WINNIPEG, Manitoba – One of the key figures in Winnipeg's march back into the NHL is a former minor-league defenseman turned executive. The other served as an equipment manager before trading in his skate sharpener for a suit and tie while learning the ins and outs of building a hockey club at the minor-league level.
True North and Sports and Entertainment, the group purchasing the Atlanta Thrashers and relocating the club to Winnipeg the 2011-12 season, named Kevin Cheveldayoff its new executive vice president and general manager on Wednesday afternoon. The 40-year-old Saskatchewan native had served an assistant GM and senior director of hockey operations with the Chicago Blackhawks and will replace Atlanta GM Rick Dudley, who was not retained by Winnipeg management.
Craig Heisinger will serve as the Winnipeg club's senior vice president and director of hockey operations and assistant general manager. The move will keep Heisinger entrenched in familiar territory -- he was the general manager for the AHL's Manitoba Moose and a former equipment manager with the Moose and the Winnipeg Jets.
Although True North chairman Mark Chipman had a list of potential hires in mind, after consulting with Heisinger, he targeted Cheveldayoff as his top GM candidate and ultimately did not interview anyone else for the job.
The Cheveldayoff-Heisinger duo inherits a massive to-do list -- the NHL Entry Draft on June 24-25 in St. Paul, Minn. looms most notably. They must also decide whether to retain Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay and his assistants or hire a new coaching staff, and negotiations with captain Andrew Ladd on a new contract also remain.
Final word on hockey decisions will rest with Cheveldayoff, but Heisinger will play a major role.
"When we come to make some decisions, we're going to do them together," Cheveldayoff said. "We're going to think things through. We're not going to any knee-jerk reaction decision-making. I plan on using my staff to the fullest extent. We're going to do things the right way. Everybody is going to be a part of this."
It was as an equipment manager with the Western Hockey League's Brandon Wheat Kings that Heisinger first crossed paths with Cheveldayoff back in 1986. Cheveldayoff, a defenseman, went on to play parts of five seasons as a New York Islanders farmhand before a knee injury cut short his playing career at age 24.
With his playing career over, Cheveldayoff spent two seasons as an assistant coach in the International Hockey League before beginning a 12-season stint as GM of the Chicago Wolves. The Wolves won two IHL Turner Cups (1998 and 2000) and then, as the American League affiliate of the Thrashers, added two Calder Cups (2002 and 2008). In all, the Wolves went 544-320-114 and reached the playoffs in 10 Cheveldayoff's 12 seasons as GM.
Cheveldayoff then headed across town to the Blackhawks and spent two seasons serving under General Manager Stan Bowman and helping the Hawks win the Stanley Cup last spring.
"While it is never easy to lose someone of his caliber, it is a great opportunity for him and his family," Bowman said in a statement. "He was a significant part of our front office and he played an integral role in the success of the Blackhawks throughout the last two years. I want to personally thank him for his dedication to our organization and certainly wish him all the best in Winnipeg."
The minor-league roots that Cheveldayoff and Heisinger share complement each other well, Chipman believes.
"They've always had to work harder," Chipman said. "They've always felt like they have to prove themselves, whether they did or didn't. There is just an extraordinary work ethic in both of them that propels them."
While Heisinger is a Manitoba hockey fixture, Cheveldayoff is new to the True North operation -- though as GM of the Wolves, he was a big reason the Moose never won a title in their 15 seasons.
"We were always very competitive against (the Wolves)," Chipman said. "But honestly, an admiration grew, not just from (Heisinger), because he has known him for a long time, but from myself as well. He always conducted himself with the utmost professionalism, win, lose or draw.
"To bring that (championship) quality into our organization is huge. I'm more than confident that he is bringing that exact same skill set to us."
For Heisinger, the ascension into a NHL front office completes a journey that began in Winnipeg as an equipment manager in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
When the Jets departed for Phoenix in 1996, Heisinger and his wife elected to remain in Winnipeg with their four children. That decision set in motion what would become a long relationship with Chipman and the Moose.
"(Chipman) didn't know me from a hole in the wall," Heisinger recalled. "I rolled the dice that they would let me keep my equipment manager job with the Moose."
Now the new brain trust will begin the work of constructing a winning NHL organization.
"Growing up in small-town Saskatchewan and watching the National Hockey League on TV, being part of being able to bring the NHL back to the prairies and back to Winnipeg is an exciting opportunity," Cheveldayoff said. "This is a story across the nation. This is a story across the hockey nation. It's an exciting time for everybody here. For each and every one of you here, we are witnessing history here."