WINNIPEG – Winnipeg Jets fans have seen the many different faces of Blake Wheeler during his five seasons in Winnipeg:
There the joyous, white mouth-guard wearing, fired up face the forward had following his big goal in the post season against Anaheim.
The blood coming from his forehead following an altercation that resulted from number 26 defending a teammate.
And then there’s the face, bruised and stitched from taking a puck up high, shielded by what players call the ‘bird cage’, just so he could play that next game.
But today, Wheeler’s face was clean-shaven, with a smile went ear to ear, as he pulled on his blue jersey, crested with the captain’s ‘C’.
For coach Paul Maurice, there wasn’t a man more suited for the job.
“For Blake, in my time here, but also over the course of his career, rarely do you run by a player that is able to play that hard, that consistently, every night,” said Maurice. “In order to do that, he practices like that. In terms of what we want our young players to see, what we want our fans to see, and how we want the players around Blake, where we want their eyes is on his effort level.”
That effort is on full display each night wheeler laces up the skates. But one particular night stands out in the mind of General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. That night was two years ago in Dallas, with the Jets fighting for points in a tight playoff race.
“He got hit in to the open boards. He went chest first into the door, and I thought for sure he was done,” Cheveldayoff said. “By the time I got down from the press box into the dressing room. He was snorting and spitting and getting ready to go out there. I’m looking at the trainers, I’m looking at the medical guys, I’m going ‘what’s up?’ and they say ‘he’s back. He won’t go.’”
“So at the end of the game we ended up sending him for x-rays. It was that kind of dogged determination. He was not going to be denied.”
Wheeler’s 78 points had him tied for sixth in the NHL, and his 52 assists had him in the league’s top five. But for Cheveldayoff, it’s more than those accolades that make Wheeler the man to lead the Winnipeg Jets.
“(He’s) someone who has given his heart and soul to the organization since it’s moved here,” said Cheveldayoff. “Tremendous guy, tremendous hockey player, tremendous family man, he’s grown in so many different areas. For us it’s a great opportunity to name him.”
BYFUGLIEN AND SCHEIFELE NAMED TO LEADERSHIP GROUP
Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Scheifele may be at different points in their respective careers, but in the mind of Maurice, they bring the exact leadership characteristics that make them deserving of the title of alternate captains.
“You all know (Dustin) for some of the huge impacts he has on the game and his big personality. What you also need to know about Dustin is he’s that in the room as well,” said Maurice. “He has such a joy for playing the game, a joy for life, and he brings that on a daily basis. We want that as well. We want our players to love coming to the rink.
“Mark is unique in his age to be a captain of an NHL team. But he’s demonstrated, from the time he walked in, a willingness to learn and a willingness to reach out. Mark is unique in his ability to take the oldest guy out on the team and talk, and be a friend and also the youngest guy in the locker room.”
Byfuglien signed a five-year extension with the club in early February. Although he’s had an ‘A’ on his jersey before, he’s honoured to see the letter return to his number 33 sweater.
“It shows that you’ve done some right things in the way you play and done everything around the room,” said Byfuglien. “It’s not my first one but it’s definitely an honour, and something you can build off and appreciate.”
The 2016-2017 season will be the first time Scheifele wears an ‘A’ at the professional level. While his NHL career is only three-years old, he feels he’s learned a lot in that span. A lot of it coming from the man he sits next to in the dressing room.
“I sit beside (Blake) in the dressing room and I’ve got to know him a lot over the last few years. He’s a guy that’s a workhorse,” said the 23-year-old Scheifele. “He works every single day. Top ten in scoring and he’s still on the ice half an hour before practice starts working on things, working on his shot, working on certain things with guys. He’s a guy that lives, eats, sleeps, and breathes the Winnipeg Jets.”
Scheifele is no stranger to being on the ice early for practice. It’s that commitment that powered him to 17 goals and 34 points in the final 26 games of last season. He says he’ll embrace his role as someone who can connect the younger players to the veterans in the dressing room.
“I think that definitely helps, being a younger guy and being a little closer in age to guys like Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine, it definitely helps having a younger guy talking to them,” Scheifele said. “I know when I was 18, if I walked up to Buff or Wheels or Laddy, I’d be pretty intimidated. I’m sure guys like that would be the exact same way.
“I think it is a good thing and I think I can learn from those two guys and other leaders in our room, and continue to be a helping hand for anyone that needs it, and also lead by example as well.”
For his part, Wheeler can’t wait to get to work with not only the two alternate captains, but every player in the dressing room come training camp.
“I’m proud to be on a team with those two guys and really this whole group,” Wheeler said. “I could probably name 20 guys that I’m excited about going back to work with pretty soon. I’m excited to get things going.”
– Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com