WINNIPEG – It was a poorly kept secret but on Wednesday it became official—Kevin Cheveldayoff is leaving the Chicago Blackhawks to become general manager of Winnipeg’s as-yet unnamed NHL team.
“Growing up on the Prairies I played my hockey just a little way down the road in Brandon,” the native of Blaine Lake, Sask., said at his first news conference after signing a five-year deal with the team.
“(Winnipeg GM) was a natural fit for me. It was almost too good to be true.”
Cheveldayoff worked his way up in the Chicago organization to the position of assistant general manager and thanked his former bosses for letting him take the next step.
True North Entertainment and Sports, which bought the former Atlanta Thrashers and is moving the team to Winnipeg, announced on the weekend that it would not be keeping Rick Dudley as GM. But even before that, Cheveldayoff’s name was being kicked around in the local media.
The team still hasn’t been named. That is expected to happen before the June 21 NHL board of governor’s meeting where the sale will formally be approved.
But it has already sold its goal of 13,000 season tickets and Cheveldayoff talked about some of things he knows he has to do. For example, one of the first phone calls he plans to make will be to Atlanta Thrashers captain Andrew Ladd.
“Andrew and I have a pretty good relationship based on the year that we spent together in the Blackhawk organization,” he said.
“He is a big, big piece of this franchise moving forward and we’d like to discuss things sooner rather than later.”
The left winger played in Chicago before he was traded to Atlanta last year. It was hardly a move up—he left a Stanley Cup winner to join a team that finished 25th overall in the NHL and missed the playoffs this season. Ladd led still Atlanta in scoring and is coming out of a US$2.35-million, one-year deal.
He’s set to become a restricted free agent this summer and has already said he knows moving to Winnipeg, where hockey is king, will be a lot different from Atlanta, where some people didn’t know they had an NHL team.
“It’s probably going to be bigger than most guys think,” he said after the sale was first announced.
“I think not having (NHL) hockey there for 15 years, it’s kind of built up and built up to the point where I’m sure (fans) are ready to blow the doors off the hinges and get this thing going.”
Cheveldayoff and assistant GM Craig Heisinger know they have a lot of work to do.
“We’re going to set the bar very, very high and we’re going to push people very hard,” said Cheveldayoff.
The new GM said he will be making a lot of phone calls in the weeks ahead to members of the Thrashers’ organization.
“People are going to have to understand that we’re building a culture here of something that is new, of something that is vibrant, and if they want to be part of that then they going to embrace that change, and if people can’t, then obviously hard decisions have to be made.”
At 41, Cheveldayoff said he has achieved his second hockey goal of becoming a general manager in the NHL. He missed his first of playing in the big league thanks to a knee injury that ended a playing career spent in the minors.
He and Heisinger have know each other for more than 20 years and faced off across as the ice as general managers in the International Hockey League and then American Hockey League—Cheveldayoff for the Chicago Wolves and Heisinger for the Manitoba Moose. The Wolves won more often than not, with four championship trophies to none for the Moose.
Mark Chipman is chairman of True North, which paid around $170 million to secure the Thrashers. He said he signed Cheveldayoff because he has confidence in him and because that’s the way to build any sports franchise.
“If you look at any of the really successful sports organizations, one of the aspects you’ll find is consistency in management,” said Chipman.