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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lord of the Wheat Kings

Kelly McCrimmon does it all for Brandon's WHL club

Posted: 03/30/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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REGINA -- Kelly McCrimmon is not inclined toward reflection. The Brandon Wheat Kings' owner, general manager and head coach typically focuses on the present and the future, and understandably so.

After all, his team -- which is laden with premier young talent -- completed a first-round sweep Friday of their Western Hockey League playoff series with the Regina Pats.

But if you ask him, he will look back on a remarkable hockey journey -- one that includes elation, devastation, and everything in between.

 

"I'm not a guy who reflects back on things -- probably not enough, to be honest,'' says the Saskatchewan-born McCrimmon, 53, who grew up on the family farm near Plenty. "I love what I do. It's a way of life. It's not a job. It's what we do. It's what my family does.

"We try to do things as well as we can to give our players the best chance to develop and to give our team the best chance to win.''

In one sense, very little has changed since 1978, when he made his WHL debut as a right-winger with the Wheat Kings. All these years later, he is still a Wheat King.

McCrimmon was introduced to major-junior hockey as a member of a Brandon team that won 58 games and set an enduring league record for points in a season (125).

The principal players on that Dunc McCallum-coached team were Brian Propp, Ray Allison and Laurie Boschman -- who combined for 220 goals and 496 points while playing on a legendary line -- and defenceman Brad McCrimmon (Kelly's brother).

"From a hockey perspective, that was as special as it gets, and then to get a chance to play with my brother...'' Kelly McCrimmon says, pausing, "which is even more meaningful in hindsight.''

Brad McCrimmon was the head coach of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League when the team's plane crashed after takeoff on Sept. 7, 2011. Forty-four people lost their lives. Only the flight engineer survived.

"Kelly McCrimmon's not the first person to have a tragedy, so I'm not trying to suggest that what happened to us is unique,'' Kelly says. "There are a number of other families who have dealt with something similar.

"You're never prepared for a tragedy of that magnitude. You're never prepared to lose someone close to you suddenly. It's almost magnified by the fact that it's a half a world away. It was an entire team that perished.

"It's all as tough as you can imagine. I would describe it as probably being in a position where you go through the motions for a while. You're doing things you know you have to do, and yet it's pretty hard to function normally. You know you need to get on with your life and that's what we all do.

"I think over time it gets better. I know all of us still have hard days. Sometimes I can talk through stuff like that and it doesn't even faze me. Sometimes it'll just catch me and it's harder.''

On the darkest of days, McCrimmon leaned on the people around him, such as the many long-standing employees in a Wheat Kings organization that is noted for its amazing continuity.

The standard is set by McCrimmon, who is marking his 25th year of continuous service to the club.

That was not the plan. He was going to earn a living on the family farm, owned by his parents (Byron and Faye), and that is what he did for a couple of years.

Meanwhile, he kept his hand in the hockey business, coaching and playing with the Kerrobert Tigers of the Wild Goose Hockey League.

From there, he proceeded to the SJHL, coaching with the North Battleford North Stars and Lloydminster Lancers. And then, at 27, he joined the Wheat Kings as an assistant coach. A year later, he became the GM.

At 31, he was offered a one-third share in the team by then-owner Bob Cornell. Only then did it become clear that McCrimmon was not going back to the farm.

McCrimmon became the team's sole owner in 2000 and has continued to occupy multiple roles. On top of it all, he received a master of business administration degree from Queen's University in 2003.

Operating a major-junior franchise is time-consuming enough... and then to earn an MBA on top of it all? It is to marvel.

McCrimmon is the last person who is going to make a big deal about himself. When asked about how he administers days that would seem to require 38 hours, he simply states: "You've got to work hard, you've got to work long hours, and you've got to be organized."

Especially when your job description -- owner, GM and head coach -- can be divided among three people in other markets.

It should be noted McCrimmon isn't predisposed to coach. In fact, the Wheat Kings re-emerged as a perennial power in the WHL during an extended period in which McCrimmon was the GM and Bob Lowes was the head coach.

"I'd like to mention just how good a coach Bobby Lowes was, and how good a man,'' McCrimmon says. "Bobby was with us for nine years. If I laid the groundwork the three years before he got to Brandon, he turned the corner.''

Since Lowes left the organization in 2001, McCrimmon has coached more often than not. He has been behind the Wheat Kings' bench for eight of the past 10 seasons, plus the tail end of the 2003-04 campaign.

"I've never been a guy who's afraid of work,'' he says. "I like the industry that I work in and the people who I work with, so it has never felt like work to me.''

The hours are long. The affiliation with the Wheat Kings is even longer.

In an unstable business, McCrimmon has become synonymous with an organization that he has embraced for most of his adult life.

"I've been real fortunate, with so many great people who have come through our organization as players and coaches and scouts,'' he says. "With the people who have worked in our office, we've had a lot of continuity over the years and that has been a big part of what we are.''

But it all begins with someone who started as a Wheat King more than 35 years ago.

What a journey it continues to be.

 

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2014 B6

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