Money man: Jets ‘capologist’ says craft is much more than crunching numbers

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If you picture him as the guy in the Winnipeg Jets front office with his fingers on a calculator 24/7, you've got it all wrong.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/04/2015 (2793 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If you picture him as the guy in the Winnipeg Jets front office with his fingers on a calculator 24/7, you’ve got it all wrong.

Yes, Larry Simmons is the Jets assistant general manager with a primary responsibility to keep the team on the straight and narrow when it comes to the NHL’s salary cap system — a.k.a. the “capologist,” but the term strikes him as much too one-dimensional.

“A little negative, that term, and it’s not a fair or total representation of what I or we do,” Simmons said. “It’s not an NHL term, just an external term.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Jets assistant GM Larry Simmons prior to the Jets vs. Chicago Blackhawks game Sunday March 29, 2015 at the MTS Centre.

“People have a tendency to think that that’s all certain individuals do and I can quite frankly tell you that’s not accurate. I know the guys on the other teams, it’s a great deal more involved that the term might lead others to believe.”

Ensuring contracts are compliant with NHL collective bargaining agreement rules, including the cap system, is the foundation. But you’ll find Simmons is the one providing the focus not only for today’s roster picture, but also the long-term view of commitments and possibilities.

He’s also a tireless researcher on players, player comparables in terms of statistics and contracts, giving GM Kevin Cheveldayoff the basis on which to proceed with upcoming contract negotiations.

And there’s no doubt he’s got a voice — one of many, Cheveldayoff has said frequently — when it comes to the franchise’s hockey decisions.

The heft of that responsibility is not the result of a road well-traveled.

Simmons was born and raised in Catskill, N.Y., but moved with his family to Titusville, Fla., when he was 10.

“There wasn’t a lot of hockey being played in Florida at that time,” he said about 1983. “Certainly, it’s an unusual path that I had.”

His involvement in hockey started out nowhere near ice. As an undergrad at the University of Central Florida, “I needed a job,” he said.

So he applied for and was hired by the NBA’s Orlando Magic in the finance department in Shaquille O’Neal’s rookie year, 1992.

When the Magic bought an expansion IHL franchise three years later, Simmons saw an opportunity for full-time work and was hired by then-GM Don Waddell to work for the Solar Bears.

“I was probably working 60 hours a week while I was completing my undergrad at UCF,” Simmons, now 42, recalled. “I would literally go to class in the morning, come into the office and work eight or so hours and go back to a seven o’clock night class. Sometimes I’d even go back to the office after that.

“It was a tremendous opportunity to be at the start-up of an organization. And as it turned out I got to be part of a start-up in Atlanta, too.”

When Waddell left the Solar Bears for the expansion Thrashers, Simmons worked two more IHL seasons for John Weisbrod in Orlando before Waddell brought him to work for the Thrashers not long before their first game.

Around the time Simmons completed his MBA at Georgia State, Waddell promoted him to assistant GM. He retained the job when Waddell was booted upstairs and Rick Dudley took over the Atlanta GM’s chair in 2010.

Barely a year later, it was déj vu all over again.

“I’d say it was a nervous time again when the team was being sold and moved (to Winnipeg),” Simmons said. “As it turned out… I had a 10-year working relationship with Chevy because the Chicago Wolves were our affiliate in Atlanta.

“I had the good fortune of developing a really good professional and personal relationship with Chevy. So when he got the job in Winnipeg, based on the history we had, he knew me as a person and knew what I brought to the table professionally, he elected to keep me aboard.

“And now I’ve had the good fortune of working in a Canadian market.”

Part of Simmons’ fortune has been to discover how passionate and opinionated Canadian and Winnipeg hockey fans can be.

That includes a predominantly negative and one-dimensional view on the Atlanta era.

“I understand why fans would have that perception,” Simmons said. “Certainly we didn’t have the level of success that we strived for. But there were a lot of reasons for that.

“To recap or recant them would be unfair to a number of parties. There was an ownership change in Atlanta from the original group, which was essentially (Ted) Turner, to AOL/Time Warner and through the transition to Atlanta Spirit.

“The Atlanta Spirit transition was obviously a difficult time and shortly after those partners came together, they basically broke apart and it was a very public and very contentious break-up. Certainly that had ripple effects throughout the whole organization, including the Thrashers.”

In the end, a crunch on spending limited options to improve the roster.

“It was certainly financial at times,” Simmons said. “But there were times when it wasn’t financial, like when we first came in. That wasn’t a concern like it was in maybe the second half of the Thrashers’ time.

“But it’s always a lot more than one reason for lack of success, or when you do have success. Over the period of 11 years that we were there, it was a lot of things, many of them not readily apparent to the public.”

The history is the history. Having been on both sides of the relocation, does it bother Simmons to hear the opinions of the current team through the lens of hindsight?

“It bothered me early on but at this point in time it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I really think it lacks a certain level of context. If you really drill down and look at it, well, people refer to the Atlanta core or the Atlanta culture and it’s just not the case. The facts speak for themselves.

“If you look at the core of this team, hardly any of them were in Atlanta for any length of time. Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart, for instance, are core members of this team and they were there for two months.

“Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, they’re core members of this team, they were there for a year coming off a Stanley Cup in Chicago. So it’s not as though they turned into something they weren’t in the short period of time there were in Atlanta.

“I hear people talk about the culture in Atlanta. They came in and played under Craig Ramsey, who was coming in himself and instilling a new culture. There was a new culture that Rick Dudley was introducing. The end didn’t finish as we hoped but there was a new culture and an improvement of it… things were being turned around, I would say, when those players played there.

“So you’re talking a very small number of players, especially now that Bogo (Zach Bogosian) and (Evander) Kane are gone.

“I’ve always honestly felt it was a convenient excuse, for lack of a better word, when people would point to Atlanta.”

It’s the present that matters more to Simmons, he said.

“I can tell you there was a world of difference from Day 1 in Winnipeg in terms of the culture that the organization surrounded the players with,” he said. “It bothered me early on, but now it’s really an afterthought for me because we’re the Winnipeg Jets, not the Atlanta Thrashers.

“So much of your culture starts with your coach and I think you see that with Paul Maurice. If things go wrong or when we hit some adversity, never in the back of my mind do I even factor Atlanta into the equation. That’s in the distance for me.”

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

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