Three cities, one freak accident and some of the best and worst play of his career. It has been a wild 12 months for Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler.
“I wouldn’t change a thing about it,” Wheeler said with a smile Sunday before the Jets took on the Colorado Avalanche at the MTS Centre.
It all started with a phone call to Wheeler’s hotel room in Ottawa on Feb. 18, 2011. He was with the Boston Bruins at the time getting ready to face the Senators that night. “I remember sitting in the room with my roommate David Krejci when the phone rang. I said ‘I’m off to Atlanta,’ ” Wheeler recalled. He’d been traded to the Thrashers along with defenceman Mark Stuart in return for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik.
He took it hard. Wheeler, 25, had been with the Bruins since 2008 when he signed as a free agent after leaving the University of Minnesota. At that time it looked like he would have a long career with Boston. He’d arrived as something of a young phenomenon thanks to his size, 6 foot 5, and his speed. None other than Wayne Gretzky selected Wheeler as the fifth overall pick in the 2004 NHL entry draft when Gretzky was still with the Phoenix Coyotes. Gretzky said he saw something special in Wheeler, who then was just a 17-year-old high-school student in Minneapolis. Wheeler didn’t sign with the Coyotes, preserving his eligibility for college, and ultimately struck a deal with the Bruins after several other teams made offers.
But in a split-second that day in Ottawa, Wheeler went from being part of a contender to finding a role with troubled franchise that ultimately moved to Winnipeg. If that wasn’t hard enough, Wheeler and Stuart watched the Bruins win the Stanley Cup. “To be that close and see them go on to win was definitely difficult,” Wheeler said. “But at the same time you’ve got to understand that the toughest part of winning the Stanley Cup is the part that we weren’t there for. So I mean we weren’t really a part of it all.”
There was more turmoil ahead. The move to Winnipeg proved difficult at first, especially for his wife, Sam, who loved Boston. Then the season started and Wheeler fell flat. His role with the Jets was to score goals, but they just wouldn’t come and in hockey-obsessed Winnipeg the pressure mounted. Five, 10, 15, 18 games went by without a goal. The worst drought of his career.
“It was tough to look in the mirror and find answers,” Wheeler recalled. “I just knew that that wasn’t the first impression that I wanted to make. I finally just said, ‘Screw it.’ Screw the results and just go out there and play as best as I can and the results kind of started coming from there.”
He got his first goal on Nov. 17 in a Jets’ 4-1 win over Washington and hasn’t looked back. He now leads the team with 42 points and he’s a mainstay on the Jets’ top line with Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd. He’s gotten even better lately, earning six points in the last four games including a goal and two assists on Friday to help the Jets beat Boston 4-2. “He’s been playing some of the best hockey I’ve seen him play,” Little said. “Once he gets going it’s hard to stop him.”
Jets coach Claude Noel points to Wheeler’s size and smarts. And while Noel has juggled every line this season, he has kept Little and Wheeler together. “I like their speed,” Noel said Sunday. “I think they’ve got chemistry and they find each other and they produce.”
Everything nearly came crashing down on Jan. 14 when Wheeler took a slap shot in the throat during a game against New Jersey. The puck barely missed Wheeler’s jugular and doctors said he was incredibly lucky. He missed just two games and got an assist in his next start.
It’s all been a year-long learning experience, Wheeler said. “And I think I learned a lot from it,” he added. “Which is the most important thing.”