How will the Western Hockey League look without Kelly McCrimmon as a franchise owner?
That is the question today after McCrimmon sold the Brandon Wheat Kings to the J&G Group of Companies, a Brandon firm that is led by Jared Jacobson, who is the president and CEO. He will take over as the Wheat Kings’ governor, with McCrimmon staying involved as alternate governor.
The WHL’s board of governors has approved the sale, which is to close on Sept. 15.
“We believe this is the right decision,” McCrimmon said in a news release. “The game has been so good to my family, I am fortunate now to be part of a great organization in Las Vegas with the Knights, and it became apparent a succession plan was needed. I feel good for people in Brandon and western Manitoba that the Wheat Kings will be in great hands with Jared and will always be a big part of the City of Brandon.”
Jacobson was born and raised in Brandon and, according to the news release, “has been actively involved in the Jacobson & Greiner third generation family business from an early age. Through Jared’s leadership, determination and vision, the organization has seen spectacular growth, expanding to 32 companies, encompassing all areas of construction.”
McCrimmon, from Plenty, Sask., played two seasons (1978-80) with the Wheat Kings. He returned to the organization in 1988, bought one-third of the franchise from Bob Cornell in 1992, and has been the sole owner since 2000.
However, McCrimmon, now 59, signed with the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights as assistant general manager on Aug. 2, 2016. Then, on May 2, 2019, he was named general manager.
After dealing with the media and talking about the sale of the Wheat Kings earlier Tuesday, he spent the evening in the NHL’s Edmonton bubble watching the Golden Knights beat the Dallas Stars, 3-0, to even their Western Conference final, 1-1.
Gary Lawless, a former Winnipeg Free Press sports writer who now is the Golden Knights’ Insider, has more on the sale of the Wheat Kings right here.
If you haven’t seen this already, here’s a piece I wrote on McCrimmon for The Coaches Site five years ago . . .
Kelly McCrimmon is the owner of the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings.
He also is the team’s governor, general manager and head coach.
He also is the head coach of the Canadian U-18 team that will play in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament in August.
Did we mention that McCrimmon is the chairman of the WHL’s competition committee?
Yes, the 54-year-old, who originally is from Plenty, Sask., wears a lot of hats, none of which has kept him from being successful.
He has been the Wheat Kings’ general manager since 1989 and now is acknowledged as perhaps the best GM in the WHL. With him at the helm, the Wheat Kings have become one of the WHL’s top franchises and best teams.
At the league level, McCrimmon has been a player for more than 20 years, serving on one committee or another, and always having a voice.
And let’s not forget that he is a married man with a family.
Whew! By now you are wondering where he finds the time. . . .
Well, the more you talk to McCrimmon, the more you realize that his working life is governed by all those clichés that you hear so much about . . . work ethic . . . surround yourself with good people and let them do their jobs . . . be true to yourself and always do what is best for the organization . . .
Perhaps the most interesting thing about McCrimmon is that it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The original plan was for him to be a farmer.
“My plans,” he says, “were to get my degree and farm.”
After playing two seasons (1978-80) with the Wheat Kings, McCrimmon headed for Ann Arbor, Mich., where he played four seasons with the Wolverines while he earned a business degree.
(Yes, McCrimmon played NCAA hockey after spending two seasons in the WHL, but that’s another story for another time.)
McCrimmon and his brother, Brad, had been raised on the family farm that is operated by their parents, Faye and Byron, near Plenty. The brothers, who were teammates on the 1978-79 Wheat Kings, even bought some land that was an extension of the family farm.
“I graduated in 1983,” Kelly says. “I was married after my sophomore year, and by the time I graduated we were expecting our first child. I went back to the farm, as planned.”
McCrimmon, who has two grown children with wife Terry, spent two years there, during which time he also dipped his toes into the coaching pool for the first time, playing and coaching with the Kerrobert Tigers of the Wild Goose Hockey League. He could do that during the winter months and go back to farming in the spring.
He found that he quite enjoyed the coaching side of things and it wasn’t long before he was coaching the SJHL’s Battlefords North Stars. Still, he says, “I was fully committed to farming.”
What once had been a mixed farm (grain and cattle) now was grain only, which made it easier to spend winters with a hockey team. So spending two winters coaching in North Battleford, and another as head coach of the SJHL’s Lloydminster Lancers, didn’t compromise the farming side of things.
Then would come the offer that set him on the road that he still is on today.
The Wheat Kings were a franchise in transition, not finding much success on the ice or off. At this stage, they were being operated by the Keystone Centre. McCrimmon came on board and would spend half his time working on Keystone Centre affairs and the other half with the Wheat Kings.
“One year of doing that,” McCrimmon says, “and they approached me to be the general manager.”
McCrimmon pauses, then adds: “I was fully intending at that time to go back to farming and yet this meant moving away . . . and a deviation from the plans.”
Amazingly, he still considered himself a farmer, not a hockey man.
By now, Bob Cornell owned the Wheat Kings. Halfway through McCrimmon’s first season (1989-90) as general manager, head coach Doug Sauter fell ill with Guillain–Barré syndrome. You guessed it . . . McCrimmon stepped in as head coach.
In hindsight, McCrimmon admits that this was his awakening as a WHL general manager. The Wheat Kings of that era would get caught up every season in the race just to make the playoffs; if they got there, they would more often than not lose out in the first round. In one 10-season stretch, they didn’t qualify on eight occasions. Rinse, repeat. . . .
With McCrimmon coaching, the Wheat Kings finished tied for the last playoff spot with the Swift Current Broncos, who won the play-in game, 5-4.
“Our team was primarily 19-year-old players and three 20-year-olds,” McCrimmon says. “Swift Current had six 16-year-olds.” In 1993, the Broncos would win the WHL title and play in the Memorial Cup.
After that experience, McCrimmon came to the realization that what the Wheat Kings were doing “was wrong.” So he began working towards changing the franchise’s thought process.
The next season, the Wheat Kings won 19 games. Then they put up 11 victories. The howling in Brandon wasn’t all coming from the Prairie wind.
Despite what was happening on the ice, Cornell recognized that McCrimmon was moving things in the right direction. So Cornell offered McCrimmon one-third ownership in the franchise, a move that meant a whole lot to the young GM.
“That was as much belief as he could possibly show in me after winning 19 and 11 games . . . he felt comfortable enough with me running his hockey club to want to make me a partner,” McCrimmon says. By 2000, McCrimmon would be the sole owner.
McCrimmon becoming a partner meant one other thing.
“Me being a farmer wasn’t going to happen,” he says.
That summer (1992), Bob Lowes signed on as head coach. He would stay for nine years, nine years in which McCrimmon says he never once thought of going back behind the bench.
In Lowes’ first season, the Wheat Kings won 43 games, lending credence to McCrimmon’s building plans. That season, Brandon set a CHL record for the largest improvement from one season to the next.
By the spring of 1995, the Wheat Kings were in the Memorial Cup, having lost to the host team, the Kamloops Blazers, in the WHL’s championship final. The Wheaties were there again a year later, this time as WHL champions. And they were in the WHL final again in 1998.
One thing would lead to another and Lowes would leave. Dean Clark would coach the team to two final fours. Mike Kelly would replace Clark, with McCrimmon taking over from Kelly in March of 2004. McCrimmon had made some moves to strengthen the lineup, such as acquiring Erik Christensen, the reigning WHL scoring champion. McCrimmon didn’t like the way things were going, so he stepped in. Brandon was ousted in the second round, but was in the WHL final the following season.
Since then, McCrimmon has been the head coach for nine of 11 years, the two-year gap coming when former player and assistant coach Dwayne Gylywoychuk was in charge.
The Wheat Kings have missed the playoffs twice in the 23 seasons since that 11-victory winter. Yes, they’ve come a long way since missing the post-season eight times in 10 years.
During his voyage, McCrimmon learned the importance of having good people behind the scenes. Not only is it important to have them there, it’s important to keep them.
“I am pretty hands on with some things,” McCrimmon says, and some people will say that is something of an understatement. But, he adds, “the people in key positions have complete autonomy to run the business.”
That was never more evident than more than 10 years ago when McCrimmon decided it was important that he get his Master of Business Administration (MBA).
In the two years that took, the team was in good hands on the ice with Clark in charge. The other key people were Al Macpherson, Rick Dillabough and Lyn Shannon.
Macpherson joined the Wheat Kings as a scout in 1986 and was promoted to director of player personnel in 1998, a position he filled until his retirement in the summer of 2013. He remains associated with the team as its senior advisor, while veteran WHL scout Wade Klippenstein is the director of scouting.
Dillabough now is the director of business operations and sponsorship. He has been with the franchise since 1990.
Shannon, an employee since 1991, handles the accounting side of things.
When McCrimmon was working toward his MBA through Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., Macpherson ran the scouting, and Dillabough and Shannon handled the business/financial side. During that time, McCrimmon was confident things were in good hands.
It is important, McCrimmon says, “to keep people in place.”
Darren Ritchie, who played four seasons with the Wheat Kings (1991-95), has been an assistant coach for eight seasons. The other assistant, David Anning, a former MJHL player and coach, has been there for three seasons.
Because of the number of hats McCrimmon wears, he says his assistants have “more responsibility . . . a great deal of responsibility.”
With everything else on his plate, McCrimmon decided this spring that there was room for one more thing. So he now is head coach of Canada’s summer U-18 team. This will be his first time with a Canadian national team.
“I have always had a relationship with people at Hockey Canada,” says McCrimmon, adding that he has long scouted Hockey Canada camps, especially those of the U-17 variety. Another thing that pushed him in Hockey Canada’s direction is the presence of Spokane Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz, a long-time friend, as part of HC’s management group.
Also, don’t ever underestimate McCrimmon’s desire — it’s almost a need with him — to better himself. Working with the U-18 team gives him the opportunity to coach alongside Sheldon Keefe, the OHL’s coach of the year with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, and Darren Rumble, a former Seattle Thunderbirds assistant coach who now is head coach of the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats.
“It’s a good chance to work with good coaches,” McCrimmon says, pointing out that all three worked the benches of teams that got into the final four in each of their leagues. He talks of it being a “good challenge” in terms of “personal growth.”
As he puts it: “Responsibility is good for you in terms of growing. It was a good opportunity to pursue, and I know that age group well.”
The man, it’s fair to say, has never run from a challenge. As he says, “Coaching is a challenge . . . hosting the Memorial Cup is a challenge.”
Yes, McCrimmon was mostly responsible for the 2010 Memorial Cup having been played in Brandon, where it was a resounding success. In March 2011, the Brandon Chamber of Commerce honoured him with its President’s Award as the business person of the year.
“I enjoy everything I’ve done in hockey,” McCrimmon says. “I love scouting, building, developing.
“I work hard. I always have . . . and I manage my time well.”
A reporter’s mind flashes back to a bitterly cold winter’s night in Regina, more than 20 years ago. It was a Sunday, about 1 a.m. A Tim Hortons outlet on the east side was empty except for a couple having coffee, decaf you should know.
The front door opened and an icy blast blew in, bringing with it a man who was rubbing his hands together as he tried to shake off the cold.
Yes, it was McCrimmon. He had been scouting somewhere in the hinterlands of south-western Saskatchewan. He wanted a cup of coffee to get him started on the last leg of the trek.
As he got back in his vehicle, he was almost as close to Plenty as he was to the Wheat Kings’ office.
McCrimmon left the parking lot that morning and headed east towards Brandon. He was a hockey man, not a farmer.