Jets' captain Blake Wheeler (Jeff Miller photo)


The Captain of the Winnipeg Jets almost willed his team to the Stanley Cup final last spring. We all know his Jets didn’t get past the Vegas Golden Knights, but there is little doubt now that Blake Wheeler and his mates are fully aware of what it takes to raise hockey’s Holy Grail.



With the 2018-19 season now in high gear, the Jets turn once again to captain Blake Wheeler for the leadership required by a championship team.
It was the type of play that has made Blake Wheeler a beloved figure on his team and also with the fans of the National Hockey League’s Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets were in Denver, trailing the Colorado Avalanche 2-1 late in the third period. The Avs had taken a 2-0 lead after two periods, but Wheeler scored at the 47-second mark of the third to cut Colorado’s lead to one.
In the dying seconds, it appeared as if Colorado would hold on, but Wheeler did what Wheeler tends to do. Nikolaj Ehlers dumped the puck in from the blueline and it went around the boards onto Wheeler’s stick. Wheeler was going hard to the net and he had a good shot at Jonathan Bernier, but the Avs netminder kicked it out. However, the Jets captain never gave up on the puck. With two defensemen between him and Bernier, Wheeler jumped on the rebound and banged it high to the back of the net.
With 32 seconds left, Wheeler had his 13th goal and 47th point in the first 41 games of the 2017-18 season. He also sent the game into overtime.
After the game, Wheeler did another thing that Jets fans have come to know and love. He gave all the credit for the goal to Ehlers, the player who got the assist. For Wheeler, the 31-year-old Jets captain, it’s always about the team even when he’s the hero.
“In 2016-17, it was Blake’s first year as captain of our hockey club,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice early last season. “I can’t overstate the quality of the job he did. We had a young team that was devastated by injuries and we’re playing in a Canadian market where the hockey team’s success or failure means everything to the community. There’s lots of frustration through the whole year, and Blake didn’t show it in his play and he didn’t show it in the locker room.
“He is one of finest captains that I’ve ever had. His consistency on a daily basis, his ability to drive, the impact he’s had on our young players - our whole team - is invaluable for their development for the next 15 years.”
Last spring Wheeler did everything he possibly could to will his team to a Stanley Cup victory. It would be easy to say he “failed,” but that would also be untrue. When the Jets were eliminated from the post-season in five games in the Western Conference final by the Vegas Golden Knights, Wheeler was fifth in playoff scoring with 21 points on three goals and a league-high 18 assists in 17 games. He had made his team a legitimate contender for the Cup and truly played his heart out along the way. The Jets did well. Just not well enough.
After it was over, Wheeler knew exactly what his team had accomplished, finishing second overall in the NHL and reaching the Western Conference championship round.
“The day in and day out is what makes a good team, a great team,” he said. “We learned how to do that. We learned how to practice each day with the intention and goal of getting better every day.

“I’ll take only positives away from last year. The progression of our group, obviously qualifying for the playoffs was a huge step for us. This organization never won a playoff game before last season. That Game 7 in Nashville will probably always be what stands out for our group, what we’re made of. Winning a game like that is obviously something we can build on going forward.”
It hasn’t been particularly easy for Wheeler. Not just as captain, but as a member of a hockey team that moved from Atlanta to Winnipeg. The Thrashers weren’t very good in Atlanta and, until last year, at least, the Jets hadn’t been particularly good in Winnipeg. In fact, the Thrashers made the playoffs once in 11 seasons and didn’t win a playoff game. Heading into this season, the Jets had been in Winnipeg for six full years and had reached the playoffs only once. And they didn’t win a game.
So in 18 years as an NHL franchise, the Thrashers/Jets had made the playoffs twice and never, ever won a single post-season game. That is until they won 52 games last season, finished with an impressive 114 points and beat Minnesota and Nashville to reach the Western Conference final.

For Wheeler, it was a satisfying year. Originally drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round (fifth overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, the big rightwinger eventually started his NHL career with the Boston Bruins in 2008. Now, in his eighth year with this franchise and his second as captain, he’s won two playoff rounds.

Still, at a luncheon in honor of the great Dale Hawerchuk’s induction into the Jets Hall of Fame last spring, Wheeler was one of the afternoon’s speakers. Although he’s a native Minnesotan, he understood exactly what the game and the team meant in a hockey city like Winnipeg.
“I remember coming here, seeing how passionate this community was about hockey,” Wheeler said. “But I don’t think our group really understood everything the Jets meant to the community. And to be honest with you I don’t really think it hit home until last year at the Heritage Classic.
“I grew up in Minneapolis and I know the feeling of what it’s like to get a hockey team taken away. I was a North Stars fan growing up. They were taken away from us when I was pretty young. So I remember going through that.”
Born in Plymouth, Minn., he grew up in Robbinsdale and attended the Breck School for three years. His father, Jim, was an outstanding athlete and Blake is obviously pretty outstanding himself. In his 2003-04 high school season, he had 45 goals and 100 points and led his team to a State Class A Championship. He was also drafted by the Coyotes at the end of that year.
In his senior year of high school, he jumped to the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League and then accepted a scholarship to the University of Minnesota. In 2007, he scored the winning goal against the University of North Dakota in the NCAA Championship game.

A year later, he decided to become a free agent and was signed by the Bruins. He played his first 2 NHL seasons in Boston before being dealt to Atlanta. In 2011, he showed up in Winnipeg. He still believes that his move to Atlanta was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“In Boston, I was an inconsistent player who had an inconsistent role on the team,” Wheeler said earlier this season. “When I got traded, it really didn’t matter how I played, I got 20 minutes of ice-time a night in Atlanta and I think that helped me figure out the NHL a little bit. It helped me figure out what I’m good at and what I need to work on.
“I got traded from a team that won the Stanley Cup, and it was a bit of a slap in the face. But I played so much in Atlanta that it made me a better player.”
In Winnipeg, he’s become a star. He finished the 2017-18 season as the ninth leading scorer in the NHL with 23 goals and 91 points. He was tied with Claude Giroux of the Flyers for the league lead in assists.
He’s also the captain - the go-to guy - and he continues to impress his coach every time he takes a shift. And not just because he’s 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, although that certainly helps.
“Since coming to Winnipeg, I’ve been able to develop in a lot of different ways,” Wheeler said. “My kids were born while Sam (his wife) and I have been here. I’ve developed as a person, as a father and as a hockey player, as well. To become the team captain, I can’t really explain what it means to me and my wife to have this honor. We look forward to leading on the ice and in the community, and trying to be an example and role model, not only for my teammates, but for the kids and everyone in this community.”
It isn’t quite Mission Accomplished, but it’s getting close.


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