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Blake Wheeler: Fuelled by Passion

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets

***This piece was originally published on Dec. 28, 2015***

A small sum are just born with it – a resolve so relentless, it defines a career.

Blake Wheeler is one of them. Determined and driven by willpower, he embodies what it means to be a Winnipeg Jet.

It’s why, when asked to describe the winger in a few words or less, Head Coach Paul Maurice opted for simplicity; “Special,” he said. Though broad, it’s entirely accurate. Wheeler is one of a kind, and there isn’t a thing he wouldn’t do for the team, or for the fans that cheer their collective guts out for him, the soldier that surrenders his own.

“I know what I am,” Wheeler said. “I think I know how to get there, so for me I don’t have any questions about what my game is going to look like on any given night. It’s pretty consistent and I’m pretty dedicated to what I do.”

There isn’t a game that goes by where Wheeler – a gifted gazelle with the brute of a lumberjack – isn’t giving it his all. And perhaps that’s’ why Jets fans can so easily identify with him. After all, Winnipeggers know a thing or two about toughness, a little hard work and elbow grease.

Fact is, Wheeler works for every inch and at the end of the night, there’s nothing left in the reserves. The proverbial ‘leave-it-all-out-there’ in him wouldn’t allow it – and it’s the love, the passion for the game that keeps him going, striving for more.

So how did he get here?

The fifth pick in the 2004 Draft, Wheeler spent the following three years with the University of Minnesota of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, recording a combined 42 goals and 96 points in just 127 games.

In front of more than 19,000 fans at Xcel Energy Center, Wheeler scored the overtime winner in the 2007 WCHA Final Five Championship game, diving after a loose puck and swatting it high, far side on UND goaltender Phillippe Lamoureux.

It was described at the time as a “goal for the ages,” and certainly one of the 29-year-old’s fondest hockey memories.

“I was just trying to surprise him,” Wheeler said with a grin. “I thought if I could just get my stick under it, I could elevate it. It was the kind of play that, even trying to replicate it, I’d miss the net 99 times out of 100. For whatever reason it found the upper corner.”

The win gave the Minnesota Golden Gophers their first Broadmoor Trophy since 2003-04 and their first MacNaughton Cup (awarded to the regular-season conference champions)/Broadmoor Trophy season in nearly three decades.

“A sold-out building, the championship on the line, probably at the time the best conference in college hockey – it was a huge game to be a part of,” Wheeler said. “That was a huge moment for our program. To hang a banner there, that was a special thing and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

In many ways, it set the table for what was to come.

After spending the following three seasons with the Boston Bruins, Wheeler was traded along with Mark Stuart to Atlanta in the spring of 2011. After a short stay in northern Georgia, the team relocated to Winnipeg, where the 6-foot-5, 225-pound winger discovered new heights.

“He now has a really good understanding of what makes him special,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said. “Simply, there’s very few men that size that move that fast. His speed is intimidating, he finishes checks, he plays hard on every puck, but his consistency level with his intensity, to play that hard shift after shift … He comes back to the bench, recovers and goes and does it all over again.”

Wheeler recorded 61 points last year and was the team leader in goals (26 – tying Andrew Ladd in game-winners with six), plus/minus (+26) and shot volume (244). He’s always been a consistent scorer, putting up a 60-plus point pace in each of his first five years in Winnipeg. But since the arrival of Maurice, to whom he credits for helping realize his full potential, the Minneapolis native has earned a sterling reputation as one of the league’s most well-rounded power forwards.

“There’s something that Blake Wheeler can do for our team other than score,” he said. “It’s very difficult for a numbers guy to stay confident the whole year. Even the best scorers have their stretch where they’re not scoring and their confidence wanes a bit, but I’m hopeful and believe that his confidence should come from all the other things he does. The scoring, while it’s not necessarily secondary because we do need him to produce, it’s not the primary thing he brings to the table for our team.

“You watch him at practice, he pushes every single day. He knows now what makes him good and whether he gets on a run of points or not, he was really consistent for us last year. There weren’t lulls in his game, lulls in his effort at all. That’s just a veteran guy that puts the time in the summer to be very fit, to what he does well, his attack, his power and speed — his intensity level from shift to shift is as high as anyone I’ve ever coached. It’s a little bit rare to see a skilled player with that kind of a push that he puts on in a game, and I think there’s a confidence that comes with that. He knows that even if he doesn’t score, that game is really valuable to us.”

He knows, but like many of the greats, he’s rarely satisfied. Defensively sound and a point-per-game pace through the first quarter, there’s little doubt he’s playing at a higher level now than he ever has before.

“My confidence is higher because I believe in my ability to battle through it for 60 minutes,” Wheeler said. “Sometimes you’re going to have tough nights where you don’t feel great or you’re playing a tough opponent and the first instinct sometimes is to kind of shut it down and get frustrated, but I think maturity plays into that. I’m a little bit older now and I feel extremely confident in my ability to grind it out. From there, you let the chips fall where they may. Everybody gets pretty caught up in points and numbers and all that, but I take care of one thing and one thing only, and if I take care of that every night, the success will come.”

Wheeler admits he’s one of the more emotional players on the ice. But over the course of 10-year professional career, he’s learned to harness it – turning negative vibes into positive contributions.

“It’s hard,” he said candidly. “You know, 82 games, there are going to moments where you get mad, you break a stick over the boards. That stuff is going to happen because it’s such an emotional, competitive game, but for the most part you want to stay composed and try to channel those feelings into doing something positive on the ice, because that’s all that matters.”

Proudly adorning an ‘A,’ it’s a mindset consistent throughout the locker room. Win or lose, through good times and bad, there’s an expectation of what it means to be part of this team.

Wheeler just happens to embody that culture with ease, his workmanlike approach guiding his daily mission to one day win the ultimate prize.

And he’s certainly doing his part to help make that a reality.

“You want to lead by example, but at the same time, I have Andrew Ladd, Mark Stuart, Bryan Little and Chris Thorburn in here as well,” he said. “They’re working just as hard I am every day — not only on the ice, but in the dressing room as well, as we represent the leadership group in here. It’s not just one or two guys. We’ve got a pretty solid group of guys who bring a high level of energy every day to practice and games, and it really drives us to get better.

“It brings a competitive spirit to the rink every day and it makes us better as a group. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”

– Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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