Winnipeg, MB. – There will be a distinct Brandon Wheat Kings’ flavor to this year’s National Hockey League Western Conference Final between the Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights, which is set to get underway Saturday night.
The Knights, who defeated the San Jose Sharks four games to two in their best of seven Conference Semi-Final, feature six former members of the Wheat Kings’ organization, including current Owner and Team Governor Kelly McCrimmon.
The 57-year old McCrimmon joined the Wheat Kings in 1988 and over the years in addition to being the majority owner, he’s served as both coach and general manager.
“Kelly is an outstanding hockey man….we’re delighted to have him,” says Las Vegas general manager George McPhee. “His extensive experience and consistently high level of performance in the game has been perfect for us.”
Under McCrimmon’s guidance, the Wheat Kings won the WHL championship twice, including two years ago, they’ve captured the Eastern Division ten times and the Eastern Conference six. He led Brandon to five Memorial Cup appearances – as a player, coach and twice as GM), was named WHL Executive of the Year in 1995, 2010 and 2015. Overall, he was 423-223-36-38 over ten seasons behind the Brandon bench.
McPhee and McCrimmon, not to mention an excellent coaching staff have been instrumental in building the Knights into a legitimate Cup contender in their inaugural season.
After hiring McCrimmon, McPhee named Gerard Gallant as head coach and the former Canadian Hockey League Coach of the Year (named during the 2010 MasterCard Memorial Cup in Brandon) is now the favorite to win coach of the year honors. His players play a high-tempo, strong fore-checking game.
Assisting Gallant behind the Vegas bench are his longtime assistant Mike Kelly and Ryan Craig.
Kelly served one season as coach in Brandon (2003-04) while Craig spent five seasons in Brandon, scoring 137 goals and 268 points in 302 career WHL games. Chosen by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the eighth round of the 2002 NHL Draft, the 35-year old Craig joined the Golden Knights after a 14-year playing career where he skated in 198 career NHL games and 711 more in the American Hockey League.
An Abbotsford, B.C. native, Craig was named both the WHL and CHL Humanitarian of the Year during his fifth and final season in 2002-03.
In addition to Brandon, Kelly worked in North Day and Saint John, where he was head coach and general manager. His career also saw him serve as an assistant with the Vancouver Canucks in 2007-08 and from 2014-16 he served on Gallant’s staff with the Panthers in Florida.
A Winnipeg product and son of a former Blue Bomber legend, right-winger Ryan Reaves is with his third NHL club over his nine year career. In 498 games, the former Wheat King forward has 31 goals, 61 points and 789 minutes in penalties.
A fifth round draft choice of the St. Louis Blues in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Reaves played from 2004-2007 in Brandon, scoring 36 goals and 79 points in 201 career games.
Also valuable members of the Knights’ organization are former Wheat King and Manitoba Junior Hockey League Traveller Vaughn Karpan and Bob Lowes. Karpan is the club’s Director of Player Personnel while Lowes is his assistant in Las Vegas. Karpan served similar roles for both the Jets and Montreal Canadiens while Lowes served behind Brandon’s bench from 1992-2001 and is the club’s second winningest coach.
While the Golden Knights have enjoyed a glorious first season in the NHL, setting all kinds of records for expansion clubs, the Jets are making their first ever appearance in the Conference Finals. In fact, since the team relocated from Atlanta in 2011, Winnipeg had made just one playoff appearance and had not won a post-season game until this year.
The Jets clinched their second round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with Thursday’s 5-1 victory over the Predators in Nashville.
The Jets brain trust includes general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and assistant Craig Heisinger. On the ice, veteran defenceman Dustin Byfuglien is a former seventh round bantam draft pick (2001) of the Wheat Kings, who began his WHL career in Brandon before being traded to the Prince George Cougars.
A 33-year old native of Roseau, Minnesota, “Buff” has played thirteen seasons in the NHL, including the last seven in Winnipeg. A former Stanley Cup Champion as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks, the Jet veteran has scored 494 points, including 173 goals in 827 career NHL games.
As a junior meanwhile he scored 48 goals and 142 points in 189 games.
A Winnipeg native, Heisinger spent several seasons in the junior ranks including three in Brandon where he was far more than the club’s Equipment Manager. In fact, his expertise and eye for talent came in handy as the Wheat Kings had three different GMs in three years while he worked the trenches.
A promotion to Winnipeg and the Jets 1.0 eventually led him to a much bigger role with Manitoba’s professional club – the International Hockey League and American League’s Moose – when the Jets packed up and moved to the desert in 1996.
When the Jets were reborn in 2011, Heisinger was an easy pick to join the club’s hockey operations and currently serves as Winnipeg’s assistant GM and director of hockey operations.
Winnipeg’s rise to the upper echelon of the NHL this season hasn’t been a big surprise and while the players deserve a lot of the credit, Cheveldayoff and his staff should be right there with them as their moves have been huge in the post season.
A former captain of the Wheat Kings, Cheveldayoff acquired Paul Stastny at the trade deadline this past February and the 32-year old veteran has been dynamite so far – especially in the Jets series win over Nashville.
Tyler Myers, acquired in the Evander Kane deal in 2015, scored the all important first goal of game seven and has been a tower of strength on the Winnipeg blueline. Mark Scheifele meanwhile was the Jets first ever draft pick, seventh overall in 2011, and currently leads all playoff skaters with eleven goals.
A native of Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, “Chevy” joined the Wheat Kings as a rugged, hard nosed defenceman in 1986 and during his four years in Brandon the former first round draft choice of the New York Islanders scored 12 goals and 81 points in 214 career games. He’s also among the franchise leaders with 715 penalty minutes.
A knee injury curt short Cheveldayoff’s playing career but coaching stops in Utah and Denver led to management positions with both the Blackhawks and Wolves of the AHL.
With the Wolves, he led the franchise to four league titles, which included the 2002 and 2008 Calder Cup and 1998 and 2000 IHL Turner Cup titles. Overall, he has been part of seven league championships during his 15-year career, which includes two Turner Cups in three seasons with the Utah Grizzlies.
Many will see this as Chevy’s Jets vs Crim’s Knights but as you can see they are only two of the many Brandon connections to this series.
Longtime friends, both McCrimmon and Cheveldayoff spent two years together (1988-90) when the former served as coach and GM in Brandon while the latter wore the “C” and was the undisputed leader of the Wheat Kings.
With this spring being the 25th anniversary of the last time a Canadian based team won a Stanley Cup, there is no doubt that the Jets are Canada’s team right now and the whiteout atmosphere in Bell MTS Place for game one of the best of seven series Saturday night should be extraordinary.
Game two goes Monday night in Winnipeg, before the series shifts to Las Vegas for games three and four.
The winner of the series will advance to meet the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between Tampa Bay and Washington.