Pair of Manitobans leading Winnipeg’s newest pro hockey team
By Derek Gagnon
What does it feel like when the sports team you work for leaves for another city…twice?
Craig Heisinger has experienced the prospect of the hockey team he worked for being relocated to a new location on two separate occasions. First, when the Winnipeg Jets left in 1996 and then again when the Jets came back and the Moose were the ones leaving in 2011.
“Losing the Moose was hard,” said Heisinger. “But when the Jets left it was worse. They were leaving and never coming back”
Heisinger currently holds the lengthy title of Assistant General Manager and Director of Hockey Operations, Winnipeg Jets (NHL), Senior Vice President, True North Sports & Entertainment Limited, and General Manager, Manitoba Moose, American Hockey League (AHL). It’s been a long road to that title for Heisinger. After being deemed too small to be a player, in the 1980s he switched to becoming an equipment manager, first in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and then the Western Hockey League. In 1990, Heisinger made the jump to the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets, starting out as an assistant equipment manager, then later, becoming the head equipment manager in 1992. Heisinger still gushes when asked about his time as an equipment manager, and he laughed when asked if he had ever imagined one day being the Senior Vice President of an NHL franchise.
“No, probably not. For me, and much to the chagrin of my parents, the end goal was always to be the equipment manager for the Winnipeg Jets. I achieved that and I was very happy doing that, but I never imagined how far it would go.”
While opportunities to relocate with teams have frequently come up, Heisinger has found a way to stay in Winnipeg.
“The decisions haven’t been difficult, and timing has also played a role. One of my first hockey jobs was with the Winnipeg Warriors of the Western Hockey League as their equipment manager. When they relocated to Moose Jaw, the options were move with them to Saskatchewan or stay in Manitoba and work with the Brandon Wheat Kings, which I did. That decision to stay in Manitoba was easy. Later on, when the first Jets team relocated to Phoenix, I had four children under the age of four and wasn’t about to uproot my family.”
In 1996, Heisinger was brought into the Manitoba Moose fold after an endorsement from then assistant coach Randy Carlyle, who got promoted to head coach and general manager later that season. Carlyle praised Heisinger’s work ethic, having worked with him when Carlyle played for the Jets a few years earlier.
“The most difficult decision I made was the decision to move from equipment manager to assistant general manager under Randy Carlyle in 1999. He had told me that if I didn’t like it, I could go back to my old job, but that never happened.”
In 2002, Carlyle left the Moose to become head coach of the NHL’s Washington Capitals, and Heisinger was promoted to the general manager’s position, a post he would hold until the Moose became the IceCaps in 2011, assuming the same title for the new team.
Heisinger had mixed feelings when the Jets returned and the Moose left.
An emotional time
“It was kind of like getting sand kicked in our faces with how quickly people were willing to cast the Moose aside. It was a very emotional time for a number of reasons, but they were mostly winning emotions.
“We’d all cut our teeth in the International Hockey League (IHL) and NHL. While we never won a championship, the end goal was always to get an NHL franchise back in the city. I was happy to see that accomplished.”
While his list of responsibilities has increased over time, and unexpected obstacles can impede his work, Heisinger wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is all I’ve ever known, dealing on the front lines with the players every day. No two days are ever the same, and you run into Murphy’s Law quite often. But you find a way to get things done.”
With the NHL and AHL franchises now sharing a building, Heisinger is quick to point out some of the advantages they have over other organizations.
“I think it’s really good for the players, especially those in the AHL. They know they’re being watched closely and that adds a little extra motivation. On the people side of things, it’s also better; take (veteran player) Jay Harrison for example. When he was sent from the NHL to the AHL at the end of the pre-season, his world was upside down. But for a guy with a family and four little girls, he didn’t have to worry about his personal life because he was staying in Winnipeg.”
From an administrative perspective, Heisinger will not miss the seven-hour flights to St. John’s to see the AHL club. The move means that only one of the Jets minor league affiliates, the Tulsa Oilers of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), is out of town.
“Everybody enjoys it more. We had lost touch more and more as time went on between 2011 and 2015. It’s enjoyable to be able to stay in the city as well. Daily business is pretty much the same and I’m able to talk to the NHL, AHL and ECHL coach everyday.”
So what’s it like working in the city you grew up in?
“Lots of positives and negatives. You can’t hide, so you just have to put on a brave face and deal with it. It’s still way better than a normal job.”
A Moose on and off the ice
Moose Head Coach Keith McCambridge has had a bit of a luxury in regards to working in his home province. McCambridge, who was born in Thompson but raised in Selkirk, was a player and coach for the first version of the Moose, served as the head coach of the St. John’s IceCaps for their four seasons in Newfoundland, and has remained in that role since their return to Manitoba.
“Coming back to play or coach at home is rare, and it’s happened twice, first as a player for a few games in 2000, then as an assistant coach from 2009 to 2011. Those were two really good years with good coaches.”
With the return of the Jets, the Moose head coach at the time, Claude Noel, got the NHL job, which left a vacancy for the head-coaching job with the AHL team, the St. John’s IceCaps. McCambridge applied for the job and got it.
McCambridge describes the transition from player to coach as a goal he had while playing. He admits not knowing how much hard work there would be, and the importance of representing the team and the logo.
“I was always interested in structure and details while playing. How hockey and systems worked, while still addressing day to day operations.
“I had the opportunity to play and coach under a lot of great coaches over the years, which really helped me to grow as a coach.”
McCambridge says his goal from day one has been to become a coach at the NHL level. The previous four Manitoba head coaches have all made the jump immediately after their time with the Moose.
“Management has done a great job of watching us and staying in contact. It’s great when we’re in their backyard.”
McCambridge knows that being an AHL coach means that your roster can change on the spur of the moment if the NHL club has a need. While it makes his job a little bit tougher to deal with last minute changes, seeing his players get the call to the NHL brings him great joy.
“We’re extremely happy that they’ve developed enough to get that call. There’s a huge pride factor amongst the assistants and myself when one of our guys gets called up to the NHL. When (current Moose captain) John Albert was called up in December of 2013, and scored in his first NHL game, I cheered so loud I may have woken up my son.”
McCambridge says seeing players get the call is akin to a father’s feeling of pride, and the team family always remains a high priority for the coach. His wife is from Selkirk; his mother lives in St. Andrews and the family had kept a summer home in Winnipeg throughout their time living in St. John’s. While going home was easy, there were some hard parts too.
“I found out I was going to be the Moose head coach on Mar. 12. I’ll always remember that because one of my kids was celebrating a birthday that day. It’s tough leaving a community that you’ve become engrained in, but knowing you’re going home makes it much easier.”
McCambridge looks back fondly on his years growing up in Manitoba.
“When I think of hockey in Manitoba, and all the time I’ve spent playing here, it’s neat to come back and see all the old rinks and arenas. It’s rare to have coaches and management from the same province, and we have three with Heisinger, assistant coach Rick St. Croix and myself.
“I’m proud to coach here and realize first hand what it means to give back to hockey in Manitoba.”