WINNIPEG – When Paul Maurice came calling, offering him the position – the privilege of becoming the next captain of the Winnipeg Jets – Blake Wheeler asked himself: ‘Am I ready for this?’
“Since coming to Winnipeg, I’ve been able to develop in a lot of different ways. My kids were born here; I’ve developed as a person, as a father and as a hockey player as well,” he said.
“I can’t explain what it means to me to have this honour.”
Truly, there was no one more deserving.
Wheeler had a career-high 2015-16 season, scoring 26 goals and 78 points, emerging was one of the league’s most dominant and well-rounded power forwards, commanding the right side with sheer force and an unparalleled skating ability.
But none of it compares to the man – the 6-5, 225 symbol of will, drive and determination.
He’s unlike any other in the National Hockey League. Yes, many are defined by work ethic and a fierce aversion to failure, but few can translate their emotions into such positive contributions as often as he, a skill sharpened over time and through a gamut of experiences, good and bad.
Wheeler’s career – now in its 11th year – has been building to this point. Bearing the ‘C’ means welcoming a swath of new responsibilities, but he’s never been more prepared, tackling it the
only way he knows how.
“For me, the most important thing is to lead by example – to show every day and do what I’ve done up until this point to prepare myself on a daily, nightly basis to be the type of player I want to be. I still have room to grow on the ice, I still have room to grow as a leader and that’s why I’m so lucky to have not just the names in the leadership group, but everyone in that locker room to help me in this process.
“There’s a distinction that comes with wearing the ‘C’ on your jersey. Everyone looks at you a differently; they look at you as the model for what things are supposed to look like, how you’re supposed to act, how you’re supposed to prepare and how you’re supposed to play on a nightly basis. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to have your ‘A’ game 82 nights a year — that’s probably unrealistic — but they’re going to look at you when you don’t have your ‘A’ game
and see how you respond to that.”
Which is what Wheeler does every. Single. Night.
Off the ice, Wheeler and his wife, Sam, are some of the most charitable people you’ll ever meet, dedicating their time to the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital, the Winnipeg Pet Rescue Shelter (look back on his Twitter feed to find pictures of his adorable four-legged friend, Tobias), the Special
Olympics of Manitoba, the Future Goals program and many more.
There’s little doubt that over the years the Wheelers and Winnipeg have found home that they not only love, but are also invested in.
“The fans have connected with who I am as a person,” Wheeler said. “This is a blue-collar town and I try to have a little bit of that in my game every night.
“That’s what drives me.”
Wheeler won’t be alone. Mark Scheifele and Dustin Byfuglien are the new alternate captains, with the former assuming said role for the first time in his young career. In Wheeler’s mind, while all three will contribute significantly to the direction of the team, on and off the ice, everyone in that room has the respect of one another, and will have their voice heard.
“Being the captain, you don’t want to hear yourself too much and have guys tune you out because you’re talking all the time. That’s what (Andrew Ladd) was really good at. When he spoke, people really listened; it was really powerful. That’s why we’ve got so many great guys to do that
between periods, so it’s not always the same guy. … That’s what makes a good team.”
Wheeler, who coincidentally celebrated his 30th birthday Wednesday, takes over the captaincy from Ladd, who he says had a profound impact on both his personal and professional life in their five-plus years together. Ladd, who was traded late last year and is now a member of the New York
Islanders, sent a congratulatory Tweet to Wheeler shortly after the announcement.
And with that – the proverbial passing of the torch – so begins a new era here in Winnipeg.
Are you ready?
– Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com