Winnipeg forward Blake Wheeler admitted that being the Jets captain had become a burden, one that he has now been relieved of by new Jets coach Rick Bowness.
The Jets announced Friday that they will enter the 2022-23 season without a captain and with a group of assistants to be determined.
“There’s nothing in my life that I’ve taken more pride in than [being Jets captain], outside of being a husband and being a father,” Wheeler said at a press conference at the MTS Iceplex.
“Every day since I was named captain, that’s what has gotten me out of bed. How can I be a better teammate, how can I be a better leader, how can I be a better player on the ice for this city and for this team and for this organization. So yeah, at a certain point, that can wear thin on you. I’m just incredibly grateful that I’ve had this opportunity. That’s how I feel.”
Wheeler said he was taken aback when Bowness told him that he would be stripped of the “C.”
“You know, there was some surprise, I think,” said Wheeler, who had been the team captain for six years. “Having the kind of year [the Jets had], the first conversation with the new coach was surprising. But I’ve had time to let it sink in, so he gave me a little headway. I’ve had time to process it.”
Jets forward Mark Scheifele, speaking to reporters in Henderson, Nev., at the NHL/NHLPA player media tour, said the news was a “shocker to me.”
“Blake told me before I left just to give me the heads up,” Scheifele said. “Didn’t get a lot of chance to actually talk to him and dive into how he’s feeling.
“First and foremost, just want to be there for him. He’s a great friend of mine and a guy that I’ve learned a lot from. He’s still going to be a big leader on our team. The letters really don’t mean anything.”
Both Wheeler and Bowness declined to describe what would have been an unpleasant conversation.
“With a new staff, it’s a good time to look at changing the leadership of the room,” Bowness said. “I can tell you this ... I was very encouraged all summer talking to the players that this is a much tighter group than the perception of the room. That was very encouraging for me.
“Also, you could tell their tone and their wording, they want to accept more responsibility. They’re all disappointed with what went on last year and now that’s behind us. Now we have changes. That just included how we’re going to go about the leadership of the team.”
The Jets failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, which led to much speculation about their future. That included a discussion about trading Wheeler, who has two seasons left on a five-year deal with a yearly cap hit of US$8.25-million.
“I think, yeah, when you have a down season, you’re going to have to have those conversations,” said the 36-year-old Wheeler. “I’ve been here 11 years and you’d be crazy not to look in the mirror at yourself, and then, also look at an 11-year relationship and say, ‘Is this still in our best interest going forward?’
“Ultimately, we made the determination that it is, so here I am.”
Wheeler said he is no longer discussing a trade possibility with the team.
“I’m here and I’m committed to this team and motivated to have a great season,” he said. “I’ve had a few days to process it and the feeling I got out of bed with today knowing that I had to talk to you guys was just how grateful I am just that I’ve had this opportunity.
“I’m just looking forward to watching the guys I mentor step up because it’s their time now and, like I said, I’m not going anywhere. I’m still going to be doing the things that I would have done with the ‘C’ on my jersey. You guys just might not get to talk to me as much.”
Bowness said has yet to decide how a rotating assistant captaincy will be worked out.
“That’s what we need 21 days and six [exhibition] games to figure out,” Bowness said. “And, by the end of this, we’re going to make the right decision.”
But a new captain will likely be named eventually.
“That will evolve naturally,” Bowness said. “We’re not the only team that’s not going to have a captain. That will evolve.”
Wheeler took over as Jets captain before the 2016-17 season. He replaced Andrew Ladd, who was dealt to Chicago at the 2016 trade deadline.
The Jets qualified for the playoffs three times with Wheeler as captain and advanced to the Western Conference final in the 2017-18 season. They also appeared in the qualifying round of the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, but lost to Calgary in four games.