Straight shooter on and off the ice

Bold and blunt, Wheeler is the perfect choice to lead youthful Jets


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It was the most predictable decision the Winnipeg Jets could have made.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/08/2016 (2170 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was the most predictable decision the Winnipeg Jets could have made.

And in a way, also the boldest.

Those two things don’t usually go together, but there’s a lot of things about Blake Wheeler being named the captain of a team such as the Jets that aren’t typical.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler is a guy who will look you in the eye and tell you exactly what he thinks of you.

While Wednesday’s announcement was widely expected, Wheeler is, in many ways, an unconventional choice to lead a team that is the most buttoned-down organization in the NHL.

Make no mistake: while Wheeler and former Jets captain Andrew Ladd were close personal friends and charter members of Jets 2.0, the appointment of Wheeler as Ladd’s successor does not simply mean a continuation of five more years of Ladd, who was captain from when the team arrived in 2011 until he was traded in February.

If they wanted five more years of Ladd, the decision would have been to name Mark Scheifele captain.

Instead, the Jets named Scheifele an alternate — Dustin Byfuglien is the other alternate — and opted for what will be a very different public face in Wheeler.

Leaving aside the fact the Jets have an American captain in the most Canadian market in hockey, they also have, for the first time, a man who speaks his mind, honestly and without reservation.

You want to know what Wheeler is thinking? Just ask him and he will tell you.

That is going to represent a radical departure from the way the Jets have always conducted their affairs in this town.

Ladd was the perfect embodiment of a Jets organization that learned — right from its earliest beginnings — the high value of keeping its cards close to the vest and saying as little as possible publicly.

There’s a reason Mark Chipman has an NHL franchise today, while Jim Balsillie doesn’t. Chipman shut up, while Balsillie wouldn’t stop talking. Gary Bettman rewarded the former and punished the latter and all Winnipeggers get a respite from a bitter prairie winter 41 nights a year because of it.

When Chipman finally landed the Jets franchise, a Mini-Me in Ladd was immediately appointed to be the public face of the organization.

For five long years, Ladd would look reporters in the eye, smile broadly, politely answer every question and… never actually reveal anything meaningful.

He said a lot, without saying much at all. It is the Jets’ way.

Or at least it used to be. You have to wonder if a hint of trepidation about just what a different approach Wheeler will bring as the new face of the Jets is in part the reason an appointment that was expected the day Ladd was traded to Chicago in February took until the last day of August to announce.

None of this is to suggest Wheeler is anything resembling a loose cannon. The guy is a consummate team player, always the first into a tough corner or to the rescue of a teammate in trouble. He’s been that way since Day 1 and, coming off a career season in 2015-16, he’s proven he can walk the talk and, along with Byfuglien, will command respect from a very young dressing room this coming season.

While the captain runs the dressing room, the head coach runs the team, and that didn’t change Wednesday.

Paul Maurice represents the continuity in this move, and that’s a commanding presence no matter who wears the ‘C.’

Wheeler is a guy who made no secret last winter about what he thought of management’s decision to first shop Ladd on the market and, ultimately, trade him. Wheeler didn’t think much of that move and he made that clear to anyone who asked.

He’s also a guy who has talked openly about his frustrations with playing in an organization that keeps getting younger even as he keeps getting older and seemingly further away from the Stanley Cup that was denied him in 2011 when the Bruins traded him to Atlanta a few months before Boston went on to win the Cup.

Wheeler’s a guy who will also look you in the eye — I speak from experience here — and tell you exactly what he thinks of you. To this day, my favourite moment of covering the Jets came the day Wheeler interrupted my particularly pointed question to advise: “You know, you’re really starting to piss me off.”

I’ve loved the man ever since. You know where you stand with Wheeler. It’s that refreshing frankness that makes him an unusual choice to be the Jets’ captain, but also exactly the right one at this moment in the team’s history.

People in this town are tired of hearing about how “we just have to execute a little better” as their hockey team finds itself in yet another 0-20 power-play slump. Those kinds of platitudes worked in the early days, when everyone in Winnipeg was just happy NHL hockey was back.

That euphoria has begun to wear off. Remember the empty seats at the MTS Centre last season? These days, Winnipeg hockey fans want honest answers from their hockey team about what’s wrong and what’s being done to make things better.

This is a city of unusually knowledgeable hockey fans, even by Canadian standards. They know B.S. when they hear it.

If his first five years here are any indication — and my time at the racetrack taught me past performance is always the most reliable indicator of future performance — Jets fans can expect the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from Wheeler.

Even when that truth hurts.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @PaulWiecek


Updated on Wednesday, August 31, 2016 7:55 PM CDT: Updates with writethru

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