The Kootenay Ice’s Manager of Hockey Operations and Player Experience, Jake Heisinger, works at his desk in July. (Brad McLeod Photo)

The ‘player experience’: Jake Heisinger brings his hockey obsession to the Ice

Fresh out of college, the rising hockey operations star looks to make Kootenay ‘the place to be’

It’s been a whirlwind summer for Jake Heisinger.

For the first time since he was an infant, he isn’t gearing up to hit the ice for another hockey season. He’s going to be integral, however, to every Kootenay Ice player doing so this fall.

Heisinger was hired by the Ice in early June, straight out of college, to fill the organization’s new role of manager of hockey operations and player experience.

In his role, he works closely alongside President and General Manager Matt Cockell to handle everything from travel planning, to billeting, education, and even scouting.

“[So far], Matt and I spend most of the day together working hand in hand here, bouncing ideas off each other,” Heisinger says. “[There are] a variety of things that come up during the day [and] we’ll see if we can figure it out together sometimes.”

While it’s the sort of job that he’s always wanted to get into, only a few months separated from being a player at an NCAA Division III program, it’s been a dramatic change.

Heisinger was part of a family at Curry College in Boston, and it was hard to leave.

“I had the same coach there for four years [and] we had a tight group,” he says. “There were 12 of us that graduated as seniors, so we came in together and we all left together as well, which is pretty rare.

“It’s definitely a little bit weird not getting ready to head back and see those guys.”

Growing up in Winnipeg, Heisinger played junior hockey with the Winnipeg Blues of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. In 180 games, he put up 149 points, enough to get him a scholarship to play for the Curry Colonels.

“I probably wasn’t going to be good enough to play in the WHL, so I had to find other ways to get my education,” Heisinger said on his decision to play college hockey in the United States. “The [offer from Curry] came up in my 20-year-old year and I figured it’d be a great opportunity, so I went there.

“It was an awesome experience. Definitely the top four years of my life so far. I met some lifelong friends there and [have] nothing but good things to say about that place.”

While showing his skills on the ice, with 69 points in 94 career games over four seasons, Heisinger did a lot more than play hockey while at school.

Heisinger was one of their most community conscious and charitable players on the Colonels. He started an annual teddy bear toss night in support of a local children’s hospital, among other initiatives, which earned him back-to-back nominations for the NCAA’s Hockey Humanitarian Award in 2015 and 2016.

It was the first time the school had ever had a student nominated for the award and according to his coach, it was not a surprise that he was the one to be honoured.

“He is a leader with a strong set of personal values,” T.J. Manastersky told USCHO.com after the 2015 nomination. “I think the fact [that] he has been nominated for such a prestigious award, as just a sophomore, is outstanding. It gives him an opportunity to build his legacy for two more years that will stick with him for his entire life.”

For Heisinger, however, awards weren’t the motivation. He just had a natural inclination to be part of the community.

“We started [the teddy bear toss] and it just grew and grew and got bigger and bigger,” he recalls. “We did it for the kids, to give back. And it was good for our team as well because we were able to interact with the community. [It’s still] continuing on, which is awesome.”

Academically, Heisinger earned a degree in business with a minor in communications, purposefully equipping himself to be ready for a front-office hockey job.

With a father who worked himself up the ladder from a junior team’s equipment manager to the general manager of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose and an assistant GM and vice-president and director of hockey operations with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, Heisinger knew a little bit about the business end of things.

“I grew up around the game [and] around the management side, so I had an idea of what I was getting into,” he says. “When I went to school, I figured I may as well take something that was general, where I could learn a little bit about the other side because there’s a business side to everything.

“I took that in school and it was great. I had a lot of good professors [and] it got me started in the right direction.”

He had no idea that he’d get to start his career immediately, though.

“It happened so quickly. Matt and Greg [Fettes] bought the [Kootenay Ice] and I wanted to get into something like this,” he says. “I knew Matt from the past a little bit, so I figured I’d reach out and see where things were at.

“The next thing I know, I’m looking for a place to live out here.”

So far, he says that it’s been an absolutely perfect experience for him.

“I couldn’t really draw up a better opportunity to be honest, for me personally,” Heisinger says. “It’s been great and I’m just thrilled to be here. Every day you learn something new.

“The people are great too. We have a good little thing going here in our office.”

As for managing the Ice’s ‘player experience’, it’s an area that Heisinger doesn’t have to delve too far back in his memory bank to understand.

“I was playing not long ago, so I know what it’s like,” he says. “I’ve been through the Bantam Draft for the Western League — I didn’t get picked, but I’ve been through it — and I know what’s important to players.

“I [also] know what’s important to their families because it was me not long ago, and it was my friends not long ago. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it.”

Everything from billeting to community engagement has been a big part of Heisinger’s life and he is hopeful that he can make those experiences as enjoyable for the members of the Kootenay Ice, as they were for him.

“I think I should have a pretty good handle on what enhances the player experience and what makes it good for guys to want to come play here,” he says. “One of our main [focuses] is a pro environment and that goes hand in hand with player experience.”

Heisinger has had conversations with the majority of returning Ice players on the phone and has gotten the sense that they are all very excited to come back to a reinvigorated franchise.

Now, he just wants to get going.

“I’m really excited to see what the on-ice product looks like,” he says. “Matt and I have bounced enough ideas off each other now for a long time, so hopefully once the puck drops, we can see what we’ve got and evaluate from there.

“There is still a lot of work left to do here before the season starts, but when the puck does drop, I’ll be really excited. Hopefully we’ll continue to get good community turnout and get a lot of fans [at Western Financial Place]. It would be [great] for the players to play in front of a packed crowd.”

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