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Wheeler leads the way

Jets captain reflects on first year with the 'C'

by Mitchell Clinton @MClinton007 / WinnipegJets.com

When Blake Wheeler was named captain of the Jets back on August 31, 2016, he said he felt a special connection to the City of Winnipeg.

"It's a blue collar town, and I try to have a little bit of that in my game every night," he said. "That's what drives me - trying to work every single night."

He did just that.

Through all 82 games, countless practices, and numerous times in between, the 30-year-old Wheeler led his team the only way he knows how - by example.

Just ask head coach Paul Maurice, who watched the Plymouth, MN native help a young team through the grind of an NHL season.

"I've had a list of pretty good captains, some Hall of Fame players: Ron Francis, Mats Sundin, Rod Brind'Amour, Kevin Dineen, I'm missing one or two other really good men, and he's right there," said Maurice. "The job he did there was as good as any job I've ever seen."

Check any statistical category, and you'll find Wheeler's name near the top. His 26 goals were third best on the team, the 48 assists were the second most, and the 74 points Wheeler racked up were also second most on the Jets roster.

But it was never about the points for Wheeler. He said multiple times during the season there will be a time when he'll reflect on the points as a reward for numerous hours of hard work.

And while the team came up short in its bid to make the post season, Wheeler helped will the team to a seven-game win streak to end the regular season.

The momentum of that streak may not carry to October, but Wheeler believes it speaks to the character in the dressing room.

"We have good guys in the room. There's no quit," he said. "What we've been trying to preach is 'one day we're going to get to the spot where we want to be, and these games are going to be important at that time.' It's just building good habits, especially with a young team."

Those good guys in the room also helped Wheeler make the transition from assistant captain in 2015-16 to captain this season.

"I was really lucky. The group of guys we had, the veteran guys I've been around for quite a while. It was a pretty seamless transition there," said Wheeler. "We have a great group of young guys too who want to learn, want to get better, who ultimately want to help this team win in the future. It made it an enjoyable experience."

Video: NSH@WPG: Wheeler gives Jets late lead with SHG

Wheeler's leadership came in many forms. Many may recall him being right next to Patrik Laine in Edmonton during a low point in the 18-year-old's spectacular rookie season.

Other times, Wheeler's leadership showed just by putting his equipment on and playing.

"He's got a pain tolerance. (He's had) pulled obliques this year, (and) he couldn't twist and talk to you," said Maurice. "When your leader is like that… it's pretty tough to be pulling yourself out of the line-up because you have a cold. He's played games throwing up in between periods, coming off the bench, coming back out.

"(He) was so consistent in everything he did all year. Whether he was playing with two rookies, he just pushed himself. He did a remarkable job bringing the kids in, being an example for those kids."

It's something that General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff took notice of as well, each and every time he received an injury report after a game.

"You get the injury report from the trainers the night after a game 'Blake took a shot off the foot - no problem for tomorrow.' Rarely do you see 'we'll evaluate it tomorrow.' Those are the type of things that you need out of your leader, and you want out of your leader," said Cheveldayoff. "And the fact he is one of the premiere players in the National Hockey League from a points perspective and a driving perspective, we're very fortunate to have it here.

"I thought he did an outstanding job as captain."

Playing through injury is something Wheeler has done since he came into the NHL in 2008-09. He's played 697 of 704 possible games in his career, and has missed only five since the team relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.

"I've played in the majority of the games, and only missed a couple games in my career," said Wheeler. "A lot of that is good luck. A lot of that is just having a body that's made for this. I'll never take that for granted. Everyone kind of goes through their bumps and their injuries throughout the year, you just have to battle through it, everyone does. As long as you can get out there on the ice, it's always a good feeling to be out there competing."

He's hit career milestones along the way, including notching his 500th career point in a 5-4 win over his home state of Minnesota on March 19. He's on the cusp of playing in his 700th career NHL game, and sits at 199 career goals. Still, nothing is taken for granted.

"You feel blessed to have the opportunities I've been given. I've had the opportunity to play with a lot of great hockey players," Wheeler said. "It's been a real good start to the career being able to play with so many great guys and play a lot of minutes. I feel very fortunate for the opportunities I've been given. It's a testament to the quality of players I play with, the amount of minutes I play. It's just something you never want to take for granted."

Cheveldayoff wants the best for his captain. So much so, he even offered a glimpse into a conversation the two had during Wheeler's contract extension negotiation back in July of 2013.

"When I sat there and talked to Blake when we gave him his last contract extension, I gave him my commitment. I gave them my promise that I was going to try to do what's necessary to push this team, not only to just try to win, but to try and win the big prize, and that's ultimately what they want," said Cheveldayoff. "Blake's passion, Blake's desire, will never be questioned. It's what drives me as well."

This off-season will be spent recovering, training, hanging out with his two kids, and relieving his wife of some of her "mommy duties." But Wheeler is hopeful that the strides the team took on the ice leads to a much shorter off-season one year from now.

"Seeing some of our young guys step in and have success early on, for me at least, it made it feel like we weren't maybe as far behind or rebuilding as much as we thought we were going to be. That was exciting," said Wheeler. "We don't know what our team is going to look like next year, so you can't put any labels on that yet… A hockey team is more than just putting talent on the ice. There are some areas we can improve on. If we make improvements, there's no reason why we shouldn't be competing for a playoff spot next year."

Lead the way, captain.

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