WINNIPEG - There are few things captain Blake Wheeler enjoys doing less than talking about himself or discussing numerical achievements.
Wheeler prefers the focus to be on his Winnipeg Jets, but he was the centre of attention for many of this week's media availabilities as his 1,000th game approached.
During a session on Saturday that lasted nearly 18 minutes, Wheeler peeled back the curtain and shared stories about his journey, even after initially saying he hadn’t taken much time to review his highlight reel.
This is a man who prefers to reside fully in the here and now. But his willingness to open up about his past painted a picture about how he was able to achieve this momentous milestone, which will be marked by a ceremony before Sunday’s home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I will reflect when it’s all over, but while you’re still playing, I think you’re so focused on just tomorrow, just the next day, the next game,” said Wheeler. “I will certainly try to soak it in. I will enjoy it, no doubt. It will be one of those games that will be a highlight, for sure. But I haven’t had time to have a trip down memory lane.”
But as the questions kept flowing, Wheeler seemed to enjoy the various stops down this long and winding road, sharing interesting tidbits from minor hockey, the NHL Draft process, the trade that rocked his world but provided an opportunity of a lifetime and why it was important for him to put down roots in Winnipeg with his family after the Atlanta Thrashers relocated here.
Wheeler also spoke about the influences several family members have had on his life.
His father, Jim, the fiery one, helped plant the seeds of his competitive nature.
“My dad played baseball until a couple of years ago. He was a pitcher and I remember as a kid, when he didn’t get a strike call that he liked, he was eyeing the ump and had some choice words (for him),” said Wheeler. “One thing that really stands out, he slid into third base and slid in a little high and the third baseman didn’t like it. A fight ensued and, you know, as a kid, you’re like ‘What is Dad doing? He’s taking this pretty seriously. Everyone else is just having a good time and drinking beer and hanging out.’ He had some athletic ability, for sure, but his message to me growing up was that he maximized it by having to work every day, so that was kind of what I was taught. That was the litmus test every day. How are you working? That was instilled in me at an early age.”
His mother, Pat, was often the one driving to practices and games, but also lending a supportive ear during the highs and lows of youth hockey.
Then there is his wife, Sam, the mother of his three children and life partner.
“She’s the only one that sees the day in and day out, the highs, the lows. She’s been there for me through it all,” said Wheeler. “Having her there, that one means the most to me. Nobody knows what 1,000 good days and bad days or in between has looked like more than her.
“Being a pro athlete, it's a glamorous job when it's good and it's not so when it's not so good. That's when you have people that you care about that care about you. She's been my support system for the last 14 years. We've had a lot of, we've celebrated a lot of highs, and when it's as bad as it gets, I mean that's when you need her. That's when she's been there for me. I'll never be able to pay that back. She sacrificed what she wanted to do with her life to follow me and to take care of our kids and support me. So no, I can't really put into words what she means to me but I try to show her. I try to let her know but, yeah, tomorrow will be a good day to try to remind her.”
Wheeler’s durability has been nearly as impressive as his production, as he’s barely missed any time (18 games) over his 14-year NHL career because of injury.
“I guess I was dramatic as a kid. So, I was a kid that laid on the ice a lot, liked attention and all that,” said Wheeler. “I don’t think my dad liked that a whole lot, so I was taught early that there’s a difference between being hurt and being injured. If you’re going to play this game for a living, you’re going to feel hurt a lot. And the difference between being able to go out there and play and not is a pretty black-and-white thing for me.
“I’ve been blessed to have a body that’s suited for it. I have to play that way. If I don’t play that way, I wouldn’t be in the league. That’s just the way I have to play it. I think there’s an element of, yeah, I take care of myself, that’s the priority for me. I’ve just been lucky to not have anything significant over the years, just things you could play through.”
There will be supportive messages flowing in from all corners, whether it be current or former teammates, coaches and friends – all of which will have special meaning.
“Having played with him for so long, you get to know who he is, kind of what makes him tick,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “He’s really been the heartbeat of our team for so long. He drives the bus for us. He’s a guy we all look to in the room when we need to get going, when we need some direction.”
Former Jets captain Andrew Ladd, in town earlier this week with the Arizona Coyotes, reflected on his long-time linemate - not to mention the guy who succeeded him as captain in August 2016.
“Being in a Canadian market, it’s a big responsibility and probably more of a burden than most places,” said Ladd. “One thing I told him right at the start was not to wear anything too personally and carry it around all on himself. As a group, you’ve got to learn to share that and not let it get personal or emotional. That’s a big part of it. It’s managing those emotions and those highs and lows because they become more pertinent with a fan base that lives with every win and dies with every loss.
“So, I think that’s the biggest learning curve, learning how to be even-keeled, and I think we’ve kind of seen that with him from the start to where he is now.”
Former Jets defenceman Mark Stuart has a special relationship with Wheeler.
Not only were they teammates in all three of Wheeler’s professional stops, they were part of the Feb. 18, 2011, trade from the Boston Bruins to the Thrashers – the one that moved the goalposts when it comes to his career trajectory.
“It was a blow, for sure,” said Wheeler. “I knew we had a good team in Boston. I knew there was a chance to win there. I also knew that my role, the fit wasn’t maybe the best. I took (the trade) as another opportunity and was thankful for that opportunity, and was lucky enough that I was with Craig Ramsay – a coach that believed in me and gave me a chance to go play. That was basically the message from him when I got traded. Don’t worry about mistakes, just go play. At that time of my career, that’s exactly what I needed.”
The emotional element didn’t end with the trade.
It continued throughout the course of the playoffs and ultimately when the Bruins were raising the Stanley Cup that June after a Game 7 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.
“That’s a bond we’ll have for the rest of our lives, getting traded together was a pretty unique experience, especially two months after that,” said Stuart. “We texted every day and basically cried on the phone together when we weren’t part of the Cup (win). That’s definitely something that will always tie us together.”
Being so close to having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup is something that’s served as a driving force for Wheeler throughout his career.
This is the second time in Jets 2.0 franchise history that a player will suit up in his 1,000th NHL game for the franchise, the first coming last season for Paul Stastny on May 11.
“Every player sees that and understands the sacrifice, the work, the dedication to the game that it takes,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. “You have to be a good player for a long time in order to do that. It’s one of the greatest accomplishments in our game.”
Wheeler was a multi-sport high school star at Breck, winning a state championship in both hockey and football in Grade 11.
“At Breck, he just had an unbelievable ability to elevate the team and the players he played with, no matter what sport he was in. He’s there to win and he’s there to do his best,” said former University of Minnesota Golden Gophers assistant coach Mike Guentzel. “You knew that was going to be his calling card as far as his leadership and his work ethic and things like that.”
Hockey was his first true love, so chasing that dream was an easy decision, especially after the then-Phoenix Coyotes chose him fifth overall in the 2004 NHL Draft – one spot after Ladd went to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Wheeler remembers Coyotes director of amateur scouting Vaughn Karpan stopping by his house in Minnesota in the weeks leading up to the draft.
Initially, Wheeler thought Karpan was just doing his due diligence – and making sure he wasn’t an A-hole, as he described it on Saturday.
Over time, Wheeler and Karpan – who is now with the Vegas Golden Knights front office – have shared a laugh over how things eventually worked out for a guy some scouts viewed as a reach with the fifth overall pick.
“He’s been in my corner from day one,” said Wheeler, who has 279 goals and 817 points in 999 career NHL games. “I thought it was really strange for a guy to fly all that way for a second round pick. I sort of had a hunch, I had a few teams basically say that they were going to take me a little bit later in the first round. And so I thought Phoenix was very thorough with their picks.
“I remember him meeting my family and sitting down for an hour or two, just talking hockey. Nothing about the conversation stands out. Like I said, it’s been a relationship, kind of from afar, that’s been maintained over the years. It’s cool to bump into him at rinks and say, ‘Hey, remember back when?’ We were the only two guys who knew.”
Having his name called by Wayne Gretzky at the draft was a thrill for Wheeler, but he never suited up in a game for that franchise.
A change in the management team was a factor in the decision and Wheeler ultimately signed as a free agent with the Bruins after his junior year at the University of Minnesota, spending parts of three seasons with the organization before moving on.
Wheeler couldn’t have known what to expect upon his arrival in Winnipeg, and his resolve was tested early as he went 19 games before scoring his first goal.
“Everyone forgets that (players) put more pressure on themselves than anyone externally can put on them,” said Ladd. “I know he was wearing that for a while.”
The one thing that’s stood the test of time with Wheeler is his unwavering approach.
It didn’t matter if he’s riding a lengthy point streak or going through a rough stretch – his mentality remained the same.
“The thing that stood out for me throughout those years was that everybody goes through ups and downs or rough patches, but he always just put in the work,” said Stuart. “His attitude never really dipped depending on how he was playing. He knew his potential even back then. He knew he was a good player and he knew his ceiling. Even when there were times when people on the outside didn’t see it, he knew that he was a big-time player and there was really nothing that was going to stop him from becoming that.
“It was fun to see him develop into that top player in the league. A guy that could score goals. He’s known for his playmaking abilities and his passing abilities. His speed was always there and he slowly rounded out his game. He’s a complete player. The thing that always impressed me was consistency. Not only the on-ice product, but how he approached it. He never doubted himself. He always knew who he was and what kind of player he could be.”
Wheeler might not blow by opposing defencemen with as much regularity as he did earlier in his career with the Jets, but he can still be a handful to play against.
“He’s really turned into such a good passer over his pro career. He’s such a good playmaker,” said Minnesota Wild defenceman Alex Goligoski, who played two seasons with Wheeler at the University of Minnesota. “His work ethic is probably the thing that stands out the most. He doesn’t take shifts off. He’ll do the right things. He’ll chip pucks behind you and he’ll go forecheck.
“There’s never an easy shift against him. He takes on the mindset that he’s just going to keep doing that over and over again and after 60 minutes, we’ll see where we are. That’s why he’s the leader of that team.”
Often in sports, you hear about clutch performers, players who want the puck on their stick in big moments.
Wheeler was viewed as one of those guys, long before he arrived on the scene in the NHL.
“He played on a lot of championship teams growing up,” said Don Lucia, the former head coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers who had Wheeler in the program for three seasons. “Some guys want to take a back seat and some guys want to lead the charge. Blake has always been the kind of guy who wants to lead the charge and be the man in those pressure situations.”
Wheeler made a quick impression on his new teammates when he arrived in Atlanta in late February 2011.
“I remember him being confident in his game and he basically walked into the locker room knowing he was going to be able to showcase his talents, which he did right away,” said Jim Slater, who spent parts of five seasons as a teammate of Wheeler’s. “He was obviously a great skater, he had great skill, but the biggest thing for me was the way that he competed on a nightly basis.
“That’s probably echoed by a lot of people who are around the game and around him. Just how competitive he plays, not just every night but shift by shift too. With how serious he takes it. He produces enough that I still have him on my fantasy hockey team.”
That slump in his first season in Winnipeg was not a precursor of things to come, as Wheeler found his footing and eventually became a prolific performer who is the Jets 2.0's franchise leader in both points and assists.
More than that, Wheeler has become the face of the franchise and often its spokesman.
Wheeler’s serious demeanour has led to tense exchanges with members of the media over the years, but that’s a byproduct of the way he’s wired, and sometimes those unfiltered answers are the ones that carry the most meaning.
“There’s an intensity that really comes back to him really wearing his heart on his sleeve and wanting the best for everybody,” said Ladd. “Sometimes as an outsider you can misinterpret that as someone who is a little edgy. I think it’s a big misread on him. From the standpoint of getting his teammates involved and getting people together, he’s fantastic at doing that. I know first-hand how much he cares about the people around him.”
When you ask those who spend the most time with him, Wheeler isn’t always that guy who appears to have his game face on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“There definitely is a fun-loving side,” said Stuart. “He’s an intense individual. He cares about his craft. He sets the example. He competes every single day. He expects a lot from his teammates and you know what you’re going to get from him every night. That’s what you want in a leader. He’s going to give it everything that he has. That’s what stands out right away.
“As the years have gone, he’s developed that vocal aspect of leadership. He was always a guy that was pretty talkative off the ice and away from the rink. But he does have the ability to turn it off as well, which is important.”
Even during a season where the goals have been tough to come by and he was forced to miss five games with, a bout with COVID-19, Wheeler remains thankful for the way he’s been embraced by the community and organization he remains proud to represent each time he hits the ice.
“It’s the first place that let me be me,” said Wheeler, who has 10 assists in 18 games this season after chipping in three helpers in Friday’s 8-4 win over the New Jersey Devils. “Everywhere that I went before this was trying to make me into something that I’m not. Being a big guy, you’ve got to hit more, you’ve got to fight more, you’ve got to do this more, you’ve got to do that more. I got to be me and I think the people here embraced the way that I play. I try to play hard for our fans every night and it’s why I’ve committed my career here. This is where I want to be and this is where I want to win. I think it’s a relationship that has allowed me to flourish. It’s been over 11 years now and it’s been an honour to play in front of these people every night.
“Like I said, I can be myself here. I don't have to be anyone else. I don't have to cater to a style that somebody else thinks that I need to play. I can just focus on working my ass off every day, and that's good enough. That's meant everything to me. I can just come to work and play, (to) have a crowd that's full every night and excited. That's what this game is all about. I'll live somewhere warm when I don't play hockey anymore. Coming to work every day and having people care about what you're doing, as a pro athlete, I mean that's what it's all about.”