Craig HEISINGER had to convince himself he could swim with the sharks of upper management in the NHL. But once he'd done so, he made sure no one was ever going to take a bite out of his crusty hide.
Heisinger doesn't have a law or finance background as many of his colleagues do. More like a diploma from the school of torn jockstraps. But he knows what he knows and, maybe just as importantly, he knows what he doesn't know.
The equipment manager turned NHL assistant GM compensates for any self-perceived shortfalls with hard work. Any strengths he has, he sharpens those with, you guessed it, hard work.
The Jets are a work in progress but they're making major strides in the draft-and-develop end of the organization that Heisinger plays a key role in executing.
The most remarkable thing about what the Jets have done in three years is the pedigree of the players they've drafted. Lots of teams have a long list of names, but the Jets' names have accomplishments behind them.
Adam Lowry, WHL player of the year; Nic Petan, WHL leading scorer; Joshua Morrissey, WHL scholastic player of the year; Jacob Trouba, member of Team USA at the world championships; Mark Scheifele, OHL playoff leading scorer; Brenden Kichton, WHL defenceman of the year.
Heisinger's fingerprints are all over that list.
Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff oversees the organization and Marcel Comeau runs the scouting department. Heisinger is the link between the scouts out on the road and the corner office that signs off on all final decisions.
"There's a lot of things he's good at, but Zinger, first and foremost, is a worker. He's extremely dedicated to whatever he decides to do. The people that know him very closely and have been around him for many years have seen the physical transformation and the amount of time he's put in to getting in shape and reaching the fitness goals he's set out for himself," said Cheveldayoff, referring to the near-100 pounds Heisinger has lost and the gruelling workouts he puts himself through daily. "That's kind of the way he is in life. He's very well-organized. He's a list guy. He puts things on his list and doesn't cross them off until they're done."
Two stories from Heisinger's past still resonate to this day about the kind of manager he's become and will remain.
The first story comes from the day Heisinger was named GM of the Manitoba Moose. The red lights of the TV cameras were off and tape recorders placed in pockets.
Heisinger was talking to a pair of reporters who had known him since his time as an equipment manager when he was asked if his parents had attended the press conference.
"I didn't want them to come. I didn't want them to hear anyone laugh when they made the announcement. You know, equipment guy becomes GM, there could have been some scoffing," Heisinger told the reporters with a slight hint of embarrassment in his voice.
Flash forward six months to a quiet hallway in the basement of a minor league rink in Salt Lake City and there is Heisinger looking up into the face of then Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke. They're nose-to-nose and both faces are red as tomato juice.
Heisinger wanted Burke, who as Canucks boss had the right to select a coach for the AHL affiliate Moose, to fire head coach Stan Smyl. Burke wanted to know who the hell Heisinger thought he was, offering advice on how to run a team.
Burke is now president of the Calgary Flames and his view of Heisinger is no longer one that tilts downward.
"Zinger is unique," said Burke when asked about Heisinger on Tuesday. "He's worked from being a trainer to his current position through hard, hard work and quiet networking. He knows everybody in the game, and they respect him, to a man."
Heisinger is resolute in how he thinks things should be done. If it isn't being done right, he'll let it be known. Or, and this happens more often than not, he'll just do it himself.
The Jets used 10 picks at last summer's draft in New Jersey and they knew going into the process this was a chance to transform the organization. Heisinger travelled to Europe five times last year and crisscrossed North America several times watching junior and college players.
"This is a chance to get the organization on track," he told me last winter. "We've got to get this right."
They did. The Jets are now stocked not only with youth but with high-end prospects. The future of the organization is no longer a question mark hiding behind a bank of clouds.
"Zinger is a very, very important piece of the Jets. There are so many facets to the organization and so many details. The sheer amount of work that had to be done relocating two franchises, NHL and AHL, to new marketplaces was incredible," said Cheveldayoff. "He rolls up his sleeves and you never hear a word about it. One of the things he's become very good at over the years is the evaluation of talent. When you run an AHL team, you're all encompassing. Your own scouting staff, your own management staff, your own travel agent. You are your own everything. Those things have all translated into what he's been able to accomplish and bring to the table here."
Heisinger was called on Tuesday for a question or two and typically he was less than co-operative on the subject of himself. And just as typically, he was slow to accept the notion that something's been accomplished.
"We're just getting started," said Heisinger.
Makes you wonder what he still has on that list of his. And what the Jets will have to accomplish before he's willing to cross all the lines off.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @garylawless