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Playoff hockey and its lessons on culture


It was a few months ago… in a windowless meeting room in Las Vegas.

A small group, maybe 25 of us, were gathered to hear the speaker.  He was well known, highly regarded.  Anticipation was high.

But there were technical difficulties.  The video didn’t work, and the slides were messed up.   The speaker admitted he wasn’t used to this.  He was off his game, a bit uncomfortable.  After a few attempts, he gave up on the video, deep-sixed the slides, turned to us – and decided to just talk.

The room got quiet.

And then for the next hour-plus, he spoke of the one thing that had made his business successful.


The man was George McPhee, general manager of the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL.  He’s the architect of what many considered an impossibility: an expansion team reaching the Stanley Cup final in its first year in the league.  It was unheard of stuff.   Along the way, McPhee was named the NHL’s top executive for the 2018 season.

And he credited it all to culture.

Fast forward to today.  It’s playoff time again.   And there’s a decent chance that during the next few weeks you’ll hear at least one player from some team interviewed and say something along the lines of, “We’ve got a really great room.”


It’s code for “our culture is right.”  It means the players truly care for each other, are united, share the same approach, hold the same beliefs, do things the same way.  They’re in sync, bonded by glue.

And that’s what culture is.

Steve Jobs simplified it even further at Apple:  culture is how we do things around here.

Roots, not fruits…

For McPhee, ‘how we do things around here’ was carefully planned from the beginning, two years before the Golden Knights set foot on the ice.

He told us how he called it a roots, not fruits philosophy.  By that he meant the entire Vegas organization – players, staff, management – focused on the long game from day one.  The culture would be built the right way (roots)… for the long haul – and wouldn’t be pre-occupied with shortcuts to quick success (fruits).  He wanted a perennial winner, not a one-hit-wonder.

Sure enough, the Golden Knights were strong again this season, even though they bowed out of the playoffs a few nights ago on a controversial penalty.  McPhee says he’s been even prouder this year.  It’s one thing to build it – and another thing to sustain it over time.

Three specific comments by George jumped out at me:

  1. “Culture is everything.”   McPhee admits the word is over-used, but it was all he and his team focused on.  Specifically, he wanted a culture rooted in accountability and responsibility, where every player, every staff member, knew their role and performed it.   Even after the league office called to apologize about the penalty call that helped end their season, McPhee reacted in sync with his culture:  “There will be no pity parties. We’re going to take the rear-view mirror out and put a real good team on the ice next year.  We’re not going to carry around a big suitcase full of yesterdays.”
  1. “Avoid the energy vampires.”  Years ago, in his best-seller, Good to Great, management guru Jim Collins implored companies to “get the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off.”  A team is only as good as its weakest link. McPhee has focused on building a team with the right players, and if they don’t fit – if they drain energy from the culture – moving them out quickly.
  1. “We didn’t name a captain.  We wanted 23 captains.” A foundation of the Golden Knights culture has been to focus on the person first – to, in McPhee’s words, get “good players who are even better men.”  This is rooted in the team’s owner and founder, Bill Foley, a West Point grad.  And it’s reinforced by expectations for being accountable, performing your role, and being a good citizen too.  Most teams pick one player who embodies all of these qualities, and appoint him captain.  McPhee wanted a whole team of them.

There’s one final lesson I learned from George, after the fact.

The right culture can be a magnet.  It can help you attract the right talent… and also help you keep it.

Less than two years into its existence, McPhee’s culture in Las Vegas has built a reputation around the league – one that free agents want to be a part of when choosing their new teams.  Remember: the Golden Knights have no long history of winning, no storied legacy of being an ‘Original Six’ franchise.  Those are ingredients (along with big money) that teams use to entice players.

But what McPhee and Vegas have in place already, what can’t be replaced, is ‘street cred’ throughout the NHL for building a team with an inspiring culture.

And the early results show that players want to be there because of it.

So ask yourself:

  1. How do you do things?
  2. What kind of culture are you building?
  3. Does it help you attract and retain talent?

~ Craig