Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets are already winners off the ice

Organization shows class in trying time

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Kevin Cheveldayoff, if he wasn't already sure about the people he's working with, will be now after witnessing the Winnipeg Jets organization handle last week's death of Rick Rypien.

Just minutes after stepping out of Rypien's funeral Saturday in Blairmore, Alta., the remark was made to Cheveldayoff that he had likely learned more in the last week about the people surrounding him than he normally could have over a much longer period.

Cheveldayoff, who was named Jets GM in June after discussions and interviews with owner Mark Chipman and assistant GM Craig Heisinger, offered a soft smile before speaking.

"I was talking to an agent the other day and I said to him, 'Many teams talk about treating their players like family. These people mean it and do it,' " said Cheveldayoff.

Chipman, Heisinger and Cheveldayoff travelled alongside a group of staffers, players and former employees for the funeral. Even the lone media member from Winnipeg was included in group activities, from a meal on Friday night to an impromptu airport gathering late Saturday afternoon.

There was no pecking order or executive seating, just a group of people grieving as a group and supporting one another. It didn't look like people from an office, but rather like a family. When someone needed a hug they got it. There wasn't a lot of laughter but underneath the blanket of sadness ran a current of support and togetherness that was only too obvious to this outsider, who for 24 hours was treated as one of the group.

Let me tell you from first-hand experience, in this business that's a rarity.

There's a line between team and those paid to watch and write about them and it's not to be crossed.

One night during a race riot in Cincinnati in 2001 the IHL Moose players voted for the team bus to leave the rink for the hotel rather than wait for the media contingent to wrap up in the press box and catch a ride.

We're not the enemy but we're not in the same trench and don't forget it.

As media we exist on the fringe of the team, often standing behind closed doors waiting for them to grant us access. They're polite and accommodating but it's a business relationship and not to be mistaken as personal.

There's also a divide between management and players. Sooner or later a GM will have to negotiate a contract with a player and even tell him it's time to exit. Longtime NHLer Mike Keane used to say, "You can't sit with the cops and the robbers. You gotta pick your place."

It's part of the game and it can be colder than meeting a father the first time you arrive to take his daughter out.

But in pro sports, as in all walks of life, there are times for business and times to just be people. Chipman and Heisinger get that and it flows down through their organization. Cheveldayoff has now been witness to the lengths his new co-workers will go to humanize their business and it has to be comforting.

Most often when a player leaves a team it is left to his new team to support him and help him through any issues. Heisinger, however, is famous for looking after his current and former players like a den mother.

For years Chipman used to bemusedly scratch his head as skates and sticks left the Moose dressing room along with departed players who went to play in Europe, where top-end equipment was hard to come by. Heisinger wasn't good with the word "no" where his former players were concerned.

In the case of Rypien, who leaned on Heisinger throughout his pro career when his depression became too much for him to handle, the Jets took his illness and finally his death, very personally.

Rypien, who broke in as a pro with the Moose but spent most of the last six seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, was found dead in his Coleman, Alta., home last Monday. While he had just signed with the Jets as a free agent there was no mistaking his rightful place as one of the family.

"This isn't about the player. It's about the person," Heisinger said, standing outside the arena in Blairmore where Rypien learned to play hockey as a kid. "Rick was a fantastic person. It's unfortunate the way it came to an end. But I'd go through this with Rick again in a heartbeat because he'd do the same for us. Rick was worth everything we did. Absolutely. I can't tell you I know a lot about depression but I can tell you I have a lot more to learn and we're not going to let Rick's tragedy go in vain. We will learn more about this. Rick's message at the end was so much about other people and being able to help them. That message is left to us now and we're going to work on it and get it out there."

Heisinger and Canucks GM Mike Gillis spoke about Rypien's legacy and making sure his life and his struggles led to something positive.

There's no plan in place just yet, but I can tell you this about Rick Rypien's legacy: With the Winnipeg Jets, it's in the right hands.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2011 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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