October 22, 2020

Winnipeg
-1° C, Overcast

Full Forecast

Close

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

Jets captain: "It can't just be their fight"

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler says it's time white athletes like himself started using their privilege and platform to speak out against racism, police brutality and other social issues they have traditionally remained silent on.

The 33-year-old held court with media for 45 minutes Tuesday morning, and the subject of hockey barely came up. Instead, Wheeler expounded on his weekend tweet about the videotaped killing of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer and the related protests that have flared up across the U.S. 

"Clearly, it's hit home. Never did I envision that Minneapolis-St. Paul, my hometown, would be the epicentre of these things happening. I have a lot of family there, obviously. My wife has a lot of family there. We have a lot of friends there. People are scared," Wheeler said via Zoom from his off-season home in Florida.

Darnella Frazier / The Associated Press Files</p><p>In a frame from video provided by Darnella Frazier, a Minneapolis officer kneels on the neck of George Floyd, a handcuffed man who was pleading that he could not breathe,</p></p>

Darnella Frazier / The Associated Press Files

In a frame from video provided by Darnella Frazier, a Minneapolis officer kneels on the neck of George Floyd, a handcuffed man who was pleading that he could not breathe,

That fear extends to Wheeler, his wife and three young children. The oldest, seven-year-old son, Louie, has many difficult questions.

"We're showing them what's going on TV. They watched George Floyd die on TV. That's been really challenging trying to explain, especially to Louie. He's asking, 'Why won't he get off his neck? Why won't he get off his neck?' And to have to explain that to him, to try to explain to him, to a seven-year-old, that the police that he feels are out there to protect us and look out for us that that's not always the case. That's a hard conversation to have," said Wheeler.

Many questions, few answers for NHL players, Wheeler says

He's dusted off the skates and taken a few twirls. But Blake Wheeler says much work remains to get up to speed for a late-summer Stanley Cup run. 

The Winnipeg Jets captain identified several hurdles still in the way of the NHL's potential return to play during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the current 14-day mandatory quarantine required if he were to travel back to Winnipeg. For now, he's staying put with his wife and three children at their off-season home in south Florida, where they travelled shortly after the season was paused in mid-March.  

"There's really strict laws getting back into the country and the quarantine and all those types of things that we need to weigh, but I've been able to get on the ice a little bit down in Florida. The rinks were able to open up once Palm Beach County reopened in Phase 1," Wheeler said Tuesday via Zoom. 

He's dusted off the skates and taken a few twirls. But Blake Wheeler says much work remains to get up to speed for a late-summer Stanley Cup run. 

The Winnipeg Jets captain identified several hurdles still in the way of the NHL's potential return to play during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the current 14-day mandatory quarantine required if he were to travel back to Winnipeg. For now, he's staying put with his wife and three children at their off-season home in south Florida, where they travelled shortly after the season was paused in mid-March.  

"There's really strict laws getting back into the country and the quarantine and all those types of things that we need to weigh, but I've been able to get on the ice a little bit down in Florida. The rinks were able to open up once Palm Beach County reopened in Phase 1," Wheeler said Tuesday via Zoom. 

Only a handful of Jets players are currently in Winnipeg, with the rest scattered throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Provided health and government officials give the green light — along with NHL players — a modified training camp could happen in early July, with a 24-team playoff tournament starting approximately three weeks later and running through September in a pair of so-called hub cities where no fans would be present.

It's possible Canadian teams might have to take their operations south of the border if the re-entry restrictions aren't relaxed by then. Then there's the issue of how to safely monitor and repeatedly test players who will be participating, and whether they will be isolated from families.

"We still have a lot of things to figure out, namely the safety of the players. I don’t think anyone’s a real big fan of… I can speak personally having three small children in the house and doing it as a team with (his wife) Sam is really challenging, and thinking about her doing it alone would be really tough. Those are things that are really important to the players," said Wheeler. 

“I’m more concerned about my family being safe than I am about me being with them. I don’t have a good example of a situation that I’d bring my family to but I would prefer them to have more freedom to move around and potentially see a friend or two here or there than just be confined to a hotel room and being able to walk down the street a little bit. Having three kids under seven, that’s not really a great way to spend a few months for them either."

Wheeler doesn't think the NHL will need to change the game much, if it all, to make it safer for players, but joked he'd be fine if they outlawed opponents hitting him. 

"The challenge is going to be getting everyone into said bubble, getting everyone tested and having it be that we’re all on the same page and try to nip it in the bud before we get there. Whether that’s possible or not, I’m not sure," he said.

Then there's ongoing concerns about the potential short- and long-term impact of COVID-19. 

"We’re a few months into this pandemic, we don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be. Like I said, a lot of questions to be answered, but I think it’s trending in the right direction. The sentiment I get from all the guys is we want to get back on the ice for our fans and try to bring something positive to people’s lives and give them something to look forward to, that’s the ultimate goal," said Wheeler. 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

"It's too bad that we're not in Minneapolis. And clearly during a pandemic, too, our first responsibility is the safety of our kids. But we would've loved to take our family out to the protests to show them how powerful it can be and really what a beautiful thing it was, all the people coming together in our hometown. We talked about it a lot and showed them as much as we can to just try to continue that education and try to show them and really have it be imprinted in their mind that this is what it should look like."

Wheeler admitted hockey culture traditionally frowns upon players speaking up about such issues, but said these conversations are long overdue. Former teammate Evander Kane, who now plays for the San Jose Sharks, has been a vocal advocate calling on many of his hockey peers to use their voices. Wheeler, and an increasing number of other players and teams, including the Jets, have done so in the past couple days.

"We have to be as involved in this as black athletes. It can't just be their fight. When (NFL quarterback) Colin Kaepernick was taking a knee during the national anthem and trying to do it in a peaceful way in 2016 and trying to raise awareness of this in a peaceful manner, unfortunately there wasn't more — and I want to be real clear, here — I look in the mirror about this before I look out at everyone else. I wish that I was more involved sooner than I was. I wish that it didn't take me this long to get behind it in a meaningful way," said Wheeler.

"But I guess what you can do is try to be better going forward. That's kind of been my position on it. I want to be part of the change going forward. Whether that resonates with everyone, whether that spreads with everyone, is clearly — I'm only one person, but I do have a small platform to try to promote this and promote change."

"There's so much hurt out there. There are so many people that don't have jobs, that have families that don't know where their next meal is coming from. The list seems never–ending, and on top of it, we're still treating people this way during a pandemic." – Blake Wheeler

Wheeler is concerned about police and government officials inflicting more violence on citizens, as happened Monday afternoon, when peaceful protesters outside the White House were attacked and hit with tear gas. He called such a move "pouring gas on the fire."

"There's so much hurt out there. There are so many people that don't have jobs, that have families that don't know where their next meal is coming from. The list seems never ending, and on top of it, we're still treating people this way during a pandemic, during something that hasn't been seen in lifetimes," he said.

"Through that anxiety and through that fear and through kind of that worry about the country, I'm optimistic and hopeful about the future. I got a text from my dad two days ago and he was telling me — he grew up in Detroit — about the race riots in Detroit in the late '60s, and he just said, 'My generation didn't get it right and hopefully your's does.' I'm hopeful my generation and my kids' generation fix this and get this country so that there's brighter days ahead."

Craig Ruttle / Associated Press files</p><p>Chief of Department of the New York City Police, Terence Monahan, hugs an activist as protesters paused while walking in New York, Monday.</p></p>

Craig Ruttle / Associated Press files

Chief of Department of the New York City Police, Terence Monahan, hugs an activist as protesters paused while walking in New York, Monday.

Wheeler acknowledged there will be those who think he should just shut up and play hockey, which is why some athletes are likely reluctant to speak up. He hopes significant change is just around the corner. 

"I wish I didn’t care what people thought of me. I do. It’s sort of exhausting, especially as the captain of a team, especially the way I’m wired, the way I go about my business. Yeah, you care about what people think about you and you care that, at least I do and I wish I didn’t, but when you’re saying something like this, you need to not care," he said. 

"I think the most positive things that have come out of this have been police officers joining in protest or walking with protesters or hugging them. Those are the types of things that we need more of. If we can have the police acknowledging the pain that people are going through and sort of latching onto that and embracing it, I think that that's a step in the right direction. And I think that hopefully the violence can start to subside and we can start turning the page and try to look forward to the next step in making this a positive movement and one that holds, that sticks, that truly changes things."

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca
Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

   Read full biography
   Sign up for Mike McIntyre | On Sports

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

History

Updated on Tuesday, June 2, 2020 at 12:49 PM CDT: Photo changed.

4:41 PM: Edited, fact box added.

The Winnipeg Free Press invites you to share your opinion on this story in a letter to the editor. A selection of letters to the editor are published daily.

To submit a letter:
• fill out the form on this page, or
• email letters@freepress.mb.ca, or
• mail Letters to the Editor, 1355 Mountain Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R2X 3B6.

Letters must include the writer’s full name, address, and a daytime phone number. Letters are edited for length and clarity.

Advertisement

Advertise With Us