CORNER BROOK — Danny Williams signs the cheques, Glenn Stanford runs the show, but if you want to know who makes the decisions on these St. John’s IceCaps, meet the little guy with big pull, the chap they call “Zinger.”
Officially, Craig Heisinger is the assistant general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, and general manager of the American Hockey League’s IceCaps.
He’s the man who signed off on the relocation of the Manitoba Moose to St. John’s, and the architect of a team that was among the league’s final four standing last season, builder of an IceCaps team that’s looking very, very good — on paper at least — as it prepares to break training camp.
Within hockey circles, Heisinger’s story is well known by now. He started out as an equipment guy for a junior A team in his native Winnipeg, and made it all the way up to equipment manager of the NHL’s Jets, before they flew south for Phoenix.
Rather than leave Manitoba for Arizona, Heisinger stayed home (he might be the only one in Winnipeg to do so), and when the city was granted an International Hockey League team, Heisinger resumed his old role at the Winnipeg Arena.
Eventually, he moved into the front office, climbing the hockey ladder to where he is today — in essence, second in command on the hockey side of things with the new NHL club, behind general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.
Short in stature and quiet by nature, Heisinger is said to have a sense of humour, though you’d have to chip away at several layers to find it.
Rather, he has the perpetual look of a man about to be audited. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t stop.
Maybe he’s feeling worn out.
Finding Heisinger without BlackBerry in hand is like seeing the Pope without a cross.
Since the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg, Heisinger’s been on bust.
“I suppose this summer was certainly somewhat quiet compared to last summer,” he recalled this week at the IceCaps’ training camp in Corner Brook. “It’s an ongoing process trying to keep an eye on three teams (the Jets, IceCaps and ECHL’s Colorado Eagles). Just because the games stop in the summer does not mean the business of building a team does.”
Heisinger managed to escape to the cottage on his beloved West Hawk Lake in northern Ontario this summer — “one of the greatest fisheries on the planet,” he says — where he loves to cast a line.
That’s unlike the summer of 2011, when he and Cheveldayoff and others in the Jets’ front office worked day and night putting together an NHL club from scratch after Atlanta relocated to the north.
Not that the past few months have been a breeze.
On the eve of the IceCaps’ training camp opener, Heisinger awoke in Malmo, Sweden. A train ride to Copenhagen, Denmark, followed by flights to London, St. John’s and Deer Lake, and Heisinger was at Corner Brook’s Pepsi Centre, watching as the Jets’ farmhands were put through their paces.
Not that the travel is anything new to the married father of four. This past summer, Heisinger was at the draft in Pittsburgh, in the Czech Republic for the Ivan Hlinka tournament, back home for pro and amateur scouting meetings, back to Europe, back home for R&R at the lake, back to Malmo and now Newfoundland.
And that’s a good stretch.
Last winter, the girls at the Air Canada counter at Winnipeg International Airport were quick to remind Heisinger he’s the fastest person to reach Super Elite status (100,000 miles) in some time.
“Yeah, something like two months,” he said. “I travel a lot. It’s the nature of the beast.
“My wife (Vickie) and family are very supportive. At the end of the day, it’s all they’ve ever known. When she met me, I was an equipment guy.”
From Day 1, Heisinger and the Jets promised St. John’s hockey fans a competitive team at Mile One Centre.
We heard that before, back when John Ferguson, Mike Penny and the cast of Looney Tunes from the Air Canada Centre were running the Leafs’ show.
The difference is, to this point at least, it seems Heisinger means it.
Last season, the IceCaps were among the best teams in the American Hockey League, until St. John’s ran headlong into the Norfolk Admirals juggernaut.
The season, the IceCaps appear to have an even better team, although it could be argued every AHL club has improved as a result of the lockout.
But consider this: over the summer, Heisinger managed to land a former AHL all-star goalie (Mark Dekanich), a veteran NHLer (Brian Sutherby), a 28-goal AHL scorer (Derek Whitmore) and a two-time Calder Cup winner and team captain (Dean Arsene).
“It’s a building process year after year after year,” Heisinger said. “You’re never really starting from square one. You’re adding pieces and subtracting pieces. When you don’t win your last game, you don’t do a good enough job so you’re changing pieces, adding pieces or keeping some of the same pieces in the mix.
“It’s incumbent upon us to put a good competitive product on the ice, not only for the fans but for the well-being of the Winnipeg Jets because the longer St. John’s plays, the more experience our young players get, the more exposure the older players get, the more games there are for Danny and Glenn, the better it is for everybody.”
To this day, Heisinger says his greatest accomplishment was becoming equipment manager for the Jets.
Greater than rising up the front office food chain. Greater than his personal exploit of dropping 90 pounds (he recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of his weight loss).
Still, his introduction into the front office is an interesting story. He was the equipment guy for the Moose when Jean Perron was head coach and GM, and Randy Carlyle was assistant coach and assistant GM.
Perron was fired at mid-season and Carlyle took over.
“And Randy didn’t know jack-shit about neither job,” Heisinger said. “But he had a passion for coaching which I had never seen.”
Problem is, while Carlyle, who today runs the Maple Leafs’ bench, was concentrating on the coaching duties, the day-to-day stuff GMs look after was falling through the cracks.
“I can remember we were playing guys with no contracts, no paperwork, no nothing,” Heisinger said. “Randy said, ‘Somebody’s got to start paying attention to this, and that means you.’”
Heisinger juggled his duties sharpening skates and doing laundry with front office paperwork for three years.
On July 15, 2002, he was appointed general manager of the Manitoba Moose.
Nine years later, on June 8, 2011, the brand new Winnipeg Jets tabbed Zinger their assistant GM to Cheveldayoff.
Some within hockey circles believe the general manager’s job could have been his if he’d wanted it. But Heisinger would sooner take a high stick to the teeth than be in the foreground, so the role of assistant GM works just fine, thank you very much.
“I didn’t aspire to be an upper management person in the National Hockey League,” he said. “Randy had always harped on me. ‘You don’t want to hang jocks the rest of your life,’ but in fact I did. I enjoyed that job.
“I would be perfectly happy being there today.”
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email email@example.com