The Jets’ jumbo power forward has emerged over the past few seasons as one of the league’s most lethal left wingers.
It’s August 2016 and Winnipeg Jets fans, with numbers creeping into the thousands, have flooded the city’s famed Portage and Main intersection. The Heritage Classic jersey unveiling is on the docket and Blake Wheeler, fresh off a career-best season, is on hand to showcase the new duds.
When Wheeler hits the stage, he’s met with thunderous cheers, but it’s the chant that breaks out, a cry of “Captain Wheeler” taken up by the Jets faithful, that’s most telling about Winnipeg’s appreciation of No. 26. It wasn’t until weeks later that Wheeler would officially be crowned captain, but the message sent by Jets fans was clear: he was their choice, the right choice, for the job.
“Since we came to Winnipeg, I’ve felt a good connection with our fans here,” Wheeler said, his continuation making the reason clear. “My mindset going into every game is to give them everything I have every single night, both to our team and the fans, because I think they deserve that.”
For those who have paid attention — and it seems more are taking notice with each successive season — Wheeler’s commitment is evident. His game has reached another level over the past four seasons and he has the numbers to match. Since 2013-14, Wheeler’s 110 goals and 297 points in 337 games — including four goals and 15 points in 12 games sthis season — make him the league’s fourth-highest scoring winger, ahead of the likes of Phil Kessel, Vladimir Tarasenko and Corey Perry. So, what changed to allow Wheeler to evolve into one of the game’s top wingers? “I’ve finally grown into my body as a 30-year-old, which is kind of crazy, but I think it’s the truth,” Wheeler quipped, noting that earlier in his career he looked “a little like a baby deer.”
Growing into his 6-foot-5 frame has allowed Wheeler to transform into a premier power forward, and his size, reach and strength are all surprising facets of his game to the uninitiated. But what takes aback those who watch him, or really pay attention to him for the first time, isn’t Wheeler’s size. It’s the way he moves for a player of his stature. “My game has always been predicated on speed and the ability to skate,” Wheeler said. “Couple that with being a bigger body, it gives me advantages in some areas. It allows me to get into a lot of scoring areas. From there, it’s just a matter of getting comfortable making those plays, seeing the play when it comes up and knowing when it’s the right time to make the play.”
Wheeler credits his breakout to more than on-ice attributes, however. He’s grown as a person, matured, while in Winnipeg. And beyond taking on more responsibility in the community, including work with the True North Foundation and the Children’s Hospital, Wheeler has been provided additional fuel for his flourishing career from his growing family. Now a father of three, Wheeler’s emergence came around the time his first son, Louie, was born. “You start having to take care of the livelihood of your kids and it kind of kicks you in the butt a little bit,” Wheeler said. “It sharpens your focus.”
And with Winnipeg considered one of the brightest young squads, Wheeler’s focus has turned squarely to the post-season. His desire to win is palpable and he understands that the Jets’ window, with their fresh-faced stars on entry level deals and prime-aged talents coming to the conclusion of their second contracts, is as open as it has ever been. In two seasons, when Wheeler’s contract is up, the constraints of the salary cap will surely necessitate changes to a deep and talented roster, putting pressure on the Jets to turn their present-day potential into prosperity.
“I’m all-in on this year,” Wheeler said. “I think our group needs to be all in on this year. We need to find a way for us to build an identity that we don’t just go two or three games doing well and winning games. We need to sustain it over the course of an 82-game season so that come April and May, we’re a team to be reckoned with.”