There is a calm about Blake Wheeler’s voice these days. No longer a rookie and no longer a neophyte in the pro game, the former Minnesota Golden Gopher has shed his collegiate style completely and plans instead to embrace the rougher, more physical NHL with renewed gusto when he arrives in New England in the coming weeks.
“I’ve been good,” he said via phone on Monday when asked how his summer has gone. “Over the last couple of months, I’ve been pretty much just working out and trying to gain some size, some weight.
“At the end of last year especially, I kind of faded a bit and I think that a lot was attributed to just kind of being a little bit -- malnourished could be a way to put it.
“So at the start of the summer I was probably around 210 [pounds] and I’m about 225 now. Just eating and working out hard and doing those things religiously have helped me put some weight on.”
Wheeler, who will turn 23 on August 31st, is one of the tallest people in the room in any setting and was a man amongst boys during his years in the decidedly more wide open, smaller NCAA. However, the forward has found that in the pro’s he needs a little more than height to be a physical force. That knowledge has proven to be a catalyst for him this summer and, for the most part, has kept him off the links and closer to the weight room for much of the offseason.
“[This summer] I’ve tried to enjoy the sunshine a little bit and stay away from the rink and the game, but I’ll be honest, the way things ended last year, they kind of just made me want to get back at it and it keeps you hungry,” he said. “So, I guess you can try to take a good thing from a negative and I’m just trying to get myself ready for the beginning of camp.”
From the stands or the pressbox, there certainly weren’t many negatives to point to during Wheeler’s debut season in the bigs. But there were several instances during the 2008-09 campaign when Wheeler clearly pointed to the guy in the mirror when the blame for a Boston loss was doled out.
When those things occurred, veteran NHLers in the Bruins locker room wouldn’t hear of it, and reminded the press that hockey is a team game and also implied that the rookie was taking too much on his shoulders.
Wheeler understands and appreciates that sentiment, but maintains that it was all part of a season-long learning experience, and that his own self-criticism was, in the end, motivational and helpful.
“I have high expectations for myself and I think that that’s a real positive,” said the Minnesota-native. “Sometimes it can be a negative as well. At certain points last year, we, as a team, were enjoying so much success all year and individually enjoying a lot of success as well and when things kind of hit a roadblock you start searching for answers.
“I think, at times, it’s valid to say that I’m a little bit hard on myself, but like I said, I have high expectations of myself and I know what I’m capable of and when I kind of fall short of those expectations then I know that I’ve let myself down and in some instances that you let the team down.”
It was pointed out to the second year pro that before last year his games played stat at Minnesota hovered below 40. Wheeler was also reminded that last season, counting rookie games, preseason games, regular season tilts and the two rounds of the playoffs, Wheeler was probably looking at triple digits under the GP stat.
“You’re right,” he said, initially. “Going from 40 games to upwards of 100, there is really no way to slice it other than that’s more than two times as many games and it’s going to take a toll on you.
“But the only way you can really prepare for that is to go through it and I have that one year under my belt…we played definitely a lot of games and I know when the season was over and having to watch playoff hockey -- that was the toughest thing.
“I think we felt [we were] as good as [those teams] and we should have been out there playing, so that will teach you real quick that you don’t want to play 100. You want to play 110 –115 games to reach your goals.”
The other part of the NHL grind – the mental grind – is also something that Wheeler has a clear understanding of going into his sophomore season. Blake knows full well that on top of the physical toll, there is a mental toll to be paid in hockey’s top league.
A positive attitude is essential to success in any endeavor.
“For sure,” said Blake. “You’d be surprised how much of this game, and really all of athletics, is just mental.
“Going out there with confidence and just believing in yourself and what you bring to the table for your team, that’s going to win 90-percent of the battle right there.”
And when the level of competition rises, so must an athlete’s compete level.
“In this league especially, you learn real quick just how good everyone is,” he said. “There aren’t many people out there, if any at all, that ‘don’t belong’ and you learn that it can separate somebody from another guy is having confidence and just going out there and letting his physical abilities take over.
“You can see the guys that do that because they’re just playing the game, not squeezing the stick, and just going out there, knowing what they got to do and that’s when you have the most success -- so I think that definitely can be a real help.”
Wheeler has also found plenty of good teachers amongst his coaches and peers in Boston. Bruins vice president Cam Neely has been seen working with the big forward and showing him the finer points of using his body as an asset.
Blake understands now that he has to use his now bigger body to better advantage, but not necessarily like a battering ram.
“I think one of the things that I have to realize is that not everyone out there is upwards of 6’5”, 225, and I think regardless of how you’re used to playing, regardless of how grown up playing, you have to use that as an asset,” said Wheeler. “That doesn’t mean necessarily playing like Milan Lucic
and running guys through the glass, but in every battle in the corner I expect myself to win those battles because of sheer size and just being able to protect the puck.
“Those are battles that I have to win. I think that’s part of my game, where winning every one of those battles not only creates possession of the puck for our team, it’s going to create a lot of scoring chances. That’s what you’re out there to do.
“So I think I’ll definitely be using my body more, win those battles around the wall and running into people, too.”
Wheeler’s hands were the talk of the NHL early during 2008-09, and by the sounds of it, Blake hopes that hits can also become a calling card.
“When you talk to defensemen around the game, not too many like to be put to the glass by a big guy, so incorporating that aspect into it too is going to open up a lot of time and space for myself and I think it’s something that I should definitely be improved on this year,” he said.
Wheeler also said that one more important skill is developing nicely going into his second NHL season.
“Just [knowing] how to be a professional,” he said. “That’s such a broad term, a term I think that’s thrown around, but the guys that have a lot of success playing this game are the guys that take care of their bodies, eat well, sleep well, do all that kind of stuff and come to the rink ready to work and ready to get the job done.
“I had some of that training a little bit in school, having to fend for yourself a little bit and figure out how to juggle your time and manage your time and all that, but the expectation is a little bit different here in this league and you have to understand that when you come to the rink, it’s all business and you’re there to do a job.
“And when you’re doing the job well, it’s a lot of fun.”Dyan LeBourdais contributed to this report.