Jets captain Wheeler ready for 1,000th game

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Blake Wheeler isn't one to typically stop and smell the roses.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/12/2021 (254 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Blake Wheeler isn’t one to typically stop and smell the roses.

He’s always got his game face on, especially in the middle of a busy hockey season. But the Winnipeg Jets captain admits he’s trying to savour the moment as he prepares to skate in his 1,000th game on Sunday night.

He’ll become just the 358th NHL player to hit the mark, and only the fourth to ever do it while wearing a Jets jersey. Serge Savard, Randy Carlyle and Paul Stastny are the others.

Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler, right, carries the puck up ice as Columbus Blue Jackets' Yegor Chinakhov defends during the first period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

“I think there is a lot of things that play into that that are out of your control. I think I’ve been blessed to have a body that’s suited for it. I have to play that way. If I don’t play that way, I wouldn’t be in the league,” Wheeler said Saturday of the remarkable durability that has seen him miss only 15 games due to injury or illness over a 14-year career.

“That’s just the way I have to play it. I think there’s an element of ‘yeah, I take care of myself’, that’s the priority for me. I’ve just been lucky to not have anything significant over the years, just things you could play through.”

Wheeler, 35, will be feted in a ceremony prior to the 7 p.m. puck drop against Toronto at Canada Life Centre. His wife, Sam, the couple’s three children and other family members, including his parents, will be in attendance.

“Obviously my parents were a big part of my youth hockey and growing up and the way up. But to share it with Sam and our three kids…Sam, she’s the only one that sees the day in and day out, the highs, the lows. She’s been there for me through it all. Having her there, that one means the most to me. Nobody knows what 1,000 good days and bad days or in between has looked like more than her,” said Wheeler.

“Being a pro athlete, it’s a glamorous job when it’s good and it’s not so when it’s not so good. That’s when you have people that you care about that care about you. She’s been my support system for the last 14 years. We’ve celebrated a lot of highs and when it’s as bad as it gets, that’s when you need her. That’s when she’s been there for me. I’ll never be able to pay that back. She sacrificed what she wanted to do with her life to follow me and to take care of our kids and support me. So no, I can’t really put into words what she means to me but I try to show her.(Sunday) will be a good day to try to remind her.”

Wheeler was drafted fifth-overall by Phoenix in 2004 as a high school hockey star out of Minnesota. He never played a game with the Coyotes, electing to become a free agent and sign with Boston where he made his NHL debut in 2008. He was traded to Atlanta in February 2011, then moved to Winnipeg that summer when the Thrashers were sold to True North.

Sunday will be his 779th career game with the Jets, second-only to Bryan Little’s 843 for most all-time in Jets 2.0 history. He’s the franchise leader for assists and points.

“It’s the first place that let me be me. Everywhere that I went before this was trying to make me into something that I’m not,” Wheeler said of what Winnipeg has meant to him.

“Being a big guy, you’ve got to hit more, you’ve got to fight more, you’ve got to do this more, you’ve got to do that more. I got to be me and I think the people here embraced the way that I play. I try to play hard for our fans every night and it’s why I’ve committed my career here. This is where I want to be and this is where I want to win. I think it’s a relationship that has allowed me to flourish and it’s been over 11 years now.”

When the 2021-22 campaign began, Wheeler was set to play his 1,000th game on Nov. 24 in Columbus. But a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in mid-October sidelined him for five games, meaning the milestone would come on home ice against the Maple Leafs.

“Not that it wouldn’t have been great but after seeing how mad they were at Doobie (Pierre-Luc Dubois, who was booed in his return to Columbus)… I remember leaving the rink that day being that, ‘Maybe it was a good thing it wasn’t tonight.’” Wheeler said with a laugh.

Wheeler was asked what the secret to staying healthy has been, and hearkened back to a lesson his father taught him a young age.

“I guess I was dramatic as a kid. So I was a kid that laid on the ice a lot, liked attention and all that. I don’t think my dad liked that a whole lot, so I was taught early that there’s a difference between being hurt and being injured,” he said.

“If you’re going to play this game for a living, you’re going to feel hurt a lot. And the different between being able to go out there and play and not is a pretty black-and-white thing for me. Concussion last year was, that presented some grey area, it was like, ‘can’t play,’ so that was hard but outside of that, if I’m upright and I can skate and I don’t feel like I’m hurting the team, then I’m going to play. As long as Paul (Maurice) and the trainers are on board with that, they agree with that, there’s not a whole lot of thought that goes into it.”

Wheeler is coming off his most productive offensive night of the young season, recording three assists in Winnipeg’s 8-4 victory over New Jersey on Friday night. He’s been reunited on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor but is still searching for his first goal of the year, with 10 assists now through 18 games.

He’s signed for two more seasons after this one at US $8.25 million per year.

“Like I said, I can be myself here. I don’t have to be anyone else. I don’t have to cater to a style that somebody else thinks that I need to play. I can just focus on working my ass off every day and that’s good enough,” said Wheeler.

“For me, that’s meant everything to me. I can just come to work and play, you know, have a crowd that’s full every night and excited. That’s what this game is all about. I’ll live somewhere warm when I don’t play hockey anymore, you know? Coming to work every day and having people care about what you’re doing, as a pro athlete, I mean that’s what it’s all about.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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