It was as poignant a moment as there’s been since the announcement the NHL was returning to Winnipeg, and fittingly, it featured a former Jets staffer tearing up in front of the cameras.
Not long after being introduced as the new team’s second in command, Craig Heisinger was overwhelmed by the moment.
“I’d like to thank Mark and the Chipman family for taking a chance on me,” Heisinger said of the team co-owner, his voice cracking as he moved onto his family and parents.
“Most importantly, for the fans of the last 15 years, who let a host of players and coaches and myself cut their teeth in front of them, thank you.”
Long known to be in line for a major role when Winnipeg finally landed a team, Heisinger and close friend Kevin Cheveldayoff were officially unveiled as the two men to lead the franchise on Wednesday afternoon.
Heisinger, the former GM of the Manitoba Moose, takes on the unwieldy title of senior vice-president and director of hockey operations and assistant GM.
Cheveldayoff, who long led the Chicago Wolves before joining the Chicago Blackhawks as assistant GM two years ago, becomes general manager.
The pair have known each other for more than 25 years, dating back to their days with the Brandon Wheat Kings – “Zinger” as equipment manager, “Chevy” as a player – and there’s a little bit of Hollywood in how the two Prairie boys have now come together.
Heisinger’s back story is especially remarkable, as he had only been an equipment manager up until 1999, when the Moose took a leap of faith and bumped him into the assistant GM’s job.
The emotions of the day, however, go back even further, as Heisinger’s introduction to the NHL began in the late 1980s with the Jets, first as assistant equipment manager and then in the lead role right up until they left for Phoenix in 1996.
With four young children, he didn’t feel he could make that jump, instead catching on with the minor-league Moose and forming a close friendship with Chipman.
Heisinger felt the loss of the NHL as much as anyone in the city, and somehow it seems only fitting he’ll now have a hand in running things 15 years later.
“I’ve always been of the attitude I’ve had to work every day to earn people’s respect, never try to demand it,” Heisinger said, referencing his background leading up to becoming GM of the Moose nine years ago. “I feel a lot more comfortable or confident today than I did in 2002.”
“When we bought the [minor-league] team in 1996, I don’t know how many people told me this, but they said the first guy you’ve got to hire is Craig Heisinger,” Chipman said. “It came from former NHL players and members of their front office.
“I just so vividly remember everybody telling me the guy to hire to be the caretaker of your team is Craig. And where a lot of people left, Zinger never ever thought about leaving.”
It’s been a long wait for the NHL to come back to the ’Peg, but Heisinger’s payoff certainly makes for a terrific story, one that will be told again and again if the franchise succeeds from the drop of the first puck in October.
Despite considerable success at the AHL level for both men, however, there is some skepticism around the NHL over having two relatively inexperienced executives running a new team – especially in the tight time frame they’ve been given.
Cheveldayoff is confident they can build a front office, hire a coaching staff and begin preparing for the June 24 draft and player personnel decisions in the next two to three weeks.
“If we hit the ground running, we might be a little bit behind,” Cheveldayoff said. “We might have to hit the ground sprinting.”