The emotional farewell is still a couple weeks away, but Sam Wheeler has already shared a heartfelt suggestion with her hockey-playing husband.
“When we’ve talked about it, basically what we came down to is she says, ‘Don’t just leave and play just three games. That would be a waste of time,’” Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler said during a video conference with reporters after completing Day 1 of training camp on Monday. “At least give me something to entertain me.’ So, that’s kind of where we’ve left it for now and hopefully we can go on a little bit of a run and give everyone back home something to cheer about.”
Wheeler is the father of three young children and the prospect of being away from his family for an extended period of time in the middle of what would otherwise be the offseason isn’t considered to be an optimal circumstance.
But in the midst of a pandemic, sacrifices are being made by every player in the NHL that is about to participate in the 24-team tournament in the chase for the Stanley Cup.
So as the Jets returned to the ice on Monday, there was Wheeler holding court on a zoom call, discussing what it was like to be back on the ice with his teammates for the first time as the real preparations for a best-of-five series with the Calgary Flames began in earnest.
Wheeler is a devoted family man, but he’s also passionate about the pursuit of the Stanley Cup — and that’s why he’s done everything in his power to stay ready for what could be one of the wildest rides of his 12-year NHL career.
Prior to the pause in March, this season had already been a roller-coaster of emotions for Wheeler and company.
Never mind the bitter taste of being bounced in the opening round of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, when the Jets entered the post-season with high expectations after reaching the Western Conference final the previous spring.
On the eve of training camp, Dustin Byfuglien asked for and received a personal leave of absence from Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, citing a lack of desire to play hockey.
Byfuglien never returned and his contract was mutually terminated in April, meaning the Jets had to replace their entire right side of the blue line and five regulars total on the back end.
Injuries are a fact of life for all teams, but the Jets lost 324 man games this season.
Veteran centre Bryan Little suffered a concussion in the final exhibition game, then suffered a perforated ear drum (and another suspected concussion) when he was hit by a slapshot in a game against the New Jersey Devils on Nov. 5.
Little didn’t come back to play either, and while there was some thought he might be healthy enough to return in July, he’s not part of the Jets return-to-play roster — and can’t be added.
“We’ve been through a lot this year already, (with) the amount of injuries we had, the amount of adversity we’ve gone through,” Wheeler said. “Buff retiring. Losing Bryan Little to a serious injury earlier this season. These are all things you can’t account for before a season.
“Our group has been really tight-knit through all that all year. We’ve had to kind of fight as a team to make it to this point, to even be playing in a playoff position. But I think we’re going to have to lean on each other, certainly. Everyone’s going to be homesick, everyone’s going to miss their families. We’re really only going to have each other to have that face-to-face and quality time.”
Wheeler has been a teammate of Little’s since he was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers by the Boston Bruins in February 2011 and tried to put Little’s absence into words.
“Of course it’s hard not to have Bryan around. He’s been here from Day 1 and one of our best players and the guy everyone looks forward to seeing every day, and one of our hardest workers,” Wheeler said. “Everything you’d want in a pro hockey player, that’s what Bryan Little’s been here for nine years. We’ve missed him all year, we miss him now. More importantly we’re just hoping for the best for him. That’s really all that matters, that he’s taking care of himself and his health first.”
The long-term health of Little remains the priority and the questions surrounding his future will linger until next season’s training camp — and possibly beyond, though optimism remains the additional time off will allow him to resume his career eventually.
Like all of the 24 teams participating in the tournament, the ultimate goal for the Jets is easy to identify, even if sizing up the competition after a four-month break makes things a bit more difficult to predict.
“Every team has a chance,” Jets left winger Mathieu Perreault said. “And we’re healthy right now, so we like our chances. We’re strong in every aspect of the game, so we see this challenge as a good chance for us to win a Stanley Cup. This is how I see it.”
It will take 19 wins for that dream to become a reality for the Jets.
Despite all the challenges the Jets have endured this season, for them to reach the pinnacle, they’ll surely have to overcome a number of additional obstacles.
“It’s a good idea because I’m a hockey fan and I’m going nuts,” said Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice, when asked why it’s a good idea for hockey to return in the middle of a pandemic. “It’s in the middle of July and we get to see the playoffs. I want to see it. I think it’s a good idea because we have a responsibility also first to our health, I get that, but also we’re entertainers, right? So this is prime time. People want to watch hockey. They want to see it. That’s our job and we have a responsibility to do our job.
“There’s so many things you don’t know. If you can go in with a positive frame of mind, if you can go in and look at this as a challenge that’s exciting, have a little fun with this, get a little wired up for it, it could be a great thing. I don’t even know what those hardships are yet, to be honest with you. I know they’re coming, but I haven’t seen it yet. All of the difficulties that you’re going to have to win the Stanley Cup this year will be the best part of the memories.”