The National Hockey League might currently be on pause, but Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler has still been able to fulfill his media obligations. With regularly scheduled programming put on the back-burner, Hockey Night in Canada has relaunched its ‘After Hours’ segment on a virtual platform. Wheeler was the first guest in the relaunch with hosts Scott Oake and Louie DeBrusk this past weekend.
The 33-year-old, nine-year Jet spoke on a variety of subjects including his new stay-at-home lifestyle, full-time parenting/teaching, his growth and development as both a hockey player and a person, as well as touching on his amateur sporting career and this past season of NHL play.
Amongst the interesting points, Wheeler spoke of being drafted fifth overall by the then Phoenix Coyotes, the implications that that selection had on him, as well as the career year he had in high school, doubling as a state champion in both hockey and football.
As a Grade 11 student at Breck Prep School in Minnesota, Wheeler scored 39 goals for the Mustangs, helping lead the team to the 2004 Class A State Championship, where he put up a hat trick in the final. Wheeler was the very best high school hockey player in Minnesota that season. The year before, he wasn’t even amongst the top-50. A year later he was selected fifth overall in the NHL Entry Draft.
“I didn’t even know what the NHL draft was,” Wheeler said candidly to Scott Oake during ‘After Hours’. . “I didn’t even know that I could be drafted. I wanted to play college hockey. If I could get a scholarship offer, you know, by the next year, I was so happy. Things just kind of snowballed that year.”
“It’s the ultimate, ‘you’re never as good as people say you are, and you’re never as bad as people say you are’, you know?”, Wheeler reflected. “It was such a good lesson early on, even after getting picked fifth overall, I knew at that point in my life that I wasn’t the fifth-best player in the draft. It was a great lesson in perspective at an early age.”
Wheeler noted that he grew from being a slim 150-pound six-foot tall forward, to a solid 195-pound 6-foot-5 offensive driver between his freshman and junior years. He recalled being a ‘deer in the headlights’ where he had a tough time staying on his feet in the early stages, before fully growing accustomed to his larger frame later in his high school career.
Earlier in his Grade 11 year, Wheeler helped Breck to the State Football Championship, collecting 11 passes in the championship game against Kingsland at the Metrodome. Although never losing his love for the game of football, the now NHL veteran knew that hockey was going to be his No. 1.
“I loved football and had some success with it, but hockey was always my passion,” Wheeler said. “Even if I was better at football, I was always more passionate about hockey my whole life. We had a good team that year. A few of the guys I played with went on to play some big time Division I college football, so I was a piece of a really good team. Could I have played college football? There’s a chance, but like I said, once that season happened for me in hockey and you get picked as high as I get picked, the football career is over.”
Oake – a fellow Winnipeg resident – also made sure to check in with Wheeler on his personal health and well-being, as well as asking the nine-year Winnipegger for his thoughts on those continuing work as front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They are heroes, really,” Wheeler said. “Especially in Winnipeg, such a small community, such a passionate hockey community. And I think a lot of those people are Jets fans and come to our games and cheer us on. Now the roles are completely reversed. If we could we’d cheer them on every day, all day if we could. Sam and I have close friends who are on the front-lines, doing those types of jobs and doing those types of things. It’s difficult, it’s really challenging. They’re risking a lot to keep us safe. You really can’t say enough about the job they are doing to protect every one.”
With hockey and/or any other professional sport not slated to make its return any time soon, Wheeler and the 800K other residents of Winnipeg can take solace in cheering on the front-line workers who day-after-day risk their livelihood for the sake of others.
Stick taps all around.