Championships remain the expectation for Cheveldayoff

by Elizabeth Casey || AHL On The Beat Archive

head-cheveldayoff_200.jpgChicago Wolves general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff doesn’t view things in terms of places he has been and places he will go.

Sure, he carries the priceless snapshots of each time he’s lifted a Cup in his mind’s eye, and doubtless, he has aspirations for the future, but the all-encompassing position he fills at the helm of the franchise is simply not that black and white.

For Cheveldayoff, it’s about the journey.

“One thing about being in the game is there is no finality to it, it’s just the next phase of what’s going on,” said the GM who has piloted Chicago to four league championships in 11 years, including Calder Cups in 2002 and 2008. “It’s always an ongoing process. You only achieve for moments in time. You certainly secure all the memories in the memory bank and cherish the moments and remember all the different things that go on each year, but you have to move forward and you have to start preparing for the next season.”

That is exactly the way he envisioned the task before him when a then-27-year-old Cheveldayoff was hired to take the reins of the Wolves hockey operations department in 1997.

“Coming into the Wolves organization, my goal, first and foremost, was trying to establish a culture where winning wasn’t just a goal, but that winning championships became the expectation,” he recalled. “The organization I was with the three years prior had won two championships, which helped me realize how fun it was and how important it was to the growth of a franchise. Getting to come here to Chicago and help them move forward in that direction was a very exciting opportunity for me.”

Goals aside, Cheveldayoff recalled not knowing what to expect from the Windy City franchise.

“The funny story is, when my wife and I first bought our house (in Chicago), and we were talking to our realtor and looking around we kept talking about resale – will it sell, will it sell – and the realtor finally looked at us and said, ‘Are you buying or are you selling?’ We said ‘Well, we’re in the hockey industry and you just never know what might happen.”

What happened was winning. Lots of it.

Once Cheveldayoff was firmly ensconced in the team’s driver’s seat, it became clear that the relationship between the new GM and the Wolves was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The team captured the International Hockey League’s Turner Cup that first year, and the championship bug he had hoped to bring with him bit hard.

The rewards of a title he’d seen before caught like wildfire in Chicago. The Wolves liked to win – and they wanted to do it every year.

“I think whenever you get an opportunity to win a championship, it’s a moment that you have to cherish because there’s so much that goes in,” he explained. “There are so many different things that can derail you along the way, but knowing the sacrifices that go in for the players and then obviously the sacrifices that have to go in for your own self and your own family as well. Then, to be able to walk onto the ice with your kids and your wife and to experience those kinds of things, and then look back over the years and see how (the kids) have grown in the pictures and listening to them talk about the fun that they’ve had kind of makes being on the road for 100-plus days a year well worth it.”

In this case, the term “family” extends beyond genetics, as Cheveldayoff noted.

“The type of loyalty and commitment that our ownership has shown toward people, and ultimately towards myself as well, is great. You don’t get a winning organization unless you have that type of loyalty, and there’s probably no more loyal owners in the league or in hockey than Don Levin and Buddy Meyers. They have created a wonderful, wonderful family environment, and to see the joy and the passion when you look into their eyes after a championship – that’s the job that I was entrusted with here: to try and help accomplish that each year, and those are wonderful feelings.”

Kevin Cheveldayoff celebrates the Wolves’ 2008 Calder Cup title with goaltender Ondrej Pavelec

Victory is sweet, but pausing too long to reflect upon the places you’ve been can land you an express ticket to a place you don’t want to go. That’s a trap Cheveldayoff has the task of making sure the Wolves never fall into.

“One thing that’s the beauty of the American Hockey League and was of the International League before it, is that each and every year you get an opportunity to rebuild and try to do it all over again,” he reminded. “We’ve achieved (championship) several times but again the focus is always on moving forward.”

The 2008-09 season is a prime example of that, and Cheveldayoff is greeting the challenge with the same gusto that he would a Finals series.

“As a franchise, certainly this year is an exciting year for us,” he said. “It’s a lot of different things for a lot of people, but for me that’s excitement. I am really excited to work with Don Granato. [Before the season] I was sitting here in the office with him and we’re talking about training camp and I’m thinking, ‘This is such a great experience for me because I’m learning so much from him.’ He’s coming from a different organization and a different point of view and you know there’s opportunity to learn.

“That’s a big thing for me,” he continued. “I owe a lot of my success to all the people around me because I’ve taken so many ideas from them – maybe tweaked them a little bit to the Wolves or the way I want to Wolves to run – but I’ve taken a lot of thoughts from a lot of people and I owe a lot to them for helping formulate my ideas.”

The people Cheveldayoff is referring to cover a wide range. Many have moved on from the Wolves, many are still around.

“It’s always interesting and difficult to watch people leave organizations because you develop friendships,” he reflected. “You’ve won championships with them, you’ve sweated through some of the bad times with them but you’re just thankful that you’re still a part of it. You realize that your friendships are just kind of extending into different areas. You’re very happy for the individuals when they get an opportunity to go in a new direction and enhance their careers and its always gratifying to see, and you never lose touch with them.”

One such individual is former Wolves head coach John Anderson, now filling the same role with the team’s National Hockey League affiliate Atlanta Thrashers. Cheveldayoff and Anderson joined the Wolves the same year, and the general manager is eager to continue the duo’s record of success together on a new level.

“Early on in the IHL days, the type of players that were here were players that were more mature, and I think there were some gratifying moments when you saw how Johnny pulled that group together,” he recalled. “They weren’t necessarily moving on to the NHL or tremendously improving, but how they changed their approach to the game or their style. Part of why we were successful is we were able to get all these players on the ice on the same page, and then off the ice we were able to get everybody pulling in the same direction and to believe in the Wolves crest.

“Now, since we’ve moved into the AHL we’re starting to see players who are just starting and their best years are still ahead of them. I think the best is still yet to come. As our relationship with Atlanta keeps on maturing, so will the players who are playing here who will go on to have great careers in the NHL and I’m looking forward to continuing to work with John Anderson on that new level.”

As for the Wolves, the team is going new places to be sure. With Cheveldayoff driving the bus, fans can bet the trip will be a memorable one.

“I think it’s an extremely exciting year from that standpoint for the franchise,” he asserted. “After all that time, I think its great to breath some new life into the organization. The fans are going to be able to come out and see a different Wolves and watch us do things in a different fashion than we have over the years. There’s more than one way to do things and I think it’s an exciting time for us to grow in that direction as well.”

And as for the man behind the roster? Chevy’s just enjoying the journey.

“Professionally, I’d love to move into the NHL at some point in time, but I tell you, I’m having the time of my life working here for the Wolves, seeing my family grow up as a part of the organization,” he said. “It’s such a blessing to be able to have our kids stay in the same place and for me to be able to have achieved so many different things, with John Anderson and with Gene Ubriaco, Don and Buddy and all the different people that have been here – second to none is such an overused term but I think that there’s no other organization like it.”