The Las Vegas expansion NHL team has done what Mike Babcock and the Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t.
Las Vegas has yet to play, let alone win, a game, but the franchise succeeded in convincing junior hockey mainstay Kelly McCrimmon to make the jump to the NHL.
The team on Tuesday hired McCrimmon as its assistant general manager, winning the sweepstakes for one of the sport’s most well-respected executives.
"I just think that these kinds of hockey men are hard to find, and I was delighted that he wanted to come with us," general manager George McPhee said in a phone interview. "I like that he’s a hockey man through and through. He lives it, he breathes it, he’s always out watching players, understands the game, likes the game."
McCrimmon also wins a lot and develops players. As owner, general manager and coach of the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings, he oversaw one of the most successful junior programs of the past two-plus decades, helping get Philadelphia Flyers forward Brayden Schenn and Ottawa Senators forward Mark Stone, among others, to the NHL.
Since McCrimmon became owner in 1992, Brandon has the most victories of any Canadian Hockey League team, and the Wheat Kings won the WHL title in his final season behind the bench. He’ll continue to own that team, but begins his responsibilities with Las Vegas immediately.
McCrimmon called Las Vegas "the chance of a lifetime" and it had to be to leave the Wheat Kings.
"This opportunity is so unique," McCrimmon said in a phone interview. "I’m person that loves a draft-development model, which is going to be so important for this franchise as we build. I’m excited by that."
Babcock said after taking over as Maple Leafs coach in 2015 that the two best hockey people he knew were McCrimmon and Mark Hunter, Toronto’s director of player personnel. Others around the NHL think highly of McCrimmon, as well, and McPhee said he was glad to be able to hire him.
"He’s earned the right to come to the NHL," McPhee said. "He’s as good a hockey man as there is out there."
The 55-year-old is a three-time WHL executive of the year, and the Wheat Kings made the playoffs in 10 of his 12 seasons behind the bench. Owner Bill Foley called the hiring of McCrimmon "another positive step" in the building of the team, which begins play in the 2017-18 season.
McPhee said McCrimmon will take part in all hockey-related decisions and help build up Las Vegas’ amateur scouting department. The Plenty, Saskatchewan, native is prepared for that responsibility.
"So much of what we do in major junior hockey parallels the mindset and the philosophy of running a National Hockey League team," McCrimmon said.
Foley must still choose a name for the expansion franchise, but McPhee and McCrimmon begin their work in earnest next week scouting the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup in the Czech Republic, where many draft-eligible players will be on display.
Even before scouting a single player, McPhee is thrilled at making McCrimmon his first pickup.
"It’s just a tremendous acquisition for our franchise," McPhee said. "It’s a great start."