WINNIPEG — There was a time not long ago when Blake Wheeler probably would have scoffed at the suggestion of sitting out a few extra days, even if the decision was being made for his own long-term benefit.
When you’ve made a career out of playing through pain and being the picture of durability, it can occasionally be tough to see the bigger picture.
Finding a way to suit up simply becomes part of one’s personality and a badge of honour.
But this injury to the captain of the Winnipeg Jets wasn’t the kind a player simply shrugs off and plays through.
The reverse hit and subsequent elbow to the face from Ottawa Senators left-winger Brady Tkachuk forced Wheeler out of the lineup for the past six games — equalling the number he had missed during the previous nine seasons with the Jets and ending his iron man streak at 194 games.
Having the game he loves essentially taken away from him for a couple of weeks didn’t necessarily translate into an epiphany, but Wheeler shared some clear perspective as he spoke to reporters Tuesday for the first time since being sidelined.
“Sometimes you need to take a step back, and being away from it for a week allows you to take a step back and just realize what the injury was that I was dealing with,” said Wheeler, when asked how tough it was to convince him of the benefits of missing Saturday’s game with the Edmonton Oilers to better prepare him for Thursday’s outing against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Outside of that, I’ll try to be there. If I’m physically able to do it, but there’s just no sense rushing back from something that happens to your head. It just doesn’t do anyone any good. Even though I’ve been cleared and have been skating and ramped up, I hadn’t had a full practice with the team yet.
“The guys went 4-1 on the road and they were playing great. It was unnecessary, to put it quite bluntly. That’s where those guys allowing me to take a step back and not only think of myself as a player and trying to get back for the team and be on the ice wherever I can, that was an important conversation. Honestly, getting these four days in addition to the extra two days, in the long run, is going to make a world of difference.”
As for the check that resulted in a two-minute minor to Tkachuk and left Wheeler with an immediate abrasion below the eye, there doesn't appear to be any hard feelings.
“Things happen in the course of a game. At the time, I didn’t think much of it,” said Wheeler. “Sometimes, when you’re a bigger guy, elbows sometimes get a little high. I’m not losing too much sleep over it. I’ve probably done something similar trying to protect the puck in the past. It is what it is.”
Wheeler finished the game against the Senators, but began feeling symptoms the day after, which prevented him from joining the Jets on the five-game road trip through Ontario and Quebec.
Although Wheeler, who was diagnosed with a concussion, didn’t want to get into the specifics of what he went through, he made it clear that the time at home with his family was an important part of his recovery process.
“I feel good today, I’ll just leave it at that,” said Wheeler. “Taking it through the stages of day by day doesn’t do any good. I feel really good today and I’m thankful to be on a team with a staff that allowed me to fully heal.
“The most important thing for me was to still be engaged in things. We have a pretty crazy household, with three young kids and a couple of dogs. There is no quiet time in our house, in a way that’s a blessing in disguise. It forced me to ... as much as you just want to lay in bed and sort of close the door and close the blinds, it’s important to be engaged in different things and different activities and get outside and go for walks. All of those things are so important, just in daily life today, as it is. But when you have a head injury, you have to still keep things firing a little bit. That was probably the most important thing to me. That I was still able to be around Sam and the kids and have a little bit of a daily routine that made me feel like I was still bringing some value to my family.”
Wheeler is excited to be back on the ice with his hockey family, and with 11 games left in the regular season, he’s got a clear picture of what he’s looking to accomplish during the stretch run.
Being reunited with frequent linemates Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor brought a smile to Wheeler’s face.
“I’m just happy to be feeling good, you know, feeling like myself,” said Wheeler, who has 10 goals and 32 points in 39 games. "From a personal standpoint, I’m just looking to be firing on all cylinders by the end of the season, playing my hockey, our team playing our best hockey. I’m looking forward to these 10 games being the first time being healthy all year, 100 per cent. Those two guys are two guys I’ve played with quite a bit over time and they’re having great individual seasons. I’ve just got to try to fit in and get those guys the puck and have a little bit of fun here.”
What will Jets head coach Paul Maurice be looking for from Wheeler during the final 11 games?
“You know what? Health. We want him to feel as good as I think he felt today,” said Maurice, whose club is 27-15-3 on the season. “He was scoring goals. That line looked like it was moving again. And then I think it put a lot of other pieces in a really good spot for us.
“So, the same thing that he always does. Totally take his game for granted, how hard he’s going to work. You never come to the rink going, ‘I wonder how hard Blake’s gonna work tonight?’ I’d like to see that chemistry get re-ignited with that line. Get to more of a playoff style of hockey, that’s when they’re at their best. They play that game and he’s a big part of driving it like that. So, just more of what he’s always done would be fine.”
Along with the projected boost from Wheeler’s return Thursday, Maurice was quick to jump to the defence of Pierre-Luc Dubois, who has been drawing the ire of many fans on social media of late for a stretch of uneven play.
“Don’t say it too loudly, it’s going to come back to haunt you,” said Maurice, who moved Dubois back to centre Tuesday and had him flanked by Nikolaj Ehlers and Paul Stastny. “Just patience. I feel in some ways a comment I made about Blake Wheeler earlier in the year when there were some questions about his production, I said, ‘Just give it two weeks,’ and I think things have turned out alright with him. Pierre-Luc’s a really strong player, the position he’s learning is not a wing position, it takes some time to develop. I think he’s had a highly unusual year and there’s still an awful lot of good things.
“When I go through his game, there’s not a lot of positioning issues, so he’s got an intelligence and that you cannot teach a player. So, that I know is there. He’s going to get bigger, stronger, faster and define his game. He’s going to become a dominant power forward as a centreman in this league. If you bought a sweater with his name on the back, hang onto it. It’s gonna be good. And if I was making a lot of disparaging comments about a game that you saw last week, I just would keep it at the kitchen table. Don’t tell anyone about it.”