The man who never gave up on the Winnipeg Jets

Once an equipment manager, Craig Heisinger is now the ‘conscience’ of the reborn jets.

The man who never gave up

Photograph by Peter Taylor/Getty Images

The man who never gave up
Peter Taylor/Getty Images

Fifteen years ago, he was the one who turned out the lights. That April night, after the Winnipeg Jets had been knocked out of the 1996 playoffs, losing 4-1 at home to Detroit and bidding adieu to the NHL, it was Craig Heisinger who stood by himself in the dressing room, long after the last fan and player had disappeared. As the team’s equipment manager, it was his job to wash the jerseys, air out the gear, vacuum the rug, and lock the door behind him. By then, he had decided he wasn’t going to follow the franchise to Phoenix. Uprooting his wife and four young kids—three then still in diapers—from their hometown and extended family simply didn’t feel right. So “Zinger” did the only thing he could: he shed a few tears and moved on.

Last June, he was crying again, but this time he wasn’t alone. At the podium, in front of the media and hockey fans across the nation, the now 48-year-old was named senior vice-president and director of hockey operations/assistant general manager of the reborn Winnipeg Jets, a title so unwieldy that he jokes about getting a fold-out business card. Barely able to choke out the words, he thanked Mark Chipman, the team’s co-owner, for “taking a chance” on him. He thanked local fans for letting so many players, coaches and managers—himself included—“cut their teeth” with the AHL Manitoba Moose during the city’s decade-and-a-half in hockey purgatory. And he finally let himself believe that what seemed impossible was now true. Even as an insider in True North, the group that brought the NHL back to the Prairies, Heisinger played the doubting Thomas, steeling himself against another disappointment. “I never really bought in. I knew all the work going on behind the scenes, but I never thought it would come to fruition,” he says, as he sits in his office hours before the transplanted franchise’s first exhibition game. “I couldn’t convince myself that they wanted another team in Canada. I just couldn’t see it.”

Yet as of last May 31, it is real. What once was lost has been found; giving back to a city—and a country—something more profound than a place name in the standings. Proof that bigger isn’t necessarily better. That passion can count for more than dollars. That the game we claim still belongs to us.

Take a poll of front offices in the National Hockey League and you’ll find a few Ivy League lawyers, several puck scions, and a whole host of guys who were formerly paid to play the game. But there is only one member of senior management who used to wash jockstraps for a living. They can make his current job sound as fancy as they like, but the more apt description of Craig Heisinger’s role might be team conscience. Not in a preachy Jiminy Cricket sort of way—although they are of similar stature. Zinger’s just the guy who never gave up on hockey, even when it gave up on his hometown.

The good story begins with a bad name: Graham James. It was James, a junior coach who was later convicted of sexually abusing two of his former players, and is currently on trial in Winnipeg for allegedly molesting three more, including former NHL star Theo Fleury, who gave Heisinger a push in the right direction. “I don’t want to condone any of the s–t Graham did—he crossed the line in a million different ways. But there were some people he gave opportunity to, and I was one of them,” he says.

As an eager but undersized goalie with the Fort Garry Blues, a local Junior “A” team, Zinger had gone about as far as he could go on the ice. At the behest of his father, a pipe-fitter for the CNR, he had started a mechanic’s apprenticeship with a small airline. It wasn’t working out. “I could hardly start the lawn mower, let alone keep a plane in the air,” he jokes. James, then his coach, urged the 20-year-old to find another way to stay in the game, and gave him his first job as a part-time equipment manager with his old team. Heisinger went home and told his parents that he was putting down his tools in favour of filling water bottles. They were horrified.

Two years later, he moved up to a full-time position with the Winnipeg Warriors of the Western Hockey League, and then on to the Brandon Wheat Kings. Heisinger spent eight seasons toiling in major junior, earning recognition as one of the best trainers in the game. In 1988, he was behind the bench when Canada won the World Junior Championship in Moscow; the fading tattoo of a penguin on his calf is a souvenir of the celebrations.

The next fall, Heisinger got the call from the bigs, joining the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets as an assistant equipment manager. Good at sewing—a legacy of Grade 12 home ec—he became so adept at fixing broken and worn-out gear that players from visiting teams were soon counting on Zinger to extend the lifespan of favourite skates and goalie gloves. Within a couple of years, he was named head trainer. An accomplishment that remains, he says, the “pinnacle” of his career. “I aspired to be an NHL equipment guy in my hometown and I made it.” Jets players used to tease him, telling him that he didn’t want to spend his life hanging up their underwear. But they were wrong. “I loved that job. That wasn’t all it was,” says Heisinger. It was the trainers who were the coach’s “eyes and ears,” keeping tabs on how players were coping with off-ice pressures, and the ambassadors to the local community, handing out sticks and pucks to star-struck kids. “Even today, I’d go back in an instant and be one again,” he says.

When it became clear that the Jets were headed to the Arizona desert after the ’95-’96 season, Heisinger put out feelers about getting a job with the Manitoba Moose, the minor league team that was going to try and take their place. There were other opportunities in the NHL too, but Winnipeg was home. Mark Chipman, then a newly minted Moose owner, says that people were coming at him from all directions advising him to make Zinger the “caretaker” of the team. Heisinger was one of True North’s first hires, and has been with the organization ever since.

When the Moose fired head coach and GM Jean Perron midway through their first season, and promoted former Jets defenceman Randy Carlyle to both jobs, the team equipment manager suddenly found himself in management. It was unofficial at first—pitching in to help the newbie GM with player paperwork and travel arrangements—but Carlyle, now the coach of the Anaheim Ducks, says it was clear that Heisinger had a head for the hockey business. “Everybody knew there was so much more he could have been doing, because of his opinions and attitudes toward work,” says Carlyle. “There was no assignment that he couldn’t get done. He’d find a way and he’d do it professionally.”

In 1999, the Moose promoted Heisinger to assistant GM. He made them add a contract clause allowing him to go back to being equipment manager if he hated the job.

The crews that are working frantically to remake Winnipeg’s downtown MTS Centre into an NHL rink haven’t yet made it to Heisinger’s office, still decorated in his former AHL team’s green and brown colours, with a large Moose logo on the door. Not that he’s in a hurry to bury the past. He’s proud of his nine seasons as the franchise GM (he took over in 2002, when Carlyle took a coaching job with the Washington Capitals), with eight playoff appearances, a trip to the Calder Cup final, and an overall .588 winning percentage. And there’s something of a chip on his shoulder about Winnipeg’s wild rush to renew its bonds with NHL hockey, like the divorce never happened. “I think it’s important that people don’t lose sight that there’s a team here for one reason only,” he says. “Because there was a core group of fans that supported the Moose over the last 15 years.”

His cellphone and office line are ringing incessantly. It’s been that way since the Jets’ return was announced in May. Often it’s friends and acquaintances looking for tickets. Heisinger, so used to saying yes, has learned that part of being back in the big leagues is learning to say no. But it weighs on him. So too did the task of relocating the Atlanta Thrashers players to Manitoba, and the new minor league affiliate in St. John’s, Nfld., and uprooting families on such short notice.

An already tough summer was made all the more difficult by the August suicide of Rick Rypien, a former Moose tough guy, who had just signed as a free agent with the Jets. Heisinger had long been part of the small support network that tried to help Rypien battle depression. “I think about him every day,” he says softly.

Kevin Cheveldayoff, the Jets’ new GM , has known the man who is now his assistant for more than 25 years, dating back to when he was a 15-year-old farm boy playing for the Wheat Kings. Their basic hockey philosophies are the same, he says, prizing character and chemistry above all else. All that has changed was that in those days, it was Zinger telling “Chevy” to relax and take a deep breath. Now the roles are reversed.

It probably won’t be an easy year. The reborn Jets aren’t likely to be any more proficient at putting the puck in the net than the Thrashers squad that finished out of the playoffs last year. Their fans, so excited to be back that they bought up every available ticket for the next three years in under two minutes, may soon discover that mid-week tussles against the Panthers and Islanders can induce drowsiness.

Career pinnacles long ago conquered, Heisinger still hopes that his best hockey memories lie ahead. But if anyone is wondering, he stills knows how to sharpen skates, and has a machine at the ready in his garage.