There’s never been a player quite like Blake Wheeler around here. The fearless leader of the Winnipeg Jets, who will skate in his 1,000th regular-season game on Sunday evening at Canada Life Centre, is the heart and soul of the hockey club.
He can be brash and abrasive and opinionated and occasionally hard on young players. Now in the twilight of his pro career, the 35-year-old has become a lightning rod for criticism from some who feel the team’s highest-paid player is being featured far too much despite a declining on-ice performance — no goals and seven assists through 17 games this year.
One thing that can never be questioned is Wheeler’s drive, determination and work ethic.
"He’s really been the heartbeat of our team for so long. He drives the bus for us," forward Adam Lowry said Thursday. "He’s a guy we all look to in the room when we need to get going, when we need some direction. He’s got great advice for a lot of the young guys coming in, for really just any of us. As we’ve kind of grown up, he’s been kind of almost like a father figure for us, the elder statesman of the team."
There’s always been a take-no-prisoners approach to the captain’s game, and it’s remarkable he’s managed to avoid significant injuries despite his hard-nosed ways. Credit a high pain tolerance, which explains how he managed to stay in the lineup last year despite suffering cracked ribs. The only thing to take him out of the lineup recently was a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in October which cost him five games and kicked this major milestone a couple weeks down the road.
"There’s players that have played 1,000 games that can probably play 5,000, and it’s (their) style — stay out of traffic. And they’re good players. But (Wheeler’s) been an in-traffic player, full sprint, every practice, every game," said Jets coach Paul Maurice.
"So it’s not just the games, it’s the days that he would prep, it’s the summer that he’d put in to drive his body as hard as he has, to be as prolific as he has. That’s what I take away from it, the handful of guys that have — Rod Brind’Amour was like that, Mats Sundin drove himself real hard, learned how to compete heavy like that. Those guys, because they play like that, carry 1,000 games injured an awful lot. Broke a bone in his foot, ribs, just a whole bunch of things that you marvel at, his ability to go out and play, and he’s played hard games — 1,000 the hard way."
It’s been quite a journey to get here for the scrawny, 150-pound high school scoring star from Plymouth, Minn., who was taken with the fifth-overall pick in the 2004 NHL Draft by the Arizona Coyotes, never played a game in the desert, signed as a free agent in Boston, was traded to Atlanta just before the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, quickly re-located to Winnipeg and has now signed two major contract extensions in the place he, his wife, Sam, and their three children have called home for the past decade.
"I think every player sees that and understands the sacrifice, the work, the dedication to the game that it takes. You have to be a good player for a long time in order to do that," said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey.
"He’s been the captain here since I’ve come into the league and we’ve developed a pretty good friendship. He’s been there for me through some tough times, lots of great times together and I look up to him in a lot of ways as a family man, as a leader and a captain. For him and Sam, it takes the whole family to make it happen, especially when you’ve got three young ones at home. So just super happy for him, excited for him and (a game) that he’s certainly earned with hard work every day. Still one of the hardest-working guys on the ice every single day, if not the hardest."
To mark Wheeler’s 1,000th, we’ve compiled an oral history of his career so far.
"When they were interviewing me, the feeling I got was that they were going to try to take me in the second round — and that would have been great. I couldn’t have ever dreamt this."
June 26, 2004: Wheeler, after hearing his name called out after Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Cam Barker and Andrew Ladd at the 2004 NHL draft, He had been ranked 17th among North American skaters heading into the annual event.
"We just felt that this young man has tremendous upside. He’s a tremendous athlete. We were very comfortable with picking him at No. 5. We kind of took a bit of a risk, but we believe he has tremendous upside. We know he’s a few years away from playing in the NHL. He’s just finished Grade 11, he’s 17 years old. It’s not a race now to get to the Phoenix Coyotes. Let’s let him finish at least Grade 12, and we’ll go from there."
June 26, 2004: The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, who was the Coyotes’ managing partner at the time, giving his scouting report on Wheeler.
"I was floored. Who knows, in five years he may be a great player and they might look like geniuses for taking him at five. But you had to think he would be available 15 spots later. That’s what amazed us."
June 26, 2004: Unnamed NHL scout, to Inside College Hockey, on Wheeler’s early selection.
"Alex made a great play putting it on my stick. I just tipped it in."
March 16, 2007: Wheeler, speaking on a set-up from teammate Alex Goligoski on the game-winning goal to lead his Minnesota Golden Gophers over Wisconsin and into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association final against the University of North Dakota. It was one of three goals he scored in the 4-2 victory.
"I took a whack at it and I could hear the crowd go crazy. I didn’t see it go in.’’
March 17, 2007: Wheeler, who scored the overtime winner to lead Minnesota to the Broadmoor Trophy in a thrilling 3-2 victory over UND. As described in media reports at the time, "he won a foot race with a Sioux defenceman for a lead pass from Jay Barriball that was feet away from being an icing infraction, dove headfirst and somehow flipped the puck high past the glove hand of Sioux junior goalie Philippe Lamoureux at 3:25 of overtime. Wheeler’s improbable goal ended a tense battle in front of a crowd of 19,463 at the Xcel Energy Center. It was the largest crowd ever to attend a WCHA game in the 55-year history of the league."
"We offered Blake a contract which was both commensurate with his draft position and far exceeded any guaranteed contract he can receive, under the current CBA, with any other team. He has decided, however, that becoming a free agent is in his best interest."
May 29, 2008: Phoenix general manager Don Maloney, revealing their top pick from 2004 would not be signing an entry-level contract with the desert dogs.
"More than 20 NHL teams were interested in Blake, and this was a very tough decision. And ultimately it came down to a few things for Blake, but mostly that he was comfortable with where the Bruins were headed as an organization — how this year they brought along kids like David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Mark Stuart. They’ve done a good job of developing kids, and he wants to continue along that line."
June 16, 2008: Wheeler’s agent, Matt Keator, to the Boston Globe after signing a free agent contract with the Bruins.
"We look forward to getting him in the mix. Anytime you can get a young player of Blake’s calibre with that blend of size and skill, you are very fortunate."
June 16, 2008: Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli on landing Wheeler.
"It was awesome. It was fun to be out there in front of all those people. That was incredible. The best part of the whole experience was seeing the atmosphere and the Montreal fans. It was a lot of fun to be a part of it."
Jan. 25, 2009: Wheeler, after scoring four times and being named MVP of the YoungStars game as his rookie team beat the sophomore squad 9-5 in a prelude to the NHL All-Star Game.
"It’s a strong message to our team, to our fans, that we want to win, that we want to be successful."
Feb. 18, 2011: Chiarelli, after trading Wheeler, along with defenceman Mark Stuart, to the Atlanta Thrashers. In return, the club got forward Rich Peverley and defenceman Boris Valabik, along with cap space they used to acquire blue-liner Tomas Kaberle from Toronto. And successful they were, as the Bruins went on to down the Vancouver Canucks and win the Stanley Cup that spring.
"I think I’m developing into the power forward I was projected to be when I was younger. I’m starting to learn how to use my size to my advantage a little bit more. There’s definitely a learning curve… if I can use my size and my speed to my advantage then it makes playing against me a little bit tougher."
July 19, 2011: Wheeler, in a chat with the Free Press, about what he expects to bring to Winnipeg following the re-location of the Thrashers.
"Blake is very comfortable with the direction (general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff), ownership and his staff is taking the organization. It’s a very good core that will keep growing together in the years to come."
July 26, 2013: Wheeler’s agent to the Winnipeg Sun about his client signing a six-year, US$33.6 million contract extension.
"For me, this is obviously a huge honour. I got to learn a lot from Andrew Ladd the last five years in Winnipeg. To see what it looks like every day to be the leader of the team, especially in a market like Winnipeg, is a pretty special honour, an honour I know he took with a lot of pride and I look forward to carrying the torch for him."
Aug. 31, 2016: Wheeler, after being named the new captain of the Jets.
"When we think about leaders and what we ask of them, at the very top of the list is we want them to lead by example. For Blake, in my time here but also over the course of his career, rarely do you run by a player who is able to play that hard, that consistently, every night. In order to do that, he practises like that. In terms of what we want our young players to, what do we want our fans to see, and how we want the players around Blake, where we want their eyes, is on his effort level, his compete, every shift, every game, every practice. We really think that he’s unique in that. There’s very few players that can drive themselves as hard as Blake can and we think he’s a spectacular leader by example in our room."
Aug. 31, 2016: Jets coach Paul Maurice on having a new leader at the helm.
"It’s the First Amendment to our Constitution. The First one!! Regardless of how it makes you feel individually, these are literally the principles the US was founded on. Come on, Mr. President."
Sept. 23, 2017: Wheeler, using his Twitter account to call out U.S. president Donald Trump, who had suggested then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and anyone else who takes a knee during the national anthem is "ruining the game" and should be "fired."
"I was an inconsistent player and had an inconsistent role. And when I got traded, regardless of how I played, I was playing 20 minutes a night (in Atlanta) and I think that sort of helps you figure yourself out a little bit. Figure out what you’re good at and what you need to work on. At the end of the day, if you’re out there that much, it’s on you to make things happen. It was great for me to grow personally to get that type of exposure, get that type of a role. … It helped me, gave me a kick in the rear a little bit. You know, you get traded from a team that wins the Stanley Cup, it’s kind of a slap in the face."
Dec. 21, 2017: Wheeler, to Free Press sports reporter Mike Sawatzky, prior to the Jets taking on his former club, the Boston Bruins.
"Well… then let’s stop letting them down, Mr. President."
Feb. 21, 2018: Wheeler, on Twitter, in response to U.S. president Donald Trump saying he would be meeting with school children to discuss gun control and hopes he doesn’t let them down.
"Where I’m at in my career, with my age, I feel like my best years are ahead of me. I wanted to give those years to his organization and hopefully push this team to the championship levels. That’s what you’re buying into and, certainly, we have a ton of work to do to get to that point. I’m a Day 1 guy here, been given some incredible opportunities. Even my last contract alone, I’m so blessed even to have that. The money wasn’t as attractive when I look situation-wise and where I fit in in a team, in a community. I couldn’t see myself anywhere else."
Sept. 4, 2018: Wheeler, after signing a five-year, US$41.25 million contract extension that pays him US$8.25 million annually.
"He’s a driver of our team and he’s grown into that. Blake is an interesting individual in a sense that he wasn’t one of those guys who started playing at 18 or 19 in the league. I think the mileage on the odometer is a little different than the age on the clock."
Sept. 4, 2018: Cheveldayoff, on making a huge investment in his captain.
"F--k off. Please, come on, man. This is a tough trophy to win. Maybe our best just wasn’t good enough today. And their best was pretty darn good."
April 20, 2019: An emotional Wheeler, after the Jets were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual champion St. Louis Blues.
"I’d go through a brick wall for that guy. I don’t want to play for anyone else."
April 22, 2019: Wheeler, scoffing at suggestions it might be time for a new head coach following a late-season swoon by the Maurice-led Jets.
"I was disappointed for the first time in myself after last year not because we didn’t win the Stanley Cup. I lost touch with myself as a dad, as a husband, first and foremost, because I invested so much into trying to win. Everyone was talking about this is our year to win and I felt like we had a real opportunity to win and when I was home, that’s where I was – I was trying to win the Stanley Cup. And when I was in the building, sometimes I was spitting nails just because I wanted to win the Stanley Cup. I was so focused on that. When it was all done and I got home, it’s like ‘Man, this is almost too…’ My daughter’s growing up, my son’s in kindergarten, none of this is that important. That’s where I’m at. I’m going to be me here and I’m going to do everything I do here and give everything I have when I’m in this building, but being a husband and dad is No. 1 in my life."
Sept. 10, 2019: A candid Wheeler, in a sit-down interview with TSN, about the heavy toll of the previous season, and regretting how he handled himself in some cases.
"I really feel like the product of some good teams and I’ve played on some really good lines. I play a lot of minutes, so I just feel fortunate for the opportunities I’ve had here and the guys I get to play with every night. It’s not going to be long before one of these guys on this team passes me and that will be a good moment too. But it’s a reflection of taking advantage of your opportunities and playing with a lot of really good guys."
Dec. 21, 2019: Wheeler, after recording a goal and assist in his home state of Minnesota to pass Ilya Kovalchuk and become the all-time scoring leader for the Thrashers/Jets 2.0 franchise.
"I’ve been adamant over my time in Winnipeg that I wouldn’t trade Buff for anyone in the league, and I meant that. So obviously a depleted blue line coming into the season, and then you lose your best guy. Selfishly, it hurts. But you’ve got to be respectful of a guy. Especially a guy that’s brought it like he has for so long, and everything he’s done for us. That was his decision to make. I don’t think that makes him a villain. It might have set this team back a little bit this year and put us in a tough spot, there’s no question there. I think overall people will get to that point… maybe the bad taste of that goes away, people will wake up and say ‘Man, Buff was one of the great ones for this organization.’"
Feb. 5, 2020: Wheeler, opening up for the first time about the surprise decision by long-time teammate and friend Dustin Byfuglien to not show up at training camp and ultimately retire — one he admits strained their relationship.
"I hope Joe Biden doesn’t forget who voted him into the White House. I also hope he can speak for the Americans that didn’t vote for him. I hope we can start celebrating the good in each other and stop fighting about our differences. My daughter gets to see a woman as Vice-President of the USA. For the first time in a while, I’m hopeful."
Nov. 7, 2020: Wheeler, once again on Twitter, after U.S. President Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris were elected.
"Sure I do because you don’t sit in this situation and have teammates moving on to different places and not recap and recount all the steps taken and how you handled everything. As a veteran player and a captain of this team, first and foremost my responsibility isn’t to Patrik Laine or any one player, it’s to our entire team. I try to do that with how I prepare myself, how I approach the game and, ultimately, how I compete on the ice. So, I try to set an incredibly high standard in doing so. I do that personally for how I need to play to be the player I need to be for this team and also be that way for my teammates. If I have any regrets, my regrets would be some of the frustrations that took place over the years. I’ve always had a really positive relationship with Patty. Every time we’ve communicated it’s been nothing but positive. Never any fighting, never any yelling at each other. Moreso just a player in his mid-30s has 20/20 vision. Looking in the past, as a young player I certainly had a lot of habits and things I needed to overcome. So, maybe I could have communicated a little better instead of just getting frustrated."
Jan. 23, 2021: Wheeler, on whether he has regrets about his relationship with sniper Patrik Laine following the blockbuster trade with Columbus.
"You’ll do your deep dives and your analytics and boy do they do a horses**** job of telling you what five guys do. I’m sensitive to it because I’ve been in awe of this guy since I got here. His work level, he’s unimpeachable in his character and how he runs that room and how he plays. He’s got 11 (expletive) points in 10 games. I’m not so much protecting Blake Wheeler, but the Winnipeg Jets… and how important it is when you get a guy like that. You’re beaking my captain and I’m offended by it."
Feb. 3, 2021: Maurice, coming out swinging in defence of Wheeler who hadn’t looked himself early in the 2021 NHL season.
"I love these people here. They’ve treated me like gold for 11 years. I try to give everything I have every time we play in front of this building in front of those people so it means a lot to be appreciated."
Nov. 9, 2021; Wheeler, after recording an assist in a 3-2 shootout loss to St. Louis to hit the 700-point mark with the Thrashers/Jets 2.0 franchise.
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.