Sunday, February 19, 2012

Power Forward in Waiting, Wheeler Coming on Strong

By Larry Wigge

Blake Wheeler has that power forward body at 6-5, 220-pounds. But he doesn't consistently show the power of this position -- crashing and smashing opponents like Cam Neely did for all of those years when he was with the Boston Bruins.

Yet, the Robbinsdale, Minnesota, native, is growing into that one-on-one growling-in-his-gut power forward at 25 years of age.

Wheeler is currently the leading scorer on the Winnipeg Jets with 11 goals and 31 assists, with his one-goal and two-assist performance against his former Bruins teammates February 17. That Neely comparison is coming -- even if the Winnipeg comparison is Keith Tkachuk. He didn't endear himself to the Winnipeg fans, with no goal in his first 18 games. But ...

Since then Wheeler has combined with center Brian Little to from a potent scoring unit and has two goals and eight assists in his last nine games.

"It seems like he can play with anyone," Little said of Wheeler. "Once he uses his size and his speed, it's hard to stop him. He's a really fast guy and we saw his playmaking ability."

That big body with good puck skills has always attracted teams to Wheeler. It's what grabbed the Phoenix Coyotes to pick him with the 5th overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. It's what drew the Boston Bruins to sign him as a free agent, after three years at the University of Minnesota. And it's the then-Atlanta Thrashers to trade center Rich Peverley and defense prospect Boris Valabik from Boston just over a year ago near the NHL trading deadline.

"It's flown by, it really has," Wheeler explained. "It's crazy to think that a year ago at this time, the big move was made."

Deadline deal? That deal followed the Bruins obtaining the contract of veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle. Looking for cap space ...

"It was tough," Wheeler recalled. "I was sitting there right after the morning skate in Ottawa and the Kaberle deal had just been done. So I thought I had dodged a bullet there. But then, the phone rang and I was told, 'I'm off to Atlanta.' ''

Blake Wheeler has had 21 goals in his rookie season of 2008-09, followed by 18 goals the next season and 18 goals combined with the Bruins and Thrashers last season.

Being picked by an American team in Phoenix was like Wheeler's 15 minutes of fame. It was no less important that that that Coyotes team was run by Wayne Gretzky.

I'll never forget the shocked look and surreal thoughts Wheeler had on his face.

"A month ago I was standing in line in the cafeteria at Breck High School, trying to get some food -- and the other night I was having dinner with Mr. Gretzky," Wheeler said in his best gee-whiz tone of voice. "This week has been a series of those moments you want to freeze in your mind so you never forget any of it.

"I was completely caught offguard. I thought I'd be picked in the late first round, early second round. I was trying not to have too many expectations coming in because I didn't want to be too disappointed. Then, I hear Wayne Gretzky announce my name. That's like having Michael Jordan announce your name in basketball. All I know is I have a closet full of Wayne Gretzky cards -- and this, well, it's the highest high a kid could ever feel."

There are no guarantees that go along with high draft selections in professional sports, where scouts are predicting the future of a teen-ager. It's sort of like saying a teen will be the next great heart doctor or Nobel prize winner. You could say it was a big risk for the Coyotes, because even though Wheeler notched 45 goals and 55 assists and a state-high 100 points in just 30 games, well, it was hard to find his name in most of the well-respected draft preview publications.

The confidence of youth. It's an amazing thing. But Wheeler, who said after getting only 15 goals and 20 assists as a junior at the University of Minnesota, said he knew he was ready for the big jump from college to professional hockey, maybe even the NHL -- even if others wondered. After negotiations with the Coyotes, Blake and his representative failed to reach contract terms. But they were already in the fast-forward mode to the future and they used a little-known out-clause in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows a college player to opt for free agency after a failed attempt at coming to terms on a contract for one full month.

This faceoff win for the big center/winger allowed Wheeler to seek his own deal, which he did -- signing a two-year entry level contract with the Boston Bruins for $875,000 per season.

After seamlessly moving to the NHL with Boston, Wheeler was not only a Rookie of the Year candidate.

"The key to me was being able to find a traditional hockey market where I could compete and push myself," said Wheeler. "The Bruins offered the opportunity of playing for an Original Six team that was on the rise."

The feeling was mutual by the Bruins, who reportedly outbid Montreal, Minnesota, New Jersey and the New York Rangers to sign Wheeler. For a few weeks before he signed with the Bruins on July 1, Blake presented all the intrigue of a Stephen King novel -- interesting prospect, who skates well for his size, has good finishing skill and shows some willingness to toss his weight around.

What team wouldn't want to add those skills to its lineup?

Fifteen minutes of fame? Not on your life. Blake Wheeler is one of those kids who just has IT. Oh, he has those physical skills every scout is looking for. But what drives him is a tool-box full of intangibles.

"That's a big thing with me," Blake explained. "I'm always working hard and always trying to compete. Using my size the best way is something that hasn't always been a natural thing for me. It's something I worked at very hard last summer. Using my size to protect the puck and to get to the net is new. But it's exciting to me.

"And what's so great about the pro game is that if you make a mistake you get to play the next day and make up for it. It's not like college where you'd have a week to stew over the mistake and try to make up for it."

There was a smile on Blake's face and a fire in his eyes when you said those last competitive words.

In this faster-paced NHL game, no one is doing laps around this Minnesota kid. But the makeup of Wheeler made him ready for this boys vs. men battle of the fittest, where its not just playing quicker and smarter, but a quicker and smarter mental mindset at the highest level for hockey.

What did fellow teammate Phil Kessel tell Wheeler?

"He basically just said, 'Don't be nervous, play your game,' " Wheeler recalled. "You never play your game when you are nervous and hesitate. So, I just tried to play to have fun and use my instincts."

If Blake Wheeler sounds too good to be true, or wise beyond his years, you're right. It's no accident either. And that's the best part of this story.

Those highly-valued intangibles that Blake displays on the ice for the Bruins each night start with his parents. Jim, his dad, is from Michigan and works as a sales manager for On-Cor Foods. Pat, Blake's mom, is one of those strong stay-at-home moms who grew up knowing that hockey and Minnesota were synonymous.

There are some erroneous reports out that that dad got tired of watching his boy being dragged by mom to his sister's dance classes and recitals and suggested that hockey could help Blake grow. Couldn't be further from the truth.

"I always knew I was going to put Blake in a hockey program, but in Minnesota you can't enroll your son in a organized program until they are five," Blake's proud mom in a phone conversation. "I remember when I told my husband that Blake was going to play hockey, he said, "Are you sure you want to do this?' You see, he's from Michigan and didn't grow up playing hockey."

Pat's words became very loud and clear over the phone, "I remember telling him, 'This is Minnesota ... and we play hockey.' "

Now, you see where all of that competitive spirit Blake has comes from.

"I put both of them in skating classes -- Brooke (who is 1 1/2 years older than Blake) in figure skating and Blake in hockey," Pat Wheeler said proudly. "They grew up skating together and becoming best friends as well as brother and sister.

"I remember Jim, I and Brooke all went to Blake's first game and we were all thrilled at hockey quickly he took to hockey. Jim even said he was fooled a thousand percent after he saw how much Blake enjoyed hockey."

Now, the only dances you see from Blake Wheeler come after he or a linemate scores a great goal for the Winnipeg Jets.

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