If Kelly McCrimmon was looking for someone with an intimate knowledge of his Brandon Wheat Kings to serve as the team’s next general manager, he couldn’t have done much better than Darren Ritchie.
The 45-year-old Ritchie was officially named to the position on Friday after 16 years in various capacities with the club.
"I just thought it was the right time when the opportunity came," Ritchie said. "I’m really excited for the opportunity to lead our team."
Ritchie spent four full seasons with the Western Hockey League club from 1991 to 1995, playing 268 regular season and playoff games with the team and piling up 319 points.
After a nine-year professional hockey career, he joined the club as an assistant coach in 2007 and spent nineseasons in the job, winning a WHL title in 2016.
After former director of scouting Wade Klippenstein left for a National Hockey League scouting job with the Colorado Avalanche that summer, Ritchie moved into that position.
"I’ve done the coaching, the scouting and been a part of the organization for 16 years," Ritchie said. "I’m proud to be a Wheat King. It just felt right."
Ritchie has either coached or scouted virtually the entire roster.
The team parted ways with former general manager Grant Armstrong on May 7 and head coach David Anning on June 11. Both were hired in the summer of 2016 after McCrimmon, the Wheat Kings’ owner, became the assistant general manager of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights.
Armstrong had been the first new general manager since McCrimmon took the job in the 1989-90 season.
McCrimmon said he had a sense of who other GM candidates would be, noting Ritchie had stepped in since the bantam draft to take care of the prospects camp and the import draft. That alleviated some pressure on making an immediate decision, but McCrimmon ultimately chose to make it permanent.
"I felt strongly that he was a really good candidate with an understanding of what we expect in our organization, how we do things in our organization," McCrimmon said. "He spent 16 years in different roles with the team and I think he has a broad experience base based on playing, coaching and the last three years have been really good for him in terms of being our director of scouting … To me, he’s prepared for this and real well-suited."
McCrimmon’s familiarity with Ritchie wasn’t the sole reason he hired him. Many conversations over the years gave him a solid understanding of how Ritchie regarded players, the game and how the team needed to play. He said he always consulted the assistant coaches and director of scouting on the roster and potential trades.
Ritchie feels he can certainly draw on what he learned during those conversations in his nine years as an assistant coach.
"I was very fortunate to be in a lot of those meetings with Kelly over the years," he said. "He always made me and the others part of the situation if it was trade, lineups or everything so I’ve been around those conversations listening to him do his job. He’s an easy guy to ask questions and is always there for you. I’ve been very fortunate to learn a lot from him."
The new GM will certainly have to hit the ground running.
Ritchie takes over with a couple of pressing issues that will need his immediate attention. Besides replacing himself as director of scouting, he also requires a new head coach.
"We hope to have something in place very soon," Ritchie said of both jobs.
At the same time, Ritchie had to let go of a scouting position that clearly brought him a lot of joy and satisfaction. Under his tenure, the Wheat Kings selected their 2002 class that included Ridly Greig and Vinny Iorio, their incoming 2003 class that features first-rounder Jake Chiasson and the 2004 class that included three first-rounders who aren’t eligible for full-time duty this season.
"I loved going on the road scouting the kids and I love watching hockey," Ritchie said. "It wasn’t an easy decision. I enjoy our scouting staff. Mark Johnston and myself were on the road a lot together and I have a great relationship with him. It wasn’t easy, but these opportunities don’t come around very often."
Ritchie inherits a team that missed the playoffs by two points last season after finishing 31-29-4-4.
The squad loses leading scorer and captain Stelio Mattheos, who will graduate to the pros, overagers Linden McCorrister and Braydyn Chizen, who aged out, and forward Baron Thompson, who won’t be back for his 20-year-old season. Otherwise, Brandon will potentially return 10 forwards, six defencemen and both goalies.
"I think we have real good goaltending," Ritchie said. "They took a step in the second half of the season, and we return some real good forwards. Luka (Burzan) had a great season, Cole Reinhardt’s second part of the season was real good, (Connor Gutenberg)’s leadership and ability to compete every night is going to be key for us and Ben McCartney and Ridly Greig in the second half of the season were excellent.
"There is a lot to be excited about. We have some good young players coming in, and good leadership that needs to take a step. Our back end will be led by Braden Schneider. It’s a big year, and an important year for a lot of guys."
Missing the playoffs didn’t sit well with Ritchie or anyone in the organization, and he expects players to be hungry for more this season. He can’t wait for training camp to start in six weeks and for his new job to enter the next level.
"It’s exciting," Ritchie said. "You want to be pushed in anything that you do and this will push me to be better and I want to be better. I want to help our players and help our staff achieve our goals. I can’t wait for training camp and registration on Aug. 27 to get going and have our people in place and start building our team."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson