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Northeast: Wheeler plays well with others in Boston

by John McGourty
The Boston Bruins outbid 19 teams in July to sign free agent Blake Wheeler, a towering right wing. The rookie doubled his career goal totals Thursday with a hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the TD Banknorth Garden.

We don't know if the lights went out that night at the headquarters of the Toronto-Dominion Bank skyscraper that towers above the Toronto skyline, but Wheeler left Maple Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala in the dark on that pretty forehand-to-backhand play on his second goal. He also tipped in a Dennis Wideman shot and scored an empty netter with less than a minute left in the 5-2 victory.

That's the reason the Bruins wanted him, for the combination of skill and power that the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder can bring. Boston fans have been dreaming of another Cam Neely for more than a decade, but it's way, way too early to make that comparison. Fans were thrilled a year ago when Milan Lucic showed he had the willingness to bang along the boards and go hard to the net, and now they've got another player with those characteristics.

The ability to play well with others is a social virtue these days, and Wheeler looks like a good fit with speedy Marco Sturm and David Krejci. He outweighs Krejci by 27 pounds and Sturm by 15. Opponents have to think twice about taking liberties with Wheeler's linemates, going hard to the boards for pucks and getting in his way as he steams to the net.

As of Tuesday, Wheeler, the Columbus Blue Jackets' Derick Brassard and Dallas' Fabian Brunnstrom were one goal behind Toronto Maple Leafs center Mikhail Grabovski for the rookie goal-scoring lead.

The Phoenix Coyotes made Wheeler the fifth pick of the 2004 Entry Draft out of Breck High School in Golden Valley, Minn. He spent three seasons at the University of Minnesota, where he played with Boston's Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh's Alex Goligoski, the Islanders' Kyle Okposo, St. Louis' Erik Johnson and Buffalo's Thomas Vanek. As a result, Phoenix's rights expired and he became a free agent.

Wheeler had 42 goals and 54 assists in 127 games for the Golden Gophers. He led Minnesota in scoring last year with 15 goals and 20 assists while playing in 44 games.

Remembering the heroes --
Tuesday was Veterans Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada, a day to honor the troops who kept us free, many of whom gave their lives in the defense of their countries. Although the United States has a more militaristic history and more veterans, Canadians, in general, do more to show respect. Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Mike Smith had Toronto native David Arrigo paint a tribute to veterans on his helmet.

To their credit, the Boston Bruins, Atlanta Thrashers and Anaheim Ducks all held events to honor veterans. The Thrashers spent a day at Fort Benning, Ga.

Throughout Toronto, and likely the rest of Canada, many, many people wore red poppy pins during the week before Remembrance Day. The newspapers carried dozens of stories for days about important battles, veterans' memories and stories of those who died in war. One of the most poignant was of a Canadian soldier who gave away his position by returning a pretty girl's wave, moments before the World War II armistice took effect. A German sniper shot him, the last Allied soldier to die in World War II.

Many Canadians traveled to Vimy, France, this weekend to remember the Canadian World War I soldiers who died fighting the German Sixth Army at Vimy Ridge in the battle that broke the back of the German invasion. Those men were joined with the British 5th Infantry Division under the command of the brilliant military strategist, Lieutenant-General Julian "Bungo" Byng.
He became Lord Byng, Governor-General of Canada from 1921-26. His wife, Lady Marie Evelyn Byng, gifted the National Hockey League with the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy to be awarded to the most sportsmanlike player each year. Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk has won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy the past three seasons. Wayne Gretzky, Ron Francis, Paul Kariya, Mike Bossy, Marcel Dionne, Red Kelly, Bobby Bauer, Dave Keon and Stan Mikita also won it multiple times. New York Rangers star Frank Boucher won it a record seven times in the 1930s. Boucher and Bauer were military veterans.

CBC broadcaster Don Cherry devoted his weekly Coach's Corner to a remembrance of the veterans and a tribute to those at war now. People at the Air Canada Centre said good things about the segment.

One newspaper columnist criticized Cherry for focusing on the veterans during Hockey Hall of Fame weekend. The events coincide annually. Sports reporters often use military terms to describe aspects of sports, "sniper," "attack," "war."

Remember, we play games. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guards, and Merchant Marines fight wars.

The Toronto Sun political cartoon Tuesday reminded us of that, picturing a pair of rifles, topped by helmets, the traditional marker of a buried soldier, followed by the words: "Lest we forget, Only games are played in rinks, Players are not soldiers and heroes make real sacrifices."

The main exhibit at the Hockey Hall of Fame this year honors the centennial of the founding of the Montreal Canadiens and includes all the furnishings from their old dressing room at the Montreal Forum, including the banner above the lockers that contained a part of the poem, In Flanders Fields. The poem was written in 1915 by Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel Dr. John McCrae after he watched a soldier friend die. McCrae would die two years later of pneumonia while treating soldiers at Boulogne, France.

The phrase that adorned the Canadiens dressing room reads:

    To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders Fields
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