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Wheeler: From wide eyes to widely respected

Thursday, 01.29.2009 / 1:00 AM / Columns

By Larry Wigge - Columnist

Fifteen minutes of fame or just a 15-minute appetizer for what Blake Wheeler might soon show the hockey world?
Those were just a few of the interesting questions that we remember from a bustling Saturday morning in June 2004 in Raleigh, N.C., when the Phoenix Coyotes surprised a lot of hockey people when they selected the Breck High School center with the fifth pick in the Entry Draft.
I'll never forget the shocked look and surreal thoughts the Robbinsdale, Minn., native had after having his named called at the draft by Wayne Gretzky.
"A month ago I was standing in line in the cafeteria at Breck trying to get some food, and the other night I was having dinner with Mr. Gretzky," Wheeler said in his best "gee-whiz" tone of voice. "This week has been a series of those moments you want to freeze in your mind so you never forget any of it.
"I was completely caught off-guard. I thought I'd be picked in the late first round, early second round. I was trying not to have too many expectations coming in because I didn't want to be too disappointed. Then, I hear Wayne Gretzky announce my name. That's like having Michael Jordan announce your name in basketball. All I know is I have a closet full of Wayne Gretzky cards -- and this, well, it's the highest high a kid could ever feel."
There are no guarantees that go along with high draft selections in professional sports, where scouts are predicting the future of a teenager. It's sort of like saying a teen will be the next great heart doctor or Nobel prize winner. You could say it was a big risk for the Coyotes, because even though Wheeler notched 45 goals and 55 assists and a state-high 100 points in just 30 games, well, it was hard to find his name in most of the well-respected draft preview publications.
Some things never change -- like the mixed feelings some teams still had about the 6-foot-4, 220-pound center during his three seasons at the University of Minnesota, where he led the Golden Gophers with just 15 goals and 20 assists in 2007-08. Big, talented athlete, who never put up the numbers that are expected from a really, really high draft choice. But ...
"I knew in my heart after my junior year at Minnesota that I was ready for the next step," Wheeler said. "Sometimes you have to just go out there and put it all on the line."
The confidence of youth. It's an amazing thing. But Wheeler said he was ready for the big jump from college to professional hockey, maybe even the NHL, even if others wondered. After negotiations with the Coyotes, Blake and his representative failed to reach contract terms. But they were already in the fast-forward mode to the future and they used a little-known out-clause in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows a college player to opt for free agency after a failed attempt at coming to terms on a contract for one full month.
This faceoff win for the big center/winger allowed Wheeler to seek his own deal, which he did, signing a two-year entry level contract with the Boston Bruins for $875,000 per season.
And now Blake Wheeler is proving that he was right, that he was ready for a lot more than just 15 minutes of fame on draft day. Fourteen goals and 16 assists in his first 48 NHL games have shown more than a few skeptics that Blake is already on the power forwards to watch list and is being talked about as a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate, especially considering how seamlessly he has moved from college to the big time and been a key puzzle piece for one of the league's best teams this season.
This story is one of gutsy determination and more, much more. Like going out and challenging the system to get what he wanted.
"Just having the opportunity to be a free agent at this stage of my life and my career was something that was in my best interest," he said, even if it meant he turned down a $950,000 per year offer from Phoenix. "Being able to pick where you want to play and live is something most players don't get to do until they're in their mid-to-late-20s. For me to be able to do is as a 21-year-old was the most attractive option.
"The key to me was being able to find a traditional hockey market where I could compete and push myself. The Bruins offered the opportunity of playing for an Original Six team that was on the rise."
The feeling was mutual by the Bruins, who reportedly outbid Montreal, Minnesota, New Jersey and the New York Rangers to sign Wheeler. For a few weeks before he signed with the Bruins on July 1, Blake presented all the intrigue of a Stephen King novel -- interesting prospect who skates well for his size, has good finishing skill and shows some willingness to toss his weight around. What team wouldn't want to add those skills to its lineup?
"From the first time we talked, I had a good feeling about the opportunity to sign a young free agent who could grow with us and offered some pretty intriguing skills considering his size and character," Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli said. "The first time Blake and I sat down, I think he liked the idea that we were looking for size and we had a track record of giving young players a chance to make it with the Bruins.
"Seeing what he has accomplished in a short period of time was ... as far as his talent is concerned ... it is no surprise to us. He's a very smart kid and a mature player. Being able to get type of prospect when at least four other teams were very interested in him was, well, like winning a prize."

"That's a big thing with me," Blake said. "I'm always working hard and always trying to compete. Using my size the best way is something that hasn't always been a natural thing for me. It's something I worked at very hard last summer. Using my size to protect the puck and to get to the net is new. But it's exciting to me."
-- Blake Wheeler

Fifteen minutes of fame? Not on your life. Blake Wheeler is one of those kids who just has it. Oh, he has those physical skills every scout is looking for. But what drives him is a tool-box full of intangibles.
"That's a big thing with me," Blake said. "I'm always working hard and always trying to compete. Using my size the best way is something that hasn't always been a natural thing for me. It's something I worked at very hard last summer. Using my size to protect the puck and to get to the net is new. But it's exciting to me.
"And what's so great about the pro game is that if you make a mistake you get to play the next day and make up for it. It's not like college where you'd have a week to stew over the mistake and try to make up for it."
There was a smile on Blake's face and a fire in his eyes when you said those last competitive words.
In this faster-paced NHL game, no one is doing laps around this Minnesota kid, who went to Boston early last summer and stayed with former Gopher teammate Phil Kessel and skated with many of the Bruin veterans in preparation for this season. But the makeup of Wheeler made him ready for this boys vs. men battle of the fittest, where its not just playing quicker and smarter, but a quicker and smarter mental mindset at the highest level for hockey.
What did Kessel tell Wheeler?
"He basically just said, 'Don't be nervous, play your game,' " Wheeler recalled. "You never play your game when you are nervous and hesitate. So, I just tried to play to have fun and use my instincts."
Quote of the Day

We've got to find a way to win a game. He's played well in the minors, now he gets his opportunity. We tried [with Jonathan Bernier]. The way I look at it, you get opportunities and you make the most of it. That's what [James Reimer] did. Now another opportunity is here and Sparks ... you gotta grab it. Is he ready? We'll find out.

— Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock to the Toronto Star on recalling goalie Garret Sparks from the AHL to start Monday in his NHL debut
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