The NHL is an old league. It can trace its very earliest roots to before the turn of the last century when mining companies would employ the best “amateur” players at no-show jobs so they could be ringers on the company team. As an old and storied organization the NHL has what’s known as an old boys club. It’s inevitable and it happens quite naturally in most industries, people prefer to deal with others who are known constants. There are ramifications for going against the grain in the old boys club, just ask Ted Nolan. In order to affect change you have to become a member and then smash the boundaries from the inside out. I get the sense that this is the gamble the Winnipeg Jets are taking.
It started in 1999 when a then inexperienced hockey club owner, Mark Chipman decided to take a chance on an equipment manager and bring him into the front office. Obviously Mr. Chipman understood that hockey smarts could come from anywhere and anyone who had followed the game long enough and close enough. There are intangibles that can’t be qualified and apparently Craig Heisinger had two; a passion for hockey and a nose for talent. Going outside the boundaries served the AHL Moose and the Vancouver Canucks very well indeed in the intervening years, with several coaches and a number of players using the AHL Moose as a catapult to the big show.
Now I know this is starting to sound like a TNSE love fest, but really reader I’m getting to a point. This was the start of pattern of behaviour; looking outside the boundaries of convention to achieve success. It’s, to use a way over used term: “out of the box” thinking.
Fast forward 15 years and an NHL franchise lands in Winnipeg. TNSE has massaged the old guard over a period of almost eight years to get to this point, working within the boundaries of the NHL club slowly gaining the trust of the establishment, until the membership rolls where opened and the secret handshake was revealed. You could almost hear the clanging of chairs and slamming of doors in the offices of TSN,NBC, and Sportsnet as “in-between jobs” GM’s and coaches rushed out to update their resumes and work their “connections”. The club had moved and there where NHL jobs to be had boys!
The first casualty of TNSE newthink was Rick Dudley, who like a professional bowed out gracefully. The feeding frenzy was on now, there was a GM position open, and every front office hack around the league was salivating at the prospect. Next on the hit list, Craig Ramsey. Wait, what Craig Ramsey? How could they do that, he has 40 years of experience in the league, this was unheard of! And Ramsey certainly let everyone in the old boys club know how he felt after a temper tantrum during a Sports Net interview shortly afterwards. Didn’t they know who he was!
The house had been cleaned, and now it was time do some hiring. Oh how the unemployed ex NHLers had waited for this, cell phone minutes would be burned! First on the list was Kevin Cheveldayoff, no not Kevin Cheveleday, Cheveldayoff. The Chicago Blackhawks assistant GM had only two years of NHL experience, but had a long history of winning in the AHL and especially against his arch rivals the Manitoba Moose. The whispering began, only two years in the NHL? Why hire your arch rival? Maybe it had something to do with the intangibles yet again; a nose for putting together winning clubs year after year, and an ability to foster a culture of performance. Next the head coach, Claude Noel. Again only a limited experience in the NHL. Didn’t TNSE know that Ken Hitchcok and Mark Crawford where available? I mean c’mon, Hitcher and Crowe! Sorry recycling losing records isn’t part of the plan.
Now for the assistant coaches; first, Charlie Huddy. Well that’s better an old time Oiler and someone the boys around the league can relate to. Thank heavens TNSE has finally come to their senses! Nerves where on edge around the league now, there was only one coaching job left. Surely it would go to an NHL old schooler, they would need the experience and wisdom to guide poor Claude through the trials and tribulations of the big show. Wrong! Paul Vincent was hired out of the QMJHL, where he was both coach and GM of clubs that had a culture of performance. Are we noticing a pattern yet? It’s called winning.
All of the Winnipeg hires from the top down have “it”. What is “it”? It’s the ability to create systems and cultures that win. It’s the ability to shake convention and look in the hard places for the components that will lead to success. Sorry the old tired way of doing things just doesn’t fit in the new Jets Philosophy.
The Winnipeg Jets are ultimately blazing their own trail in the NHL with many eyes watching to see if the grand experiment will take off or fail. Failure is a possibility, as experience does ultimately count for something, and mistakes at this level are not easily forgiven nor are they limited in their consequences. Many a superstar in the lower leagues has made the jump to the big show only to get a cold hard reality sandwich. These are the bigs, and there are not only reputations, but big money at stake, along with people’s livelihoods. There will be precious little room for learning on the job and this crew will need to adapt or give way to people that can.
The Jets are taking chances and coming up with new ways to run a club. Only time will tell if they will ultimately be successful. If they are successful, they will become a template for rebuilding clubs in years to come. If the fail, they’ll have Winnipeg Jets fans to answer to, and that wouldn’t be pretty.