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Wheeler embracing NHL Awards experience

31-year-old calls Messier Leadership Award nomination a 'tremendous honour.'

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton /

LAS VEGAS, Nevada - A few months ago, Blake Wheeler used his first All-Star nomination to bring his wife and three kids down to Tampa Bay to experience the event as a family.

Now, one day ahead of Wednesday's NHL Awards, Wheeler's guest list is a bit smaller.

"My wife and I are making a little vacation out of it," he said with a grin. "It's a little break for us."

While Wheeler and his wife Sam may have had less to pack for this trip to Las Vegas, the Jets captain is hoping to add the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award to their luggage for the trip home.

But regardless of whether he comes out on top against fellow finalists Deryk Engelland of the Vegas Golden Knights and Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers, Wheeler is honoured to be in the final three.

"Anything connecting you with somebody like Mark Messier is a tremendous honour," said Wheeler. "At the end of the day I'm getting credit for what my teammates do every single day. For me, it's about almost trying to match what these guys do every single day. They work extremely hard, take it upon themselves to do all those little things to be as good as they can be every day."

Video: NHL AWARDS | Blake Wheeler

The 31-year-old Wheeler was named the Jets second captain since the 2011 relocation on his 30th birthday, just prior to the start of the 2016-17 season.

He remains friends with former Jets captain Andrew Ladd, who was a source of advice as Wheeler learned the ins and outs of being a captain at the NHL level.

Wheeler's preparation to wear the 'C' didn't stop there. He immersed himself in the book The Captain Class by Sam Walker. The book is a 353-page dive into sports dynasties and the leadership behind them, and was published shortly after Wheeler's first season as captain.

As far as his leadership style goes, Wheeler says it continues to evolve.

"Nowadays, as important as your personality is, I think it's more important to know the rest of the team," said Wheeler. "Know that not everyone is wired the same way. Know that certain approaches are going to work with certain guys, and certain approaches aren't going to work with certain guys.

"It's really important to try and have a relationship with everyone, so when the time comes, and you guys have to figure some things out, they know it comes from a good place, and they know you care about them. At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel a part of something, and feel embraced by everyone on the team, not just the leadership."

His leadership on the ice is evident. His 68 assists and 91 points were both the highest on the team and career-highs for Wheeler, but Messier's award doesn't just reward on-ice leadership.

It also rewards those who take a leadership role in the community to help grow the game as well. Wheeler served as an on-ice instructor for the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Academy, a play-based program designed to increase attendance at school and improve high school graduation rates in socially and economically challenged schools in Winnipeg.

In addition, Wheeler has helped the True North Youth Foundation launch several initiatives to help provide innovative programs for underserved youth. All this in addition to classroom and hospital visits throughout the season.

While he's excited to see if his name is called on Wednesday night at the Hard Rock Hotel, he's also making sure to enjoy the NHL Awards experience.

"It's not every year you're going to be a part of these things. You want to embrace everything that comes along," said Wheeler. "The years, they tick off, and any event like this that you're at surrounded by so many great players - and the big names in our league - it's pretty cool."

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