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Father knows best

Give pop credit for Wheeler's big turnaround last season

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Of all the awards, lists, rankings and other subjective grading done by the Winnipeg Jets and their fans, there was a pretty dramatic oversight from last season.

He didn't get a single vote for unsung hero of the year. His name? Jim Wheeler.

Position? Father.

Jets right-winger Blake Wheeler said Monday there was one clear turning point in his view on a season that started out with a near disaster.

Mired in a nothing's-going-right slide that saw him collect just two assists in the first eight games and no goals and just seven assists in the team's first 18, a conversation with his dad opened the road to his spot at the top of the Jets' scoring chart by season's end.

"My attitude soured a bit, I was down on myself. I think it's just natural. You start losing confidence in yourself and your attitude kind of slides with it.

"I think once I got my head out of the mud a little bit and figured out that I could go out there and do it, I went out there and starting making things happen," said Wheeler, who was the closest thing the team had to a point machine over the final 64 games of the season. He had 57 points in playing 62 of those. "Then the confidence builds and off you go.

"(My dad) is someone who never played hockey but he knows me really well. We talked and there wasn't any kick-in-the-ass kind of speech. It was just that 'you're capable of it, you've done it your whole life, you've just got to go out there and let it fly.'

"When you do that you play your best hockey. It was as easy at that. You let the weight of the world get off your shoulders a little bit and you're able to go out there and do it."

When the real Wheeler was finally unleashed -- a Wheeler it would appear the team simply cannot do without this season -- the Jets had a fleet first-line forward with touch whose passion is rarely hidden.

If you witnessed his first Jets goal five full weeks into the season, you know what we're talking about.

"It was a tough start to the year last year," said Wheeler's regular linemate Andrew Ladd. "Claude was hard on him and I think he might even have dropped down to the fourth line for a couple of games. You never know how guys will react to that and he reacted in the right way.

"It was getting back to basics, working hard. He was coming in early to work out and do stuff like that and he battled back to get back to being successful.

"That's a compliment for him. From that point on, he just had confidence to be able to dominate games. When he got the puck, it was like, 'I'm going to dominate and nobody's going to stop me.'"

Wheeler didn't think that poorly of his first few games in a Jets uniform, but the 26-year-old from Robbinsdale, Minn., knew what happened after that.

"Things didn't go my way," he said Monday, Day 2 of training camp. "I didn't get the bounces. I didn't produce points. I think I got down on myself and I started waiting for it to happen instead of making it happen.

"I think that was the real key for me, that once I got going, I stopped waiting for things to happen and went out there and made them happen. That's just a change in mentality." Wheeler's first season in Winnipeg had its other challenges, too.

Later on, he carried elevated expectations, the pressure to produce and to help keep the team in the playoff hunt, all the while facing the toughest matchups from Jets' opponents.

It was no contest which challenge he preferred.

"I loved that (later challenge)," he said. "That's what it's all about for me. I love playing against the other team's top D pairs. I want to be in that position. That's what I've worked for, to get in that position. I don't look at it as pressure. That excites me. That makes me want to go out there and get things done.

"I've wanted to be in that role."

Was it as serious, as urgent for him when he went to Germany to play during the lockout?

Wheeler's answer might be a good omen for the season ahead.

"As long as you're out there practising and playing, you can always make yourself better no matter where you're playing," he said. "If I'd wanted a vacation, I would have gone to Florida."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2013 C3

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