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Kelly McCrimmon helps run NHL expansion team, keeps eye on Brandon Wheat Kings

BRANDON, Manitoba — Bill Foley owns a hockey team.

So does Kelly McCrimmon.

Foley has a nice suite in which to watch his team.

So does McCrimmon.

Foley wants to win.

So does McCrimmon.

But that’s where the similarities end. McCrimmon, who owns the Brandon Wheat Kings of the junior Western Hockey League, works for Foley as the executive vice president and assistant general manager of Las Vegas’ NHL expansion franchise. McCrimmon, paid substantially less for his team than the $500 million Foley paid for his. How much, he wouldn’t say. But it was in the millions, not the hundreds of millions.

“Let’s put it this way,” McCrimmon said in his small yet comfortable office at the team’s home rink, Westman Place. “Our tax returns wouldn’t be very similar.”

The NHL apparently has no problem with an assistant GM owning a junior hockey team. Neither does Foley, who sees it as an asset given McCrimmon’s opportunity to watch hundreds of 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds without having to leave the home rink. Yet, he’s still willing to get in his car, make a four-hour drive to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, to watch a game, then drive right back to Brandon and be in his office at 9 a.m. the next day.

He had arrived back in time to watch his team take on the Red Deer Rebels on Remembrance Day, Canada’s version of Veterans Day. Westman Place was packed, the aroma of freshly popped popcorn permeating through the rink.

The Wheat Kings, feeding off the energy of the sellout crowd, jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead and would go on to a 5-2 win. Watching from his owner’s suite with family and friends as well as a coule of scouts, McCrimmon kept a pad at the ready, jotting down notes for later conversations with the staff. He seemed to be enjoying his role as owner.

But McCrimmon’s main focus is on Las Vegas and the NHL. As general manager George McPhee’s right-hand man, he has been busy working with the team’s amateur and pro scouts, building a database on players the team will consider taking next June, either in the expansion draft or the amateur draft while handling a multitude of other tasks, including lining up the team’s eventual minor league affiliate in the American Hockey League.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience so far,” McCrimmon said of working alongside McPhee. “I think he and I have a lot in common. We both believe in hiring good people and let them do their jobs.”

‘RUNS IN THE FAMILY’

McPhee said McCrimmon has been everything he could have hoped for and more.

“I knew after our first phone conversation with him there was a special guy at the other end of the phone,” McPhee said. “He’s a high-integrity, honest individual and a tireless worker. He has an understanding of the game most people don’t.

“He’s a real deep thinker. He’s a combination of Pat Quinn and Bob Clarke.”

Bruce Leubke, who spent 24 years doing radio play-by-play for the Wheat Kings and is a friend of McCrimmon’s, said he’s not surprised to see McCrimmon doing good things in Las Vegas.

“He’s got a farm background; hard work runs in his family,” Leubke said. “He’s also a very smart person. He knows what he wants and how to get there.

“When he took over the Wheat Kings in 1991, they were patching things with older players. He saw that wasn’t working, that you had to tear it down and build it back up. But he made some trades, drafted well and they’ve had a great run.”

The Wheat Kings won the Western Hockey League title last year and went to the Memorial Cup, which is Canada’s national junior championship. Brandon was eliminated but the team was in good shape and the timing was right for McCrimmon to join an NHL franchise.

“I think we all get to that point where we ask ourselves, ‘Is this what I want to do the rest of my life?’” Leubke said. “The Vegas opportunity was too good for him to pass up.”

McCrimmon had created an atmosphere of family with the Wheat Kings. He anticipates something similar in Las Vegas.

“We want our player experience to be the best in the NHL,” McCrimmon said. “I think it’s critical we make a great first impression with our players.”

Whether it’s the locker room at T-Mobile Arena, the practice facility currently under construction at Downtown Summerlin or having staff available to cater to the needs of the players and their families, Foley has said everything will be the best.

McCrimmon said with that kind of support and commitment from ownership it will make his and McPhee’s job much easier when trying to convince free agents to play in Las Vegas.

“It starts at the top with Bill Foley,” McCrimmon said. “He wants to win and he’s given George free reign to put together an organization that will win. He has a great demeanor around our staff. Bill is very successful person, and while he is still learning hockey, he can read people and know if they’re good.”

McCrimmon said the hockey operations staff that has been put together by McPhee has been impressive.

“When we had our first meeting back in September and I saw the faces in the room I said to myself, ‘This makes it real,’” McCrimmon said. “We’ve had several meetings since and I love our group. They’re knowledgeable, hard-working people with no egos. And I think that speaks to George’s leadership.”

Much like McCrimmon did in Brandon.

“With George, it’s about hiring good people, providing resources and support and allowing them to do their job,” McCrimmon said. “Here in Brandon, we’ve had some employees who’ve been with us, 10, 20, 25 years. You try to hire the right people and show loyalty to them and they do the same.”

It’s a big reason why McCrimmon was able to accept the Las Vegas position. He knew the Wheat Kings would run smoothly. He brought in Grant Armstrong to be the general manager. He promoted David Anning to head coach. And he’s letting both do their jobs.

“He gives us a lot of freedom and leeway,” said Anning, whose team is 10-7-3 despite being without star center Nolan Patrick for all but five games as Patrick recovers from an upper-body injury. “He’s around to lend advice but he’s given us the trust and that gives us confidence. But the expectation here is to win so you have to do your job.”

TIED TO BRANDON

Could McCrimmon sell the team and pocket a tidy profit? Absolutely. But he has too much of his life invested in the Wheat Kings to completely separate himself from the team.

Brandon, which has a population of just over 46,000, is a 2½-hour drive from Winnipeg, Manitoba’s largest city. It is the eastern-most team in the WHL. The Wheat Kings’ rink, which seats 5,100, was built in the early 1970s and is one of the oldest buildings in the league. The team benches are on opposite sides and you have to walk down a flight of stairs from the locker rooms to get to the ice. For opposing teams, it can be an initmidating place.

There are plenty of banners celebrating the team’s successes through the years, including last year’s WHL title. Game-day for the Wheat Kings is a community event. Entire families turn out from toddlers to great grandparents, all wearing black and gold gear.

McCrimmon is proud of the business side of things. The team’s turning a profit, how much, he wouldn’t say. But one of the prized possessions in his office is an award for being Brandon’s Businessperson of the Year in 2011. That meant almost as much as the four WHL and three CHL Executive of the Year awards he had won.

“Any sports organization establishes a culture and an identity,” McCrimmon said. “I’ve always related to what we are in Brandon is like the Green Bay Packers. We’re a small town, but we have a great fan base and this team is important to them.

“I was a player here. I coached here. I was the GM and I’m the owner. The Wheat Kings have been so much a part of my life and so important, I couldn’t see myself walking completely away.”

But while he maintains his ties to his junior team, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season, McCrimmon’s energies are focused on his NHL team, which won’t play its first game until next October.

While business is humming in Brandon, things are moving quickly in Las Vegas. There’s a long to-do list for the NHL expansion franchise and McCrimmon doesn’t have time to waste.

“We’ve gotten a lot done so far but there’s much work still to do,” McCrimmon said. “But the one thing you can say about the group we’ve assembled is there’s an excitement of wanting to build something from the ground floor up and everyone’s committed to building a winning organization.”

Contact Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow @stevecarprj on Twitter.

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