No Place Like Home
Through his ascent to Assistant GM of the Jets, Craig Heisinger's path has taken him many plaes, but Winnipeg has never been far from heart or home
In his current role as assistant general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, Craig Heisinger is constantly challenged to evaluate the careers of pro hockey players. But if one were to evaluate the hockey career of Heisinger, it would be easy to assess his strongest trait: Loyalty.
Through his life and career in hockey Heisinger has repeatedly shown fierce loyalty to his family, friends and the place he calls home. He has also been loyal to his own values and beliefs.
“Where a lot of people left (the Manitoba Moose), Zinger never thought about leaving,” said Winnipeg Jets Chairman Mark Chipman during a press conference in the summer of 2011. “His desire is to be part of professional hockey in Winnipeg. There’s been a lot of opportunity for him to go elsewhere over the years as his talents became known and really respected across the hockey world.”
In his younger days Heisinger was a goaltender for Deer Lodge, the St. James Canadiens and finally the Winnipeg South Blues. While with the Blues, an injury derailed his playing career.
“It was a knee injury,” says Heisinger. “Though it might have been more than a little convenient because I wasn’t very good. Maybe the team wanted me to be hurt more than I was,” he laughs. “But it was an opportunity to try something else in hockey.”
That something else was a stint as the Blues’ equipment manager. However, while spending a couple of seasons slinging hockey gear with the Blues, Heisinger was also giving serious thought as to what type of long-term career he would choose. On the advice of his parents he tried an apprenticeship in aviation mechanics, but it soon became apparent he was going against his natural instinct.
“I went back to my parents and said ‘Look, this isn’t working,’” says Heisinger. “’I’m going to give myself a three-year period to try hockey.’ I didn’t want to bounce around all over the place, but I wanted to see if I could establish myself. If it didn’t happen in those three years I would try something else.”
Due to his experience as an equipment manager with the Blues, Heisinger felt that his fit within the game of hockey could be in that capacity. With this goal in mind, Heisinger set off for Brandon in 1982 to be the Wheat Kings’ equipment manager.
“Working for the Wheat Kings was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because you learn a lot in the Western Hockey League whether you’re a manager, coach, player or trainer,” says Heisinger. “What can go wrong, will go wrong. You learn to fix your own problems. And you meet a lot of great people.”
One of those people was a talented young defenceman named Kevin Cheveldayoff.
“I met Chevy when he came to our evaluation camp at age 14,” says Heisinger. “He was a good player, but what stood out to me were his character and his toughness. Even as a kid he had those traits, and that stuck with me.”
Within a year of unknowingly crossing paths with a future ally, Heisinger came face-to-face with his future again in 1985 when then-Winnipeg Jets general manager John Ferguson offered him a job as an equipment manager. The only problem for Heisinger was that it was with the Jets’ AHL affiliate in Moncton, New Brunswick.
“I just couldn’t justify in my mind that going to Moncton would be better than staying in Brandon” says Heisinger.
The Wheat Kings equipment manager turned Ferguson’s offer down. Ferguson was less than impressed, and warned Heisinger that this decision could adversely affect his chances of working for the Jets in the future.
“I told Fergie ‘When you need to hire somebody down the road you’ll hire the best guy, and I’m the best guy,’” says Heisinger. “I knew I was rolling the dice but I felt confident in my decision.”
Today, Heisinger sees not only the risk of that fateful decision, but also the irony of the situation.
“In some ways my thinking at that time seems hypocritical now,” says Heisinger. “Had I known then what I know now about the American Hockey League, and all of my positive experiences with the AHL, I probably would have gone to Moncton. But it all worked out.”
Remaining in Brandon, the hardworking equipment manager’s reputation continued to grow, and doors began to open. In 1988 Heisinger was selected to accompany Canada’s entry in the World Junior Hockey Championships in Moscow, where the Canadians won gold.
Sure enough, when the Jets came calling for an assistant equipment manager later that year, Heisinger was still the best guy available, and Ferguson hired him for the start of the 1988-89 season. Two years later, Heisinger was promoted to head equipment manager. He remained at that post until the team packed up for the Arizona desert in 1996 - for Heisinger, a memory that eclipses all others from that era. Virtually the entire Jets organization moved to Phoenix, but Heisinger stayed in his hometown.
“I had a family with four young kids – three in diapers – and that is a monumental decision to pick up and move to a strange city with no history of hockey whatsoever,” says Heisinger. “I was excited to stay in Winnipeg with the Moose and start something different. The NHL was not the be-all and end-all for me, and I had no regrets. Much like turning Fergie down for the Moncton job, it turned out to be a good decision.”
With the Moose, Heisinger crossed paths with an old friend – and sometimes foe – Randy Carlyle. Carlyle was a hard-nosed defenceman with the Jets when Heisinger showed up on the scene in 1989, and the two would constantly lock horns in their first three years together before settling into the long-lasting friendship they enjoy to this day. In the early years of the Moose, Carlyle was the general manager and Heisinger retained the equipment manager position he held with the Jets.
“I probably don’t have a closer friend than Randy, and there is probably no one that I learned more from than Randy,” says Heisinger. “I certainly didn’t see that when I first met him. We didn’t get along very well. But at the end of the day he taught me a lot in terms of what was acceptable in the NHL, and how to be a professional. I think that those standards were passed down to him by Fergie, and now I am trying to pass them on to our organization.”
In 1999 Heisinger was promoted to assistant general manager of the Moose under Carlyle and in 2002 the former equipment manager was named the general manager of the club, a position he held for the rest of the team’s existence up until 2011. During many of these years, Heisinger would renew acquaintances with another old pal in Cheveldayoff, who was now the general manager of the rival Chicago Wolves.
“As much as it was a heated rivalry, we always remained friends and there was definitely a mutual respect between Chevy and I,” says Heisinger. “As much as it killed me that they beat us most of the time, we were friends. He’s a bright, articulate guy, and I admired those qualities as a player and I have never changed my opinion of him.”
Heisinger and Cheveldayoff are now on the same team for the first time since 1988, and this mutual respect has a lot to do with it. Heisinger is the assistant general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, and with Cheveldayoff in the general manager role the Jets have a management team that finds a lot pride in their AHL roots. Both men are ready for their latest challenges in the NHL, but to say they have forgotten where they came from would be inaccurate. This bodes well for the IceCaps in St. John’s.
“It would be extremely hypocritical of both Chevy and myself to treat our AHL team with anything but the utmost respect, or to forget about the importance of winning at that level,” says Heisinger. “There is a very fine line between developing players and winning, but they go hand in hand. It is a culture that we have to create. We want our AHL team to be treated the way we wanted to be treated when we were in the AHL.”