November 19, 2018

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Opinion

Beyond the business side

Wheeler's big deal will be debated, but the Jets captain's heart is here, and that's a big deal, too

Jets captain Blake Wheeler is all smiles as he talks to the media at the Iceplex on Tuesday about signing a five-year contract extension. (Ruth Bonneville / Free Press files)</p></p>

Jets captain Blake Wheeler is all smiles as he talks to the media at the Iceplex on Tuesday about signing a five-year contract extension. (Ruth Bonneville / Free Press files)

When he met the media last Tuesday, Blake Wheeler grinned, because of course he did. The news of the day belonged to him: a five-year contract extension, worth just over US$41 million, anyone would smile in that situation.

So there were the smiles, the questions, the platitudes offered. Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff praised his captain. The player himself talked about his belief in the team, in its future, in the community and the whole organization.

“My heart is here,” he told reporters. “I couldn’t see myself anywhere else.”

So far, so good. And then, right on cue, came the debate about the numbers: is it a good idea, to sign a 33-year-old player for what will likely be the rest of his productive years? Is this a deal the Jets will ever come to regret?

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When he met the media last Tuesday, Blake Wheeler grinned, because of course he did. The news of the day belonged to him: a five-year contract extension, worth just over US$41 million, anyone would smile in that situation.

So there were the smiles, the questions, the platitudes offered. Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff praised his captain. The player himself talked about his belief in the team, in its future, in the community and the whole organization.

"My heart is here," he told reporters. "I couldn’t see myself anywhere else."

So far, so good. And then, right on cue, came the debate about the numbers: is it a good idea, to sign a 33-year-old player for what will likely be the rest of his productive years? Is this a deal the Jets will ever come to regret?

For Wheeler to stick around, someone else may have to go. The Jets hope that locking their captain down will serve as an anchor, something to hold them steady. In a salary-cap league, it could end up being only a weight.

These concerns are valid, as is the number-crunching done to support them. Red meat for fans to debate.

But the allure of sports sits somewhere at the intersection of business and performance, myth and entertainment. Every fan, and every analyst, comes at it from a different direction, and that perspective will shape how you see it.

Me, I don’t have much of a head for business. (This is why I was not destined to be a particularly good sports journalist.) To me, sports is mostly a blank page, to be filled with stories about how humans fail, strive, survive.

It can be beautiful, in that way. At its best, sports gives a framework on which to construct the things that unite.

And for the Jets, unity starts at the top of the roster, with the captain. They believe they have their man for this season, and five more after that. With just under a month until a new NHL season starts, what does that mean?

It’s a big deal for Winnipeg, for Wheeler, for the team. A deal that, although it does not necessarily mean he will retire a Jet, does guarantee that his legacy — whatever it will be — is inextricably bound with the team’s fortunes.

Blake Wheeler, seen with Jack Roslovic at the Iceplex Tuesday, needed time to grow into an elite NHL talent, and was given time — and space — to do so in Winnipeg. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Blake Wheeler, seen with Jack Roslovic at the Iceplex Tuesday, needed time to grow into an elite NHL talent, and was given time — and space — to do so in Winnipeg. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Yes, the Jets bet big on Wheeler, but he bet on them, too. It’s not only about the money. Had he gone to free agency, he would have had no shortage of suitors, eager to snatch up one of the league’s best right-wingers.

He wants a Cup, of course, all hockey players do. So this is his gamble, and he bet it all on polar night blue.

This is the part where the business of contracts gives way to sports’ human heart. In a way, it feels right that Wheeler should be so long locked up: his trajectory, as a player, finds its echo in the story of Winnipeg itself.

He is the author of his own sports performance, of course. But part of his story also belongs to us.

Consider how he ended up here. After a bright rookie season in Boston, he wound up buried on a deep team, logging third-line minutes. He flashed enormous potential, and scored some; he also, sometimes, seemed lost.

There he was, a high first-rounder whose early promise had faltered. So in 2011, when Boston (correctly) thought it was ready to trade weapons to win a Stanley Cup, Wheeler was the best player it was willing to give up.

For a short time, during the inaugural season in Winnipeg, that decision seemed to make perfect sense.

He did not make the best first impression. He was a beautiful skater, with hands to match, but struggled to stay consistent. He infamously went 18 games without a goal, and was at one point demoted to bottom-six minutes.

Later that season, he talked about how hard it was to look at himself in the mirror, at the start. When he finally did score a goal, halfway through the inaugural November, he joked that he didn’t even remember how to celebrate.

In a way, Winnipeggers could relate. We too had been a long time adrift, trying to hang on to the belief in our potential. We too were trying to remember how to celebrate ourselves, how to take pride in our achievements.

That season we probably overcompensated, a little. It’s funny now, how loudly we cheered every loss.

And as for Wheeler? Once he started scoring, he never really stopped.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p></p></p><p>Winnipeg Jets player, #26 Blake Wheeler smiles while talking to .Jack Roslovic #28 during practice at Iceplex Tuesday. Story about Wheeler signing a five-year contract extension.</p></p><p>See Jay Bell story.</p></p><p>September 4/18</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Jets player, #26 Blake Wheeler smiles while talking to .Jack Roslovic #28 during practice at Iceplex Tuesday. Story about Wheeler signing a five-year contract extension.

See Jay Bell story.

September 4/18

At first, he was not exactly surrounded by glory; he often tried to make offence from his will alone. When games sank into swamps, it was often Wheeler who dragged the team on his back, only to come back and do it again.

And after those long strings of losses, it was always Wheeler who was the most visibly pained. Every Jet, to be sure, wanted the team to be better. But it was Wheeler who most telegraphed his hunger for something greater.

At some point in those first seasons, some Jets fans, on online forums, started naming Wheeler as the team’s best forward. This was invariably met with patient bemusement; he was not, at that time, a going concern in the league.

"Blake Wheeler? Really?" other teams’ fans would reply. "Why not Evander Kane?"

Today, this exchange looks different — partly, because this Jets roster is overflowing with top-end offensive talent. And after last year’s deep playoff run, no hockey fan now would shrug off reports of Wheeler’s ability to lead them.

So while the 2017-18 campaign saw the Jets explode into the wider NHL consciousness, it did the same for their captain. A career season, one which launched his name for discussion among the brightest lights of the league.

There are many reasons why Wheeler blossomed here, at a relatively late age. On Tuesday, he told NHL Tonight that part of it was just timing: "I’ve always been a tall guy," he said. "It took me a little time to grow into my body."

And in Winnipeg, he had the space to do that growing. Through a trade and a twist of fate, he landed in a city that ached so long for hockey, it was ready to cheer anybody. There was lots of room here, to do the work of becoming.

So there he was, much like Winnipeg itself: once awkward, late to grow, nearly surrendered to a shelf. Tossed around, until he fell into the NHL’s most underrated town — and there finding space to play and sort himself out.

The Jets, when they landed, needed a player like Wheeler. Maybe he needed Winnipeg, too.

So now, a contract to bind them together. One of the game’s best forwards, tying his trajectory to that of the city where he uncovered what he could be. The captain Jets fans deserve — and maybe, one that also deserves us.

The big deal is done. Time will tell if it serves as an anchor for the Jets, or just a contractual weight. That’s the business side, and it will be an ongoing debate. Yet the human arc of this story is, at least, one to celebrate too.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

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