On Tuesday evening, the captain of the Winnipeg Jets, Blake Wheeler became the first player to earn 700 career points with the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise.
Wheeler’s milestone point came as the primary assist on a go-ahead goal by linemate Kyle Connor midway through the third period of Winnipeg’s shootout loss to Central Division rival St. Louis Blues.
Currently in his 14th season, and 11th within Canada, the Plymouth MN. product got his start in Boston after being drafted No. 5 overall by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2004. He suited up three years for the Bruins before being dealt to the Thrashers in what just so happened to be their final season in the NHL.
The club packed up and moved north to Winnipeg, and after five years with the team he was named captain, something he has cherished for the past six seasons.
“I love these people here,” Wheeler said of the Winnipeg Jets faithful Tuesday night. “They’ve treated me like gold for 11 years. I try to give everything I have every time we play in front of this building in front of those people so it means a lot to be appreciated.”
The feelings have clearly been reciprocated, as Wheeler has continued to provide the Jets with an offence-first attack. Averaging roughly a point-per-game over his past six seasons, the role of captain has certainly not weighed the 6-foot-5, 225-pound winger down.
Putting up back-to-back 91-point campaigns in 2017-18 and 2018-19, Wheeler has continued to find success on the team’s power play, where his 294 occurrences on-ice for power play goals for ranks second only to Ilya Kovalchuk. And surprise, surprise, Kovalchuk sits second to only Wheeler in franchise history with 615 total points scored.
Currently sitting at 279 goals and 531 assists for 810 points in 988 regular-season games, Wheeler has 229 goals and 471 assists as a member of the Jets. And in 12 games he will be the next member of the team to receive his silver stick in recognition of 1,000 career NHL regular-season games played.
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Now as one of the elder statesmen on the team, Wheeler’s leadership skills extend much further than the game sheet.
“For a big chunk of those games he’s just been, we use that word ‘driver’, but he’s been the tone-setter for our team in all areas of our game,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said of his captain. “It’s not just the play, it’s in the practice habits and the training and the pushing.”
According to his coach, it’s the simple gestures that Wheeler extends to struggling players both on and off the ice that mean the most.
“What you don’t see about Blake, nor could you, but we went through this transition where we brought a lot of young kids in. So he’s a great role model for just work ethic. But the amount of times where one of those kids was struggling and he would be the guy that would just pull him aside… He has an ability to kind of slide down beside a guy and put his arm around him. I’ve heard him say ‘I did the exact same thing when I was in my first year, I did the exact same thing’. So he’s got a grace about him as a leader.”
A stoic leader who has served rather expressively out of passion, Wheeler has served as a father figure to a number of youthful teammates, sometimes 12-15 years younger than himself.
“If you put a camera on him 10 minutes after the game, usually he’s still grinding,” Maurice laughed. “But he does have a grace about him as a leader to be able to reach out. He sent me a text after about the third or fourth game when he was locked away in the hotel or something and just said, “make sure you give No. 27 a tap on the pads, he’s shooting a lot of pucks and tell him to hang in there.” He has that awareness of other people in his room.”
Now 85 points clear of Kovalchuk on the franchise’s all-time scoring leaderboard, Wheeler will look to bounce back following a slow start to the season that has seen just three assists in seven games, to go alongside an extended period on the Jets’ COVID Protocol list as he battled the virus this past October. With three games remaining on the team’s season-high seven-game homestand, the team’s leader will find his next opportunity on Thursday in a battle with the Pacific Division’s San Jose Sharks.