When the Las Vegas NHL team looked for an assistant general manager, it didn’t opt for a rising young star in the business.
It didn’t look for someone in the analytics mold either.
Instead the team wanted someone with a lot of hockey experience who could scout young players and bring in a culture of winning and accountability.
Brandon Wheat Kings owner (and former coach/GM) Kelly McCrimmon was the obvious choice to general manager George McPhee and owner Bill Foley. McCrimmon, who has been with Brandon since 1988, turned the team into a Western Hockey League powerhouse and currently has several former players in big roles in the NHL.
One former Brandon player said the 55-year-old McCrimmon has a “brilliant hockey IQ” in a text message to Puck Daddy.
“We’re a new team so we’ll develop our own identity and our own culture. How you treat people, your relationships – I think all those characteristics are important at every level you work at,” McCrimmon said. “In junior, I often described Major Junior hockey as the NHL light. It’s very similar in terms of style of play, very similar in terms of rules schedule and those types of things.”
McCrimmon has a business degree from Michigan and an MBA from Queen’s University, which helps his cred in today’s complex world of managing a hockey team.
“He’s just a solid hockey guy. Just because he was in junior hockey – yes it’s another step but it’s still evaluating talent,” Las Vegas hockey consultant Murray Craven said. “Obviously his record in Brandon speaks for itself. He did an incredible job there for 27 years. I’m surprised he stayed that long. He had a great situation there but I’m sure he was tempted to leave the last few years.”
We talked with McCrimmon about how he landed the job, why he took the job and what he hopes to bring to McPhee’s staff.
Q: What was your relationship with people in Las Vegas before you were hired?
(McCrimmon): I didn’t have a relationship with anyone in the organization. I had a call from George a little over a couple of weeks ago to see if I had any interest and that’s where it started. I’ve talked with them a number of times since and got to the point where they were comfortable offering me the position. I thought it was a great opportunity and one I wanted to accept.
How many times have you ever been to Las Vegas and what have you heard about living in Las Vegas in general?
I’ve only ever been there for WHL governors meetings. We have our semi-annual meeting there and that’s only been a couple of days. I’ve never been off the strip.
I’ve heard a lot of really good things about the city of Las Vegas off of the strip with some beautiful areas to live. I think it’s going to be really enjoyable living there. I expect that people living there and working there don’t spend a lot of time on the strip. I expect that’s how it’s going to be for myself. Year one is going to be primarily about scouting players and evaluating all 30 organizations to make sure we do the best job we can with the expansion draft. Year two we’ll be different again because we’ll have our team and that’s when personally I’ll be spending more time in Las Vegas. This winter there’s no hockey in Las Vegas, so I probably won’t spend much time there.
You had a pretty stable job with Brandon. What enticed you about joining Las Vegas?
Well I really liked the building process. I described it yesterday as a dream job for any hockey executive to have the opportunity to be involved with a process like we’re going to go through when you build an expansion team. Tremendously strong ownership. Great facilities. Very strong leadership with George McPhee as general manager. I really think we’re going to have the opportunity to build our organization how we want it and I believe if we do good work, we’re going to have the opportunity to be successful.
Have you had any other opportunities to go elsewhere?
I had had other opportunities and for whatever reason the timing wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t something I was prepared to do. This one lined up real well in terms of the timing at this end with my team in Brandon and lined up real well in terms of the opportunity. It’s still a hard decision based off how much I enjoy working in junior hockey and how proud I am of the Wheat Kings but that said, this is going to be a really great challenge.
We’re a new team so we’ll develop our own identity and our own culture. How you treat people, your relationships – I think all those characteristics are important at every level you work at. In junior, I often described Major Junior hockey as the NHL light. It’s very similar in terms of style of play, very similar in terms of rules schedule and those types of things. Junior hockey you are completely reliant on drafting and developing and that’s the nature of junior hockey because you turn your players over after three or four years, so you have to do a good job scouting and selecting players in the draft and you have to do a good job as an organization developing them. Those exact aspects are going to be the very same at the NHL level, especially in a situation where we’re building.
What is your take on analytics in hockey? Did you use them in Brandon?
Coming from junior hockey I would have less experience with analytics than someone who has worked in pro hockey. My knowledge level of it is more based on what I read, observing what other organizations do and I guess just in general terms for me, it’s a complement to the team building process, the evaluation process, decisions you’re going to make with personnel. I think it’s going to be a factor and be a complement to what you see with your eyes. Just my personal opinion, but I don’t think it’s going to get to a point where you’re going to make every decision solely based on what analytics are telling you.
One of your former players told me you have a “brilliant Hockey IQ.” Is there anything about the game that you just geek out over?
Well I think first and foremost, I really enjoy it. I love scouting, I love watching hockey. That I think is the first thing. I’ve always felt that any information you can get on players is helpful, so whether that’s analytics or that’s conversation with other people in terms of finding information out – any information you can get is good. But I also think it’s not as simple as it just being a formula or just being an equation. I think it’s an art as well, and to me some people have that to a stronger degree than others. I don’t know where I fit in that discussion, but I know I enjoy doing it and I’ve done it a long time. That’s a big part of what we’ve done here.
You have an undergraduate degree and an MBA. How important is education in today’s hockey world that’s becoming increasingly complex on the business side with the salary cap and contracts?
I’m a big believer in education. So I did what I did academically because that was what inspired me and I’m not suggesting it makes me any better than anyone else, but it was important to me. So I think that you want to work with people who are going to generate good discussion and are going to ask good questions, going to, I think make each other better. If you get surrounded with good quality people I think everyone benefits from each other in that setting. I don’t know if I’m going to have responsibilities on that side of the business, but I think I’ll certainly be able to be involved in discussions and contribute if needed when looking at those parts of the organization. The evaluation of players and scouting of players is something I’m real comfortable with, then there’s factoring in the evaluation of players, which is an area I need to learn.
I’d imagine running your own team certainly helps as far as knowing the ins and outs of a business?
In Brandon, because I owned the team, I’ve been involved on the business side my entire life. That part has always been – the Wheat Kings are a hockey team, which I’m the coach and the manager of. The Wheat Kings are also a business that I own. It’s no different than anyone else who owns a business. It requires a certain skill set to be successful and you have to make sure it gets the proper attention so we are successful.
Yahoo Sports’ Greg Wyshynski reports live from the streets of Rio:
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