It was 30 years ago when a fresh-faced Kevin Cheveldayoff stepped to the podium at the NHL draft in Montreal, having just been selected 16th overall by the New York Islanders.
The rugged 18-year-old defenceman, coming off his second junior campaign with the Brandon Wheat Kings, had anxiously waited to hear his name called while future superstars such as Mike Modano, Trevor Linden, Jeremy Roenick, Rod Brind’Amour and Teemu Selanne were all selected before him.
“It’s bizarre to think that it’s 30 years. Obviously some exceptional Hall of Fame players,” Cheveldayoff told the Free Press Tuesday, as he reflected on just how different things are these days in virtually every aspect of the game.
Cheveldayoff never did make it to the biggest stage as a player, spending his five-year pro career in the AHL and IHL. He’s enjoyed much more success as a hockey executive, winning a Stanley Cup as an assistant general manager with the Chicago Blackhawks and guiding the Winnipeg Jets over the past seven seasons. He’s one of three finalists for GM of the year at tonight’s NHL awards ceremony in Las Vegas.
“The industry has changed dramatically. The way technology has changed, television, the reporting. There was no such thing as the internet back then, so certainly a lot less rumours,” he said.
Cheveldayoff will be back on the draft podium once again later this week in Dallas, announcing the latest group of young prospects selected by the Jets.
Unlike his first seven years at the helm, Cheveldayoff is not armed with a first-round selection for the 2018 NHL draft.
Winnipeg gave that 29th-overall pick to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Paul Stastny at the trade deadline, which paid off handsomely as the Jets soared to the Western Conference final this spring.
Their first of six picks won’t come until late in the second round, 60th overall — barring any last-minute deals that could change that.
And don’t rule anything out, considering the Jets may need to shed some salary this summer in order to sign all their pending restricted free agents to new deals.
The Free Press caught up with Cheveldayoff in Sin City, where he was getting ready for an extremely busy stretch. Tonight’s NHL awards ceremony will be followed by an early Thursday flight to Texas, where he’ll take part in meetings with fellow general managers while getting together with his own scouting staff to go over their strategy for Friday and Saturday’s draft.
The NHL schedule is also set to be released Thursday, and the Jets will host their four-day development camp starting Tuesday for several of their young prospects, including some of this weekend’s selections.
Then it’s prep time for the July 1 free agency period, while keeping an eye on the huge off-season to-do list when it comes to managing the many player contracts that have to be addressed. Some may go smoothly and quickly, while others will likely end up going to arbitration, which can be time-consuming and messy.
Cheveldayoff said he’s confident the Jets can head home from this draft with quality prospects, pointing to previous later-round picks such as Adam Lowry (67th overall, 2011) and Connor Hellebuyck (130th overall, 2012) as examples of finding so-called diamonds in the rough.
“The philosophy doesn’t really change. Obviously, the player pool will change. But you do your due diligence and build your list each and every year. You do kind of an analysis after the draft and see where players on your list go in respect to the draft. You might have a player ranked 20 on your list that you get at 60,” Cheveldayoff said.
“There’s going to be some great players come out of the later rounds as well.”
Yes, it may be tougher to find a future NHL player later in the draft. But it’s not impossible.
“The draft is a very interesting time because you’re dealing with 17- and 18-year-old players, essentially. And there’s so much room for growth and development. And that’s really where the projection comes in,” Cheveldayoff said.
“Obviously, the deeper you go in the draft, the deeper in the rounds, the greater the projection and the opportunities are. This is where you spend a lot of time during the year, looking for the depth of the draft.”
Given his own draft experience, Cheveldayoff said he can certainly relate to the anticipation and excitement young prospects experience every June.
“It is a very emotional time. For me, there were lots of things going on during that time. My father had passed away in December of my draft year, so it was a very difficult time from a family perspective. But certainly a very exciting time from a career perspective,” he said.
The process is much different these days, with draft combines and elaborate fitness testing, pre-scouting and extensive evaluation of all aspects of a player. Cheveldayoff related a tale Tuesday of how he sat down to do an interview with a team prior to the 1988 draft with fellow prospect Link Gaetz also in the room.
“They asked me a question, and I gave a fairly detailed, long-winded answer. So they go to Link and say, ‘Hey, what do you think?’
“And Link sat there — there was silence for probably about 30 seconds, 40 seconds. And then he goes and points his thumb at me and says, ‘Same as him,’” Cheveldayoff said.
The nomination for GM of the year is really a team honour that speaks to the work the team has done, particularly at the previous seven NHL drafts and the related development that has followed, he said, adding there’s really no time in the pro hockey business for resting on laurels.
“There’s an element of pride for our organization. The reality is, like a hockey team where it’s the ultimate team sport, on the managing side it truly is the ultimate team sport,” said Cheveldayoff, who singled out assistant GMs Larry Simmons and Craig Heisinger.
“You don’t do things on your own here. We’re fortunate to have a great staff, and our owner believes in what we’re doing. And we’ve got great coaches at the NHL and AHL level.
“It’s that continuity, I think, that has allowed us to get to this point. But the reality is, this is where the real work begins.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.