Kevin Cheveldayoff was given an abject lesson by his 12-year-old son on what it means to care so much about a hockey team that you will go to the wall for it.
It was late June of 2010, and the new general manager of the Winnipeg Jets was then assistant GM of the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that had just won the Stanley Cup but was so overloaded with contractual challenges that the league's salary cap was forcing management to dismantle their championship team.
At the NHL entry draft in Los Angeles, Cheveldayoff and his boss, Chicago GM Stan Bowman, struck a deal to send several of the team's looming contract problems, including blossoming forward Dustin Byfuglien, to the Atlanta Thrashers for future picks and prospects that helped Chicago stay within the cap.
Cheveldayoff thought he'd had a great and successful day, and shortly after midnight returned to the hotel suite he had rented for his family to join him.
“I opened the door,” Cheveldayoff remembers, “and out of the dark my son suckers me to the side of the head and says, ‘I can't believe you traded Buff!'”
Serendipity, then, that little more than a year later Cheveldayoff is GM of the Jets, the team that only months ago was located in Atlanta, meaning Buff is back in the fold and all is well again in the Cheveldayoff family.
If that's not full circle enough, Cheveldayoff, Byfuglien and the rest of the Jets will be in Chicago Thursday to take on the Blackhawks.
Things have a way of working out. Consider, for example, how this native of Blaine Lake, Sask., finally made it to the NHL – even if it wasn't at all as he had dreamed.
Cheveldayoff was hockey obsessed while growing up. So was everyone else, though few actually chased the dream. Older brother Ken turned to football, went to college, then into politics and has held several portfolios in the Brad Wall provincial government.
Cheveldayoff had the skill, and the drive, to make it. It all came from inside. His parents ran a grain farm but put no pressure on him whatsoever, he claims.
“The best thing my father did for me was what he didn't do,” Cheveldayoff says. “He never pushed me at all to play the game. He enjoyed it. He knew I enjoyed it.”
The youngster was good enough to make the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League and good enough to be considered an excellent prospect. He was also a fine student. While his father worked the farm, his mother taught school, and Cheveldayoff was named the junior league's scholastic player of the year in his draft year. It seemed all was going according to plan.
But then that dream began to take unexpected turns.
His father, Alex, died suddenly of a heart attack. Cheveldayoff was just 17, and suddenly hockey didn't seem quite so all-important. “I was forced to grow up at a young age,” he says. “I was always someone who was very realistic about playing.”
He was still drafted high – 16th overall in the 1988 draft by the New York Islanders – but the following season he blew his knee out so severely that it required reconstructive surgery in New York. All four ligaments were torn. The knee never truly came back.
Unable to crack the Islanders lineup, he moved about the minor leagues, the high point being his winning the Unsung Hero Award for the Salt Lake Golden Eagles. He got it for fighting, unable to contribute much through skill: “I'd say I lost a step except I never really had one to lose.”
He never forgot something his father had told him. “I fought a lot when I played junior hockey,” Cheveldayoff remembers, “and he'd always come out and say, ‘You know, you better watch it, some day you're going to get your clock cleaned, so be ready.'”
He just didn't see exactly what would clean his clock as a player. It turned out to be his good friend and former teammate Butch Goring. Goring had retired and was running the Denver Grizzlies. He called. “I thought he was going to invite me for a tryout,” Cheveldayoff says. But it wasn't. Goring needed an assistant coach and an assistant GM. Was Kevin interested?
“I talked to my wife,” Cheveldayoff says. “I told her, ‘Look, I'm not going to make the National Hockey League as a player, I know that, and this is the direction I want to go.'
“From that point on it only solidified my dream to make the National Hockey League, and when I had to get out of playing in the sense that the opportunities weren't there for me to be a National Hockey League player, I set my focus on wanting to become a National Hockey League manager.”
He was 24, and never looked back. In 15 years managing at the International and American Hockey League levels, he played a role in a remarkable seven league championships. His greatest success came with the Chicago Wolves, from which the Blackhawks plucked him not long before they, too, won the league championship.
When time came for True North Sports & Entertainment to select the general manager who would guide the reborn Jets, Cheveldayoff was at the top of the list, highly recommended by any number of hockey insiders.
No one else was even interviewed.
Cheveldayoff's hope is to bring Prairie work ethic and determination to the new team, to have high expectations and to do whatever it takes to meet those expectations. He knows from growing up here – and knows, as well, from his son's reaction to the Byfuglien trade – just how much a team can mean to people.
He recalls flying in from Chicago for the press conference that was going to announce his appointment. No one was supposed to know, but it seemed they already did. When the family – Kevin, Janet, Chase, now 14, and Alexis, 11 – moved to the customs booth, all the customs agents left their posts and gathered around.
“‘We only have two questions,' they told me. ‘What's the name of the team? And when are you going to win the Stanley Cup?'