, the Stanley Cup traveled west from Montreal, where the New York Rangers finished off the Montreal Maroons for the championship. Lester Patrick, the Rangers’ coach, lugged the chalice to his hometown of Victoria, B.C., where he celebrated by putting it in his basement.
Lester’s two boys, Muzz and Lynn, were like any two Canadian teenagers then or now: They wanted their names on the Cup, too. So they took a needle and carved them in.
“We’d hear stories all the time,” said Dick Patrick, son of Muzz, grandson of Lester. “Hockey was always just kind of pervasive.”
Hockey history is Patrick family history. There’s no separating the two. And for the better part of four decades, Dick Patrick tried to make hockey history in Washington. When the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in June, there was a primary link to their hapless past, before they ever made the playoffs, when they were more punchline than contender: Dick Patrick, the team’s president. No one else has seen as much with the Capitals in his professional life. No one else has heard as much about hockey in a life entwined with the sport for more than a century and through four generations.
“The Patricks, that’s like the royal family of hockey,” said David Poile, the general manager of the Nashville Predators who once held the same job here.
How royal? When Dick Patrick joined the Capitals in 1982, the team played in the Patrick Division. When USA Hockey sought a way to recognize Dick for his role in growing the sport in the United States, it granted him the 2012 Lester Patrick Trophy. The pedigree is so entrenched that Lester Patrick’s name was first engraved on the Stanley Cup in 1906 — more than a decade before the NHL even formed. Dick Patrick’s grandfather (Lester), great uncle (Frank), father (Muzz), uncle (Lynn) and cousin (Craig) all had their names engraved on the Cup.
And yet, entering last season’s playoffs, Dick Patrick’s name was absent. This made for easy pickings at raucous family gatherings, elbow-to-the-ribs stuff. But listen to Dick Patrick, the longest-tenured Capitals executive — hired by the late Abe Pollin — and darned if he sounds not like a member of hockey’s royal family but like any Caps fan, pre-2018.
“There were a couple of times where I felt really good about our chances of winning, and we didn’t,” he said. “So I almost reconciled myself to the idea that it might not happen.”
Then it did, finally. And when it did, it came with a bonus.
‘It’s very unusual’
Maybe, if you’re a Patrick, there’s some sort of gravitational pull that ensures you’ll be sucked into hockey at some point in your life. Lester and Frank Patrick were two of the sport’s great innovators, building Canada’s first indoor ice arenas, coming up with the idea of putting numbers on players’ sweaters and spreading the game by founding the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, which they developed with their father.
So Dick Patrick played the game growing up and through his college years at Dartmouth. When he graduated, he knew his playing days were done, so he did what practical Ivy League grads do, be they Patricks or not: He enrolled in law school at American University. The Capitals began play in 1974, but Patrick was practicing law and becoming involved in real estate development. Hockey was in his veins. He didn’t think it was in his future. “I was just a fan,” Patrick said. But those early Capitals teams were unspeakably bad. Worse, they seemed directionless. They missed the playoffs in their first eight years of existence. Pollin, their owner, was growing frustrated. David Osnos, Pollin’s longtime attorney, knew of Patrick’s hockey background. Patrick and some of his development partners ended up investing in the Caps — “a little, not a lot,” he said — and Pollin gave Patrick a title (executive vice president) and a task (hire a general manager).
“It’s just something that wouldn’t happen in this day and age,” Patrick said. “When you think about it, it’s very unusual.”
But here’s where being a Patrick proved to be important. In his first days as a sports executive, Dick Patrick essentially had an entire hockey Rolodex at his fingertips. For recommendations, he called his cousin Craig, who then was the general manager of the New York Rangers, because he was blood. He called legendary coach Scotty Bowman, who then was serving as general manager of the Buffalo Sabres, because he knew Bowman through his uncle Lynn. He called longtime player, coach and executive Emile Francis, who had worked for his father. No other newly minted executive would have the connections a Patrick did.
“Dick just knew so many people in hockey,” Poile said. Enough of them recommended Poile, then a young assistant GM with the Calgary Flames. Patrick made the hire and did what he does best to this day — quietly slipped into the background, perpetually available for counsel, never overbearing.
“The most important thing that Dick did for me: He listened to me all the time,” Poile said. “He was the liaison — or the barrier — between ownership and hockey operations. Dick had my back and he had my support, and he did some heavy lifting with some people that might not have been as patient.”
The result was 14 straight trips to the playoffs. When the Capitals finally missed the postseason in 1997, ownership wanted change, and Patrick had to execute it. It’s not in his nature.
“I think people are too quick, sometimes, to assign blame and fire people,” Patrick said.
Listen, then, to the people he has fired.
“Dick is just a hard guy to get mad at,” Poile said. “He’s very lowkey.”
“The best way to describe Dick Patrick is he’s a gentleman,” said George McPhee, hired as Poile’s replacement — and the Caps’ GM for the ensuing 16 years. “Very humble, not a self-promoter, an intelligent guy. He has a very steady hand, and he’s a great resource.”
His stamps on the team, though, are mostly subtle. He can speak hockey to the hockey people and business to the business people. But at 72, he isn’t a figurehead. He is involved in every major decision the franchise makes. In early 2008, the Capitals were talking about a five-year extension for star Alex Ovechkin.
“Dick is notoriously cheap,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. “But it was Dick who said, ‘ Why don’t we sleep on this and offer him his first five years and then another seven years to get to 12?’ That was radical. That was a nonhockey move.”
The sides eventually agreed to a 13-year, $124 million deal, more money than had ever been guaranteed a hockey player. Since he signed it, Ovechkin has led the league in goals seven times (he leads again this year) and won three Hart Trophies as the NHL’s MVP.
“That was genius,” Leonsis said. “Dick gets the credit for that.”
Father and son
In the summer of 1998, Muzz Patrick died, and the Patrick family gathered at the family home in Greenwich, Conn. Dick Patrick’s son Chris — Lester’s great grandson, Muzz’s grandson — had completed his college hockey career at Princeton. He was going to Wall Street. The gravitational pull of hockey wouldn’t affect this Patrick. McPhee made the trip for the funeral and spoke to Chris about his plans afterward.
“When you’re done with that,” Chris Patrick remembers McPhee telling him, “just give me a call and we’ll get you back into hockey.”
But this was the tech bubble, and there was money to be made. Chris Patrick went to work for an investment bank. He later worked for a venture private equity firm. He moved to Constellation Energy, closer to home. For a decade, he avoided the hockey itch — until he couldn’t help but scratch it. Dick Patrick was still the Capitals’ president, but Chris refused to play that card.
“My big thing has always been: I didn’t want to be perceived, real or otherwise, as using my father to get a job,” Chris said.
Knowing that, his father encouraged him to talk to Poile, who had been hired in Nashville, and to McPhee, who still served Patrick and the Caps. Both had played in college and could have gone on to careers outside the game but ended up with a life in it. McPhee was intrigued with Chris’s skill set and experience — not his name.
“They both made it clear that they weren’t looking for any favors or for me to do anything that I didn’t want to do,” McPhee said. “But that one was easy. Chris is very, very bright. He had played the game. That was an easy hire because of his character. The time was right for him and for our organization.”
Chris Patrick began working for his father’s team during the 2008-09 season. “He started at the bottom,” Leonsis said, “making no money.” He helped with the development of players with the Hershey Bears, the club’s top minor league affiliate. He worked on signing college free agents and evaluating amateur prospects. He worked closely with Steve Richmond, still the Caps’ director of player development. And on his own merits, he worked his way up through the front office.
“He has a good feel for the game, like his father,” said Brian MacLellan, who took over the general manager’s job after McPhee was let go following the 2013-14 season. “And the thing is, he’s got some good work experience. I don’t think a lot of hockey guys possess that. With Chris, you bring in an outside, real-world business experience to a hockey team, which I believe is invaluable.”
When MacLellan moved into McPhee’s old job, he needed someone to replace him in his former spot as director of player personnel. He chose the most deserving candidate. That candidate just happened to be Lester Patrick’s great-grandson, Muzz’s grandson, Dick’s son.
“Nothing’s been given to him,” MacLellan said.
The morning of June 7, 2018, was unlike any other in the history of the Capitals: If they won their game that night, they would be Stanley Cup champions. That accomplishment would change the résumé and legacy of Ovechkin and fellow star forward Nicklas Backstrom, of Coach Barry Trotz, of so many forward-facing characters. But maybe no one in the organization understood the power of the Cup — what it meant to win it but also what it meant to be denied — than Dick Patrick.
“I’d heard about the Cup my whole life,” he said.
But he and his family had also lived the Caps experience, the wash-rinse-repeat of perennial disappointment. Chris’s earliest memories were of the team practicing at Fort Dupont in Southeast Washington. He played for the Little Caps development program. In a way, father and son had waited a lifetime for this day — the family business having a chance to enhance the family legacy.
“It was a really surreal night for me,” Chris said. “I go back a long way with this team.”
Chris remembered the days when people would honestly ask, “Who are the Caps?” Now it was as if the nation’s capital had moved west. When Chris and his wife arrived in Las Vegas and made their way downtown, something stood out: There were people in Caps jerseys and Caps hats and Caps jackets everywhere.
“I couldn’t believe how far it had come,” Chris said.
The Patricks sat separately at T-Mobile Arena for Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights, Chris high above the ice in MacLellan’s box, Dick in the owner’s suite with Leonsis. With about two minutes remaining and the Caps holding a one-goal lead, the NBC broadcast showed Leonsis. At his side was Patrick, holding the remnants of a beer. Given the tension of the moment, that beer didn’t stand a chance. Down it went.
“My phone starts going crazy,” Chris said, texts from friends and family watching at home.
The reality was this: If the Caps could kill off those final two minutes, then Dick Patrick would join Lester, Frank, Muzz, Lynn and Craig on the Cup. Everyone insists that was a secondary goal, if it was even acknowledged at all.
“It’s what you play for,” Dick Patrick said. “And obviously, I know all my family members who were on there. But it was never about wanting my name there.”
But when Lars Eller’s goal held up as the game-winner and the Caps spilled onto the ice . . . well, it was a nice day to be a Patrick. Chris made his way from the press box, flying through the hallways beneath the arena toward the ice. When he walked out through a tunnel to the bench, he saw his father.
“We just kind of stared at each other,” Chris said. “We didn’t know what to say.”
They knew enough, though, to hug.
“That was very moving,” Leonsis said, “because it’s a family endeavor.”
Although older bands of the stand that serves as the base of the Stanley Cup are removed and replaced by more recent champions over time, Lester’s and Frank’s names appeared on it so long ago that they’re permanent, engraved on the bowl itself. Craig’s name is still on it from the Cups he won as general manager in Pittsburgh, but the band that includes Muzz and Lynn’s 1940 championship — both played for the Rangers — has been removed and is on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Now, nearly seven months after the Capitals won, the top line of the Cup’s newest panel reads: “Ted Leonsis Dick Patrick Brian MacLellan.”
“He deserves the majority to all the credit for us winning a Stanley Cup,” Leonsis said. “I promised him that he deserved the Stanley Cup more than anyone because he’s been at this for his whole life and career — and he has his family. I didn’t want him to go to any more family reunions and be the only Patrick without his name on the Cup.”
So there was the sixth Patrick with his name on the Cup. But go down to the third line, which begins: “Christopher Patrick . . .”
That’s the seventh Patrick with his name on the Cup. They span four generations. And none of them had to scratch their names on it with a needle. They earned it. Quietly, they earned it.
Dick Patrick is a member of “the royal family of hockey.”
Dick Patrick, right, and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, center, built a champion with Nicklas Backstrom.