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Comic relief at training camp

by Evan Weiner

When Tommy McVie showed up at the Boston Bruins' training camp in the late 1960s and early 1970s with legendary players like Bobby Orr, he knew the odds of making the team were not good.
Not every player who shows up at an NHL team’s training camp is going to make the club. Generally speaking, teams have very few openings for new players annually, and even with 30 teams in the league, it’s still pretty hard to crack the NHL.

Left wing Tommy McVie knew the odds were stacked against him back in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he showed up at the Boston Bruins’ training camp looking for a job. In those days, there were 12 and then 14 NHL teams. McVie was in his mid-30s and had enjoyed a pretty good career as a minor leaguer in the old Western Hockey League with Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and Phoenix, but there was no way McVie was going to find a spot on the Bruins, who were perennial Stanley Cup contenders in those days.

This was a team led by Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and featured Gerry Cheevers, Wayne Cashman and a whole host of really good players. McVie was a career minor leaguer who knew that he wasn’t good enough to play in Boston. But he was determined to have some fun and be one of the guys, at least for training camp.

So Tommy worked out a routine that would entertain the fans who were watching practices and amuse his fellow Bruins.

“Yeah, we were in Fitchburg (Mass.) training and we had this thing where I would put pucks in my mouth,” McVie recalled with a laugh. “Bobby Orr would come down and let on like he slapped the puck and I would take the puck in my stomach and fall on the ground, then he would come over and slap me on the back and the puck would come out of my mouth and the people would be going crazy.”

McVie put on a show. But McVie said in those days, the people who showed up at the Bruins’ Fitchburg training facility would also see some great hockey along with some comedic relief.

“We used to go up to Fitchburg and that was when they had the great Bruins team. I was just proud to be on the ice with them, running through the drills,” he said. “The training camps were really hard, but in the meantime we had a lot of fun doing it and guys would get into tremendous shape not even knowing they were working so hard. It was so much fun.

“They used to work out twice a day and they would have drills during the morning and then in the afternoon they would have the white uniforms and the black uniforms playing an inter-squad game. They had some of the most hard-fought games, like they had two or three great lines and four to six defensemen. The rink didn’t hold any more than 3,500 people and it was totally packed and some of the best games were the Bruins against the Bruins.”

McVie had an interesting role in Bruins’ training camp. He was not quite fully a player, although he went through all the drills, practices and scrimmages, but he was not quite fully a coach either. He was one of those guys who coach Harry Sinden and the Bruins management wanted around to help in any sort of way imaginable.

“I played and then Harry Sinden gave me a job at developing the young players. So my first stint was going to Bruins camp and training the guys. Then I took the young guys down to Dayton, Ohio (between 1973 and 1976) and we had the International (Hockey League) team there and I developed the players down there for the Bruins.”

The International Hockey League in the mid-1970s was a Midwest United States low-level hockey circuit that featured a lot of bus trips, some decent hockey and a lot of tough guys thrown in for good measure. Players in the “I” really never expected to get into the NHL and a few ended up in the higher minor leagues, like the American Hockey League or McVie’s old WHL stomping grounds.

“Stan Jonathan was down there playing with me and Jim Pettie was down there, but the Bruins in those days had such great times, it was tough to crack their lineup,” McVie said.

McVie also had Gord Lane, who would eventually be a key part of the New York Islanders Stanley Cup championship run between 1980-83, and Bill Riley, who played for McVie in Washington and in Winnipeg.

McVie also was one of the players in Dayton. At the age of 38 in 1973, he played 10 games for the Gems and had one assist. It was McVie’s third go around in the “I”. He broke in with the Toldeo Mercurys in 1956-57 and again in 1957-58. In 1971-72, after failing to stick with the WHL’s Seattle Totems, McVie ended up with the Fort Wayne Komets and scored 21 goals and assisted on 35 others, winding up with 56 points in 50 games. The next season, as a player-coach for the Johnstown Jets of the Eastern Hockey League, he sort of became the inspiration for the character of Reggie Dunlop in the hit movie Slap Shot. The Jets would become the Charleston Chiefs of the Federal League in the movie, starring Paul Newman.

“I was sort of the Reggie Dunlop,” he laughed. “When I started out I was in Johnstown, I was a player-coach, I don’t know how good I was, but I was a player-coach. Same kind of story.

“The only way you can get a job in those days was to be a player-coach. The only thing you could do is go down there and go to the lowest league. After I played pro all those years and then I went down to the Eastern Hockey League and went there as a player-coach and (John) Brophy was there, Don Perry was there, they were all there, it was some kind a league, believe me.

McVie won the final Avco World Trophy as coach of the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA.
“Take John Brophy,” McVie said. “They say; ‘Isn’t it amazing Gordie Howe, Chris Chelios playing 20-25 years.’ John Brophy played 20 years in the Eastern Hockey League. (Brophy is thought to be the true role model for Dunlop). Can you imagine traveling on those buses and fighting every night for 20 years? It’s incredible.

“He played in Cherry Hill and on Long Island,” McVie said. “He was sort of a legendary guy on Long Island and he was around that league and coached in it and I think he was around last year coaching in the Southern League (Brophy, at the age of 73, coached the Richmond Renegades of the Southern Professional Hockey League in 2006-07), he has been around a long time. He is a legendary guy.”

Brophy wasn’t the only guy who was around the EHL forever. There were guys like Perry and Blake Ball.

“Don Perry was a big, tough guy, big in those years like everybody was about my size. (McVie was listed as 5-foot-9, 182 pounds) and he was way bigger. He pretty much owned the league. He was that tough. He owned the league. Blake Ball, great big guy, tough guy. He was scary too. They were all in that league.

“They had to make a movie out of it. It was like a true story,” said McVie of Slap Shot. “You take him (Dunlop) going there and myself going there after playing and being a playing coach and all that kind of stuff. It was just exactly like that. The locker room was the same room we were in, the stall where I coached out of was where Paul Newman was. They made the movie right after I left there.”

McVie went to Dayton and in 1975-76 he got the call to Washington and his first NHL job as the Capitals’ head coach. He wasn’t very successful record-wise and was fired after 1978-79. His old friend John Ferguson, who was running Winnipeg in the WHA, hired him to coach the Jets and McVie finally won a championship.

The Jets beat the Edmonton Oilers and Wayne Gretzky and won the final Avco World Trophy. McVie would continue to coach the Jets in the NHL in 1979-80 and once again had a bad hockey team. He served as the New Jersey Devils’ head coach for most of the 1983-84 season, replacing Billy MacMillan. Then, after a decade of coaching in the minors, McVie had one last NHL coaching job in New Jersey from 1990 to 1992. His team made the playoffs, but lost to Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs and the late Herb Brooks took over as the Devils’ coach.

McVie spent three more years in the NHL as a Bruins assistant coach and went back down to the land of Johnstown, coaching the Wheeling Nailers of the East Coast Hockey League in 1996-97 and finished his coaching career with the AHL’s Providence Bruins in 1997-98.

Mc Vie is still working for the Bruins in a scouting capacity. He is in his sixth decade of hockey service. Not bad for a guy who was first known as comic relief.

“That was exactly what I was,” he said. “I didn’t know much about hockey but I can make them all laugh.”

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