WINNIPEG - Intensity, work ethic, leadership — and a hell of a left hook.
Those are some of the traits that define Kevin Cheveldayoff, expected to be named the GM of Winnipeg’s new NHL entry as early as Tuesday.
“He was probably the toughest 16-year-old I’ve ever seen,” Jeff Odgers, a junior teammate and friend of Cheveldayoff, told the Winnipeg Sun, Monday. “He came in and fought a lot of heavyweights as a 16-year-old. He was a big lefty. And he could throw ’em.”
Odgers and Cheveldayoff, a couple of rural Saskatchewan boys, were teammates with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings in the 1980s, living together for two years. They remained close, Cheveldayoff acting as emcee for Odgers’ wedding years later.
“Even as a kid, he was always way more focused than the rest of us,” Odgers said from the family farm at Spy Hill, Sask., just 25 minutes from Russell, Man. “I always said he was way too smart to play the game. He had that commitment to school, to hockey, he took it all the way.”
So when a knee injury blew up Cheveldayoff’s pro career just five years in, the first-round draft choice of the New York Islanders made the smart choice.
He got into coaching.
“He could see where it was kind of going, and he made the decision earlier, where a lot of us would have kept trying to bang it out for the next 11 or 12 years and tried to make a living,” Odgers said. “But he saw the writing on the wall. He always had exceptional organizational skills and leadership skills. And he’s proved it.”
While he began as an assistant coach for the Denver and Utah Grizzlies, it was in the front office where Cheveldayoff blossomed.
In 12 seasons as GM of the minor-league Chicago Wolves, his teams won four league championships, two in the AHL and two in the IHL.
Always one step ahead of the Manitoba Moose, the Wolves became Manitoba’s most hated rival.
“This isn’t a slight against Manitoba, but we won four championships, and we were in the final six times in 11 years,” former Wolves head coach John Anderson said. “So if you’re going to hire somebody outside of the organization, you better go to where the winner was, and that’s Chevy.
“If anybody is ready for a GM job, it’s him. What else does he have to prove? Lots of guys have done lots less. It’s time for him.”
After those dozen years in the minors, Cheveldayoff finally got the call to the big leagues, landing the assistant GM job with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009.
He may have had limited influence on the roster that won the Stanley Cup in his first season, but he’ll have the final say on all personnel decisions with Winnipeg, making him True North Sports’ most critical hire.
“He’ll make a great NHL GM,” Odgers predicted. “He has a pretty good understanding of what it takes to make a team. If you’re in the NHL or IHL or AHL, you have to be willing to bring a group of guys together and find those personalities that work. I don’t see him having any more difficulty at the NHL level.
“He’s a smart enough guy that he’s going to be able to see ahead, and not get himself in salary cap trouble, and see the big picture. He’s going to be honest. And he’s going to be prepared.”
If there’s a drawback to hiring Cheveldayoff, it’s his lack of experience at the NHL level.
But those who’ve worked with him say he’ll more than make up for it with his work ethic, intensity and will to win.
Odgers remembers taking his young son to Chicago for a Wolves playoff game, where the two sat in the GM’s box.
“My son couldn’t believe how intense he was, and how he was watching the game,” Odgers said. “I said, ‘Well, that’s Kevin.’ ”
Anderson recalls having arguments with his GM more than once.
“But when you’re arguing with someone who only wants one thing, that’s to win ... it’s not about getting kudos or anything like that, it’s about the hockey team,” Anderson said. “Even in arguments, his heart’s in the right spot.”
For the next few years, barring something unforeseen, it’ll be in Winnipeg.