Craig Heisinger doesn’t mind the attention, he just doesn’t understand why he has become the poster boy for the NHL’s return to Manitoba.
The reason is he is the one constant from the old days of the Winnipeg Jets. He was the equipment manager 15 years ago when the franchise bolted for Phoenix. He didn’t leave. He stayed behind and in the past decade-and-a-half traveled the implausible passage from equipment manager to general manager of the AHL Manitoba Moose to current assistant GM of the Jets.
It has been a strange and wonderful journey for Heisinger, who will turn 49 next week. A good starting point is that final night of the Jets first go-around in Winnipeg on April 28, 1996.
The Detroit Red Wings had just eliminated the Jets in six games with a 4-1 victory at the old Winnipeg Arena. After the game, Red Wings defenceman Paul Coffey stopped by the Jets dressing room to wish his friend Heisinger good luck. Coffey knew Heisinger from their time together on various Canada Cup teams. But this encounter set off Heisinger’s emotions.
When Coffey departed Heisinger resumed his equipment manager duties. He cried as he vacuumed the Jets dressing room for the last time.
"It was emotional because it was the last day," Heisinger said on Friday as he watched the Jets second last practice before the season opener against the Montreal Canadiens at the MTS Centre on Sunday. "In the end you still had to clean up because that was your job. I did that because I was the equipment guy and that was what an equipment guy did at the end of the day."
After the Jets left, the AHL Moose came in. Heisinger was back as the new team’s equipment manager, but after three seasons then GM/head coach Randy Carlyle promoted Heisinger to assistant GM. When Carlyle left to join the Washington Capitals coaching staff in the summer of 2002, Heisinger received another upgrade to the team’s GM from owner Mark Chipman.
The Moose made the playoffs in eight on the nine seasons under Heisginer’s watch, including a 50-win regular season and trip to the 2008-09 final which garnered Heisinger the James A. Hendy Award as AHL executive of the year.
"I don’t know how you wind up going from an equipment guy to an executive in the National Hockey League," Heisinger said. "I haven’t given it a lot of thought. It’s a strange route. I would say my values are a good work ethic and strong people skills, and that has helped me.
"I was given a great opportunity by two people. Randy Carlyle first and foremost, and because he believed in me Mark Chipman believe in me. That would the simplest way to say it."
"The main thing when you're talking about a guy like Craig is his passion for hockey and his passion for hockey in Manitoba," former Calgary Flames general manager Craig Button said.
"There isn't anything that dictates where you started is where you finish. Obviously, Craig isn't afraid to challenge himself with different roles, and he is succeeding."
An injury cut short Heisinger's playing career in junior, but he was convinced by a coach to stay in the game as an equipment manager with the Fort Garry Blues of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
He moved on to the Western Hockey League with the old Winnipeg Warriors and had a stint with the Brandon Wheat Kings before Hockey Canada called. He attended to the 1988 Canadian junior team that was led by Adam Graves and Joe Sakic and won the world title in Moscow.
The Jets hired Heisinger, who everybody in Winnipeg knows as Zinger, in 1988. When the Jets moved to Phoenix, Heisinger could have tagged along. But his family was young, and staying behind to become the equipment manager of the new minor-pro Moose intrigued him more.
"It wouldn't have been fair to my family, especially my wife," Heisinger said. "I had four young kids, three still in diapers back then."
Heisinger and his wife Vickie have four teenage boys — Jake, Mack and twins, Tucker and Zach. Jake, 19, plays the Winnipeg Blues, the same Manitoba Junior Hockey League team his Dad once played for.
Since the Thrashers officially relocated to Winnipeg last spring, Heisinger remarked that he hasn’t had time to sit back and reflect.
"My emotions are probably different than 99 per cent of the people who will be here on Sunday," he said. "It’s hard for me to let go of the last 15 years. There isn’t a game here on Sunday because 23 players touched down here on a plane from Atlanta. This has been a work in progress for 15 years.
"The last 106 days, since it became official that the franchise was going to be relocated here, has been a tremendous amount of work. I haven’t thought or I haven’t given a lot of thought to Sunday’s game. Rookie camp snuck up on us, then the main camp started. All of sudden it’s Sunday, October the 9th. We’re not counting down the days here. There has been so much to do."
There have been plenty of long nights for Heisinger, Chipman and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff in the past five months.
"For me, it’s your job," Heisinger said. "I used to say when I was growing up I didn’t want a run-of-the-mill job or a 9-to-5 job. I wanted something different. For sure, hockey is a different job. It would be accurate to say that this has been a fun job, a great job. Sometimes this feels like work. Being an equipment guy never felt like work. I loved being an equipment guy. I didn’t aspire to something like this.
"But this is an exciting time. It’s fun to be part of history. I’m not one to read the newspapers, but it obviously must be a much bigger thing than I realize because of the mere fact that you want to talk to me."