It's been an eventful six months since the new Winnipeg Jets hired their first general manager, 41-year-old Kevin Cheveldayoff.
Cheveldayoff sat down with Free Press hockey writer Tim Campbell on Thursday on the six-month anniversary of his appointment to review his time piloting an NHL franchise and for a sneak peek to the next six months.
FP: How would you give a brief summary of the six months?
KC: I could go on and on but it's a wonderful experience. I don't know if I could have done this without the people around me that I have, guys like Craig Heisinger who literally take a task and run with it, expand it, move it in the right direction. Working with him each day, having him help me make critical decisions, has been great. Ownership has been just phenomenal and very supportive. We've had some great dialogue and conversation about the direction of the team and the franchise. And it's been about the excitement level they're experiencing and that the fans are experiencing.
FP: Do you have a personal highlight from the first six months?
KC: Honestly, as weird as it sounds, one of the wonderful things that gives me chills each and every day I hear it is when they sing the Canadian national anthem and the fans yell out 'True North.' I seriously get chills down my spine every time I hear that. For me, that's their connection to us right now. They feel very supportive of True North Sports and Entertainment and when I hear that I know for sure that they're very much behind us and in support of us. That goes a long way, and I think the guys hear that as well.
FP: What's the hardest thing you've had to do?
KC: Any time you're dealing with people, when I first came on the job we had to make some very tough decisions on some personnel within the organization. It's never easy because one of the things this organization prides itself on is that it cares about people and the person, not just about the product on the ice. It was very, very tough when you have to make those kinds of decisions. You know it has impact on people's lives. You try to be as open, honest and direct as possible."
FP: What's the boldest thing you've done?
KC: I don't know that there's any one thing. You make decisions as a group and one of the biggest ones that impacts the franchise for many years to come was the selection of our head coach. It was a long and thought-out process. It may not have seemed long to some people but it was hours and hours of conversations, communications with people in the hockey industry, knowing it was going to be a very impactful decision. Call it bold or call it a necessity, but it's something we're very happy with.
FP: Complete this sentence: The thing I wish more people knew about my job is ...
KC: That's a tough one for me. I'm not a guy that really fills in sentences too well. I kind of make my own sentences. I think people need to understand that this isn't a job you can just say, 'I'm going to do this or why not try this?' Every single thing you do, it's kind of like physics, that there's always an equal and opposite reaction. So I wish people understood that this does take time, that this is a process. This is not something where you can say, 'Let's just trade this guy,' because trading a guy, lots of things come into play, including the human side which is very important as well.
FP: Hindsight being perfect, is there anything you could have done to avoid the team's slow start this season?
KC: You're really always evaluating, looking to improve things for the future, not so much to see where you went wrong but maybe where you can do things better. A lot of things were unforeseen, dealing with them for the first time. Essentially, it was like 25 players getting traded. It's something you can't really be prepared for. There's no handbook on how to move a franchise. Certainly, I'm very proud of the way things unfolded. Every franchise and organization is going to have some slow spots in the season. Hopefully ours was at the beginning.
FP: If in the future somewhere down the line a team was to be moved and someone came to you for advice, what would you tell them?
KC: Get a sound infrastructure around you. Get people that you trust and that you can delegate things to, so that once you delegate a task, you know it'll get done.
FP: Can you tell us something you've found in Winnipeg that you didn't expect?
KC: There wasn't a lot I didn't expect. I knew the province and city well. I think obviously the way the people have embraced it. We all knew that it was something they were going to embrace. Just the impact it's had on the city... I don't think anybody from the outside truly understands when you see so many people in Jets gear of some sort. We did a visit at the Children's Rehabilitation Centre. You see excitement on faces, and I've been to (similar) situations before and you see excitement and you know it's uplifting. But talking to parents and kids and having them know who Ondrej Pavelec is or Dustin Byfuglien, after a short, short period of time, these kids knew everything about these players. And to know in such a short period of time you've impacted their lives, their daily thinking, that's a pretty powerful thing.
FP: How have the other NHL GMs treated you so far?
KC: They've treated me fine. I had relationships with pretty much most of them over the course of time. That really hasn't changed. Now you're one of 30 people making decisions that actually do impact the game at a great level. And it has ripple effects throughout hockey. It is a great responsibility and one you have to take very seriously because we're just custodians of the game. It's an honour to be part of the NHL, a privilege, but at the end of the day, you don't own the game. It's a global thing and when you have decision-making power, you have to take it seriously."
FP: The Atlanta Thrashers team from last year has not changed very much on the ice. Is that by design?
KC: I think the young core that was in place, from the start we talked about that having to be the future. It's truly the only way you're going to continue to grow as an organization -- if you have an influx of young players that continue to grow and that mesh well with veteran players. The infrastructure hasn't changed very much, yet it has. When you're trying to change a culture, you don't change the culture first. The culture change actually comes last. If you really think about it, you have to set a level of values, a level of expectations but then the players involved with it have to see the results of that. They have to see the direction you're going or talking about is a direction that makes sense, one that has results and success attached to it. Because then that becomes the cultural change. I think all too often people just think we're changing the culture. But what does that mean? When you really start to drill down, it takes a long, long time before you change the culture. You have to get these players to believe that the team isn't just an avenue to have the guys together, it's the only way you can be successful.
FP: One question on a lot of fans' minds, and will be in the next months, is if your team is in the chase for, or in a playoff spot, can you and would you spend some money at the trading deadline to make it better?
KC: You don't just spend money for the sake of spending it. That's something we've talked about. We've been very prudent with how we've approached this. One of the areas that obviously you can't 100 per cent account for is injuries, and we've experienced a lot of those. The lineup we played against Boston the other night had $20 million of injuries. That's a great amount. What we're really looking forward to is getting some of these guys back from injury and assessing where we can go and what our holes may be. If there's a right fit, then we'll definitely look at it. If we have the assets to acquire it, we'll do that. There's a strong commitment here to do whatever it's going to take to make the team a successful one. But at the end of the day, everything we're going to do is going to be focused on the long term.