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McCRIMMON & CHEVELDAYOFF – CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH

(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) There’s no mistaking the Brandon Wheat Kings fingerprints all over the National Hockey League’s Western Conference final.

On one hand, the Vegas Golden Knights have assistant general manager Kelly McCrimmon, assistant coach Ryan Craig, player Ryan Reaves, director of player personnel Vaughn Karpan and assistant director of player personnel Bobby Lowes.

On the other, Kevin Cheveldayoff is Winnipeg’s executive vice president and general manager, Craig Heisinger is senior vice president, director of hockey operations and assistant general manager and Dustin Byfuglien is on the ice.

So what gives that two top executives with Brandon ties — Cheveldayoff and McCrimmon — are meeting this deep in the NHL playoffs? How does Brandon play into the equation?

Former Wheat Kings defenceman Rob Puchniak played with Cheveldayoff and under McCrimmon.

“If a culture is defined by the way that people treat one another, there was certainly some common ground between these two guys in Chevy and Kelly,” Puchniak said. “There was some seriousness about the way they approached the game and a really honest, hard work ethic to their approach to everything. But they were also guys who enjoyed a laugh and knew when to lighten the mood. They were good to other people.”

The Jets and Golden Knights continue their best of seven series Monday night in Winnipeg.

Cheveldayoff’s four-year WHL career was punctuated by a serious knee injury that essentially kept the Saskatoon product out of action for the 1989 calendar year,straddling two hockey seasons. McCrimmon came on board during the 1988-89 season as an assistant coach, and was immediately impressed by his team captain.

“Chevy was 10 years older than all those guys,” McCrimmon said. “He was mature beyond his years. He was very intelligent, a tremendous leader and he and Jeff Odgers were great friends going back to midget and remain great friends. Chevy was pretty special as a person as a young guy. He was going to be successful whether it was in hockey or whatever walk of life that he chose to pursue.”

Odgers agrees. He and Cheveldayoff played three seasons together in Brandon after forging their friendship in Saskatoon.

“He was always focused, he always had a plan, he had goals, whether it even be playing junior,” Odgers said. “He had a goal of being the scholastic player of the year. He was a guy who always, especially as a teenager, was way more mature in thinking than a lot of us, who flew by the seat of our pants day by day. Chevy had a plan, thought things through and never really did anything that was off the wall and crazy. He always thought about what he did.”

In Puchniak’s rookie season, Cheveldayoff was going through his injury-plagued final season.

Puchniak quickly recognized that Cheveldayoff, who is now 48, was someone worth keeping an eye on.

“I saw him as successful already then,” Puchniak said. “He was a team leader, he’s a guy who has been a high draft pick but was injured and at that point already had a strong vision of his own future.

“He was a guy that I remember brought business textbooks on the bus and having an idea that he wanted to stay in the game but needed to educate himself about the business. He’s not a guy I kept in touch with much over the years but even then as an impressionable first-year guy riding the bus with him, he was already taking classes and thinking about the longer term, where most guys are thinking about the next game or the next day.”

Both Puchniak and Odgers saw some of the same traits in McCrimmon, who joined the Wheat Kings after spending time as general manager and head coach in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League with the North Battleford North Stars and Lloydminster Lancers.

Odgers spent two seasons playing for McCrimmon, who served as assistant coach, head coach and general manager during that time, saying he was always forward thinking. Puchniak said McCrimmon pushed but also knew when to pull back.

“For as tough a coach and manager as he can be — there’s definitely a business-like approach that he takes to his job — there is also that side of him that is humane and he has a sense of humour,” Puchniak said. “He’s forgiving. He may not forget anything, but he’s a guy who helped set a tone and create that culture that allows players to know what the expectations are but then also to prop them up and give them the support they need to flourish and meet their potential.”

Cheveldayoff added that McCrimmon, now 57 and still the Wheat Kings owner, was quick to establish a rapport with the players.

“For me, there was an easy relationship right away,” Cheveldayoff said of McCrimmon. “You could tell he was a very genuine person and was all about the game but all about the people in the game. Back in those days, what we’re doing right now was the farthest thing from our mind but being a Wheat King and being a part of something in that organization was what we were all about.”

They aren’t the only Wheat Kings alumni doing terrific things in hockey’s top league. Cheveldayoff isn’t sure why a number of former Brandon players are doing so well.

“I don’t know why,” Cheveldayoff said. “But we all do have some kind of lineage together I guess, playing for the team in different eras and some of us have played together like (Calgary Flames GM Brad) Treliving and myself and (former Calgary coach Glen) Gulutzan and we all have ties to Kelly in a lot of different ways.

“Hexy (Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall) obviously came a little bit before us but it is interesting. I think it says a lot about the type of people that do come through that organization. And you know Kelly, at least for me, had a big part in that. I’ve had a great relationship with him over the years.”

McCrimmon adds former players such as Lowes and Bob Woods as examples of people who have had great careers in the game after leaving Brandon.

But he’s not convinced there’s a single explanation for all that talent developing in one place.

“I don’t know that there’s any common denominator,” McCrimmon said. “It’s not like we all played for (former Wheat Kings coach) Dunc McCallum or that I was there when all those players were there. It’s probably more by chance than anything but all those people are real accomplished people.”

Interestingly, both Winnipeg and Vegas are quick-strike teams built on blinding speed.

McCrimmon noted that Winnipeg has drafted exceptionally well every year without the benefit of having top picks all the time.

Vegas was built via expansion draft, and while he was comfortable with the work they put in and the decisions they made, McCrimmon has been impressed with how the players and coaches have responded to adversity throughout the season.

Cheveldayoff said he probably won’t see McCrimmon during the series, even though they exchanged congratulatory texts after their teams’ respective second-round victories.

“We’ll probably burn each other’s cellphones for a while,” Cheveldayoff said. “You don’t really run into too many people once the series starts. Everyone keeps their head down once the series starts and kind of does what they do.”

Odgers and Puchniak will be among the many interested observers.

Puchniak, now a religion and philosophy teacher at St. Paul’s High School in Winnipeg, said both McCrimmon and Cheveldayoff were driven, ambitious and had a sort of edge, adding both had something very humane about them.

“I never had any premonition of this day coming where they’re facing each other in the conference final and their respective teams are doing so well,” Puchniak said. “I guess looking back with hindsight, you think they were good human beings, very intelligent and they loved the game. That doesn’t make it a surprise that they’ve found the success they have.”

Odgers, a longtime NHL player who spent the day in the field seeding at his farm near Spy Hill, Sask., said it will be nice to see the pair’s teams facing off.

“It’s actually pretty cool to have people who I spent so much time with at an age when you do a lot of learning and you do a lot of defining yourself and have people like that as a roommate and as a coach and a GM,” Odgers said. “To learn from guys like that, you kind of sit back and realize it was pretty special to have friends like that.”

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