So what’s with this lord of the rings Kevin Cheveldayoff? He’s got a big job: assistant general manager and senior director of hockey operations with the Blackhawks, who raised the Stanley Cup last spring. That was the eighth time he’s been part of a championship team. Cheveldayoff is only 40, so he’s averaged one title for every five years since birth—a ridiculous winning percentage.
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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That’s not the only unusual thing about Cheveldayoff. He’s really a good guy. Sports executives as successful as he are supposed to be edgy and calculating, with a chip on both shoulders, maybe a dash of hubris and a second helping of arrogance. But he smiles as though he means it, has no apparent ego, and if he’s got an agenda to do whatever it takes to climb the corporate ladder, he’s a heck of an actor. Men with long titles and shiny resumes just shouldn’t be this decent.
Then again, because Cheveldayoff is so rare and so genuine, he could be in the old E.F. Hutton commercial. When he talks, people listen. Just recently, he stood up in a staff meeting and reminded the group of one of his favorite calling cards: “It’s all worth it.” Winning it all was, but that was June and now it’s January. The weather is brutal, the experts are sure the Blackhawks can’t repeat, and there’s a temptation to roll over in bed because you’re tired.
However, if you think about how hard you worked toward that Cup, how you pushed to do better just like the players, you know self-satisfaction is not an option, not really. You know the effort and perspiration and sacrifices required.
“And it is all worth it,” says Cheveldayoff. “I was fortunate when I was young to be around the New York Islanders. They didn’t just win. They won and won and won and won. Four straight Cups in the 1980s. If you asked their general manager, Bill Torrey, or their coach, Al Arbour, or their great goalie, Billy Smith, how they did it, you probably wouldn’t get an answer and not because they were keeping some secret. But I observed them, and whatever ‘it’ was, they had it. That’s the challenge we face now with this organization, and it’s one we embrace because there is more than one way to win.”
Cheveldayoff wasn’t around the Islanders as long as he had hoped. Selected first by them in 1988 and 16th overall, "Chevy" packed promise as a steady defenseman. But he blew out his left knee, and by age 24 his playing days were over. He looked at wife Janet, whom he met while rehabbing, and said he’d pursue a law degree. Then Butch Goring phoned, and Chevy began his management career in the Islanders system. In 1997, bearing three pieces of precious jewelry already, Cheveldayoff became general manager of the Chicago Wolves, where he presided over four more championships—in 1998, 2000, 2002, 2008.
EIGHT IS NOT ENOUGH
Blackhawks Asst. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has won a total of eight league championships in his professional hockey career:
As a player: (AHL) Springfield Indians - 1990.
As management: (IHL) Denver Grizzlies - 1995; Utah Grizzlies - 1996; Chicago Wolves - 1998, 2000;
(AHL) Chicago Wolves - 2002, 2008; (NHL) Chicago Blackhawks - 2010.
Stan Bowman knew about the pedigree more than the person. When appointed general manager of the Blackhawks in the summer of 2009, Bowman needed an able assistant. Cheveldayoff’s track record was remarkable, but the interview went even better.
“From the moment Kevin sat across me in that chair, I was comfortable with him,” recalls Bowman. “It made naming someone to a very important position a very easy decision. He’s got an unparalleled work ethic, he cares about people, and he’s sincere about everything he does.”
Which is just about everything, although one component of Cheveldayoff’s existence occurs daily. He surveys the spread sheets to examine how the Blackhawks are faring under the NHL’s unyielding salary cap. Bowman used to crunch the numbers; now the chore falls mostly to Chevy, and when you dare to be as close to the ceiling as the Blackhawks, there is no room to swing your elbows.
“Fans wonder why we shuttled Jack Skille back and forth from Chicago to Rockford last season,” says Cheveldayoff. “Well, we did it to save maybe $4,500 a day. That doesn’t sound like much, but every penny counts, as you saw by what we had to do during the summer. There wasn’t one player we lost who we wanted to lose, but we had to make moves and make them quickly. It was sobering and anguishing. But we knew it was coming.”
Cheveldayoff is perpertually energetic, making him a perfect fit for the organization’s personality. As he says, if you aren’t part of the mood around the Blackhawks, it will be painfully apparent. In theory, there is a business side to the franchise and a hockey side. But the barriers that tend to inhibit a free flow of ideas and oxygen around certain other teams do not exist at the United Center, because they would violate the Blackhawks’ rebuilding code.
“I was talking with our great owner of the Wolves, Don Levin, the day that the Blackhawks hired John McDonough,” Cheveldayoff remembers. “I mentioned it to Don on the phone. His response was…’Oooh…they must be serious.’ The Wolves were like the 31st NHL franchise because of the way they treated players and fans. I was humbled when Don told me that Stan had asked permission to talk to me. Typically, Don told me, ‘I don’t like the fact that you might leave, because I don’t like it, but it’s the right thing to do.'
“People sometimes tell me I’ve been unlucky, being injured so badly that I couldn’t play. But look at what’s happened. I worked for a great organization in the Wolves, then didn’t even have to move or uproot the kids from school to work for the Blackhawks, Stanley Cup champions. Unlucky? I’ve worked hard, yes, but there are a lot of other capable people who work hard in the American League. I’m extremely fortunate.
He concludes that the situation is almost too perfect for him. In reality, though, the reverse is true. He was absolutely the right man at the right time for the right role with a pro-active franchise that never sleeps.
"One aspect of this organization that stands out, among many, is that it views player development as an investment, not an expense. Big difference,” explains Cheveldayoff.
Leo Durocher famously uttered that nice guys finish last. Well, Kevin Cheveldayoff has finished first eight times and counting. When you’re that good, it’s worth it to be yourself.