The pieces are starting to fall into place for Winnipeg’s new NHL franchise.
Although the league’s Board of Governors has yet to approve the sale and relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to the province of Manitoba, the team’s new Canadian ownership hasn’t hesitated to begin reshaping its organization.
During a Wednesday afternoon press conference, True North Sports and Entertainment announced the hiring of Kevin Cheveldayoff and Craig Heisinger as the general manager and assistant general manager, respectively.
“[Becoming Winnipeg’s GM] was a natural fit for me. It was almost too good to be true,” said Cheveldayoff. “We’re going to set the bar very, very high and we’re going to push people very hard.”
Along with a reputation as a strong talent evaluator, Cheveldayoff possesses a good understanding of Winnipeg’s current situation. The Saskatchewan native spent eight seasons as the general manager of the Chicago Wolves, formerly the Thrashers’ minor league affiliate. Bryan Little and Ondrej Pavelec spent significant time developing with the Wolves during Cheveldayoff’s tenure, to name a few.
Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien—two of Winnipeg’s most important assets—played for the Blackhawks under Cheveldayoff when he was their assistant general manager.
Cheveldayoff’s familiarity with Ladd may pay off right away, as the two-time Stanley Cup champion is in need of a new contract.
“Andrew and I have a pretty good relationship based on the year that we spent together in the Blackhawk organization,” said the new GM. “He is a big, big piece of this franchise moving forward.”
Heisinger, who worked for both the Jets and the Manitoba Moose of the AHL, was very emotional at Wednesday’s press conference. Not long after being introduced as the assistant general manager of Winnipeg’s second NHL franchise, he found himself fighting back tears.
“At the end of the day, the number one reason we had the press conference last Tuesday and again this Wednesday is because of the [Manitoba Moose] and the fan support that they’ve shown over the last 15 years,” he said. “That has provided this opportunity and given the NHL a reason to have a second look at Winnipeg.”
“In my experience I’ve never worked with anyone who cares more or who has worked harder at succeeding at the game of hockey than Craig Heisinger,” said Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment. “I don’t know how else to say it.”
The relationship between the new general manager and assistant general manager dates back several decades. When Cheveldayoff was a teenager, he was an up-and-coming defenseman for the Brandon Wheat Kings, a junior hockey team of the WHL.
Cheveldayoff would frequently lose his temper on the ice, which would hurt his performance. Heisinger, the Wheat King’s equipment manager at the time, was always there to calm him down.
“I remember coming back to the bench after shifts, just snorting, and Zinger would be on the bench, saying, ‘relax,’’’ said Cheveldayoff with a laugh.
The choices True North made for their two most important executive positions shows they are operating under the belief that strong relationships play a major role in success.
“The type of culture you try to build is one where people feel like they’re part of a family and they will willingly do the extraordinary,” Chipman said. “That’s honestly why we are here.”
The sense of family between these men was very apparent Wednesday afternoon. When Cheveldayoff saw Heisinger overcome with emotion at the podium, he looked at his old friend and gave him some sage advice.
“Zing, I’m going to tell you something a very wise person told me when I was 15-years-old. ‘Relax.’”