Sunday, January 17, 2016

Blake Wheeler making a name for himself

By Larry Wigge

Blake Wheeler has been described as one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Maybe. But, easily, he is one of the most intense hockey players.

At 29, the 6-5, 225-pounder has become a voice inside the Winnipeg Jets locker room.

On January 13, Wheeler called out everybody to look into the mirror.

"I was honest," Wheeler repeated ... again with enthusiasm. "It wasn't premeditated to kick anyone in the rear. I think we needed to be honest with ourselves.

"There was some pushback there. That's exciting. More than anything we just had a great feeling in our room, great feeling on our bench and when it was 4-2, 4-3, 4-4 we still had a good feeling and that was a good sign for us."

Bryan Little sent the puck to Wheeler, who has just come off the bench. Blake worked his way to the right side off the ice and fired a 40-footer into the net to beat Pekka Rinne 51 seconds into overtime for an exciting 5-4 triumph.

"His intensity level, shift to shift, is as high as anybody I've ever coached," coach Paul Maurice said. "His attack, his power, his speed. There are very few men that size, that move that fast. His speed is intimidating. He'll finish checks, he plays hard on every puck. His consistency level combined with his intensity makes him a special player."

"He's a guy that backs up his words," Andrew Ladd said. "We've come to expect that from him day in and day out."

But he wasn't done, yet.

One night later, Wheeler finished a 2-on-1 break with Ladd of the first period by beating Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk with a wrist shot for a 1-0 victory.

Two game-winning goals in 24 hours by Wheeler and four for the season. The second goal at home in Minnesota may have been the topper.

Wheeler, a former first-round draft choice by Phoenix in 2004 NHL Entry Draft, is in his fifth season with the Jets -- and he has grown to become a leader.

"I'm five years older than when I came here," Wheeler commented about the Jets. "I think I know what we're all about as a group and I think I've figured out what works for me, both on the ice and off the ice.

"I've really found a balance of how to prepare myself and have that 60 minutes with a foot on the gas the entire time."

He has scored 28 and 26 goals the last two season -- and, with 13 this season, is right at the level for the season.

Wheeler has that power forward body -- crashing and smashing opponents like Cam Neely did for all of those years when he was with the Bruins.

But his days with Phoenix and Boston are behind him.

But that's what gets us back home in Minnesota -- Robbinsdale, to be precise.

Little said, "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."

"My dad would attest to this and it drove him crazy because I was never the most physical football player or physical hockey player," Wheeler recalled of comments by his dad Jim. "I liked to score touchdowns and I liked to score goals and stuff like that. But he was more of a physical guy growing up, so he couldn't understand why his son wasn’t sticking his nose in there all the time.

"I started being more physical, finishing checks and doing some of the little things that I wasn't doing, because I was focused on scoring goals and whatever. That's an area that got considerably better. I think I doubled my hit total from the year before and I'd like to increase that more this year. I've realized that if I want my game to continue to rise, I need to keep doing stuff like that. It makes you more of a complete player."

Now you get the idea why high draft pick don't work out.

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.

One scenario that never worked for Wheeler ... but still bugs him.

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."

Thinking back on all of that is amazing. Something Blake Wheeler will spend long hours telling his children and grandchildren.

Today he is becoming one of the most underrated players and intense competitors in the NHL.

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