Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler sat down with TSN’s Darren Dreger for the third virtual instalment of The Dreger Cafe in an online interview that aired Wednesday evening. The two spoke back and forth at length on many subjects, including the league’s latest potential ‘return to play’ scenario, life as a full-time dad, the current situation of the Jets, and thoughts on leaving his wife and family for an extended period of time to live in a hub city during the postseason.
As one would imagine, the conversation was directed in such a way for Wheeler to express his thoughts on the 24-team, two-conference, play-in postseason, where the top-four teams in each conference would get a bye from the play-in, while the eight remaining teams in each conference would duke it out in a bracketed best-of-three or five to determine the actual four-round, seven-game, postseason placements.
“With the parity in our league, there’s so many teams in the mix right now, which is obviously a great problem to have,” Wheeler said to Dreger. “I think what you need to be really conscientious of in this situation is that there are some teams that have had incredible regular seasons and you don’t want to handicap them as well. I think the hard thing would be to have the bubble teams play a play-in and all of a sudden now Boston or St. Louis or Colorado – who have been at the top of the standings all year – now they’re sitting there cold and have to play a team that’s already played a three-to five game series and they’re coming in hot.”
This issue was addressed in a report released late-Wednesday, indicating that the top-four teams in each conference would play a miniature three-game tournament, during the time of the play-in series’ happening between the other 16 potentially playoff teams. Wheeler, 33, who has 931 career regular season games under his belt, doesn’t really care how it plays out, but as long as his team is there in there end, that’s what he says matters.
“You play enough in this league, you just want a chance, and that’s just really all there is,” he stated. “If you miss the playoffs, you have no shot. As long as you’re still fighting at the end of the regular season, you’ve got a chance, you have a fighting chance. And it’s all about building that belief and you’ve got to earn that step-by-step throughout the playoffs. If you get a hot goaltender – and our goalie was playing well as anyone – you never know what can happen. Like I said, I think we are excited about some of the potential things that can happen. As long as we’re in that 24-team mix – I don’t have my calculator out right now but I think we’re in there – you never know. So it’ll be fun.”
Wheeler’s linemate and fellow Jets leadership team member, Mark Scheifele, is on the NHLPA’s Return to Play Committee (serving alongside Connor McDavid, John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk and Ronald Hainsey), and has been actively involved in conversation over the past days and weeks regarding potential options for hockey in the near future. That conversation, says Wheeler, has been nearly top-secret.
“I give him a hard time because you know I’ll be like ‘Scheif, I’m getting all my information from Pierre LeBrun and Darren Dreger. What is going on man? Keep me up to date here,’” Wheeler laughed. “So, he’s doing a great job. I think the hardest thing and the thing that he’s been in constant communication with us about is just trying to come up with a scenario that is reasonable for everyone. I tell you what, they’re exhausting every angle to try and make it right and make it as fair as possible and try to keep the integrity of our playoff system intact.”
When Wheeler, Scheifele and Co. do return to the ice, things will look very different. Wheeler touched on a few of those potentially noticeable changes.
“The weirdest part is going to be when you score and goal, and then what do you do?” Wheeler said. “There’s not going to be any hugging or high-fiving. There’s going to be some logistical things that are going to be different. It’s unprecedented what everybody is going through. We’re talking about little ticky-tacky things in the grand scheme. Like if we’re able to come back and play a game and entertain people, we’ll deal with the no fans, we’ll deal with not being able to shower at the rink or whatever we come up with. Those are just small in the grand scheme of things; those things will work themselves out.”
“I think we are in a pretty lucky position here as pro athletes, we are just sitting here waiting this out, and there are people who are going through a lot worse than us,” he added. “If we can somehow take away some of that burden for people and give them something to look forward to, where it’s like, ‘okay, 7:00 tonight I get to watch my team play a game’, then I guess that is a sacrifice that we are willing to make, some of the time that we are going to have with our families to try to hopefully give people a little light at the end of the tunnel.”
Family is certainly something that Wheeler has had the full experience of over the past 10 weeks. Staying home with his wife Samantha and three children, the usually pre-occupied father has taken on some new duties the past couple of months.
“We’re definitely busy,” he laughed. “It’s just a matter of juggling our oldest son, Loui, who’s in first grade, he’s got a lot of schoolwork to stay on top of. So, keeping him engaged while also our daughter is four and our youngest is turning three here pretty quick. It’s funny when you’re playing, you wish for situations like this. You lay in bed on the road and you’re like ‘what I would do to just have a week off and hang out with my family.’ Well, we’re almost 10 weeks in. Be careful what you wish for. There’s hiccups here and there, but I think Sam and I are making the best of it and it’s been great to spend a lot of quality time with them.”
Wheeler, like many of the athletes making up the National Hockey League, lives with his wife and children when in his home city. While on the road, he spends time texting and Facetiming those same family members. In many of the drawn up return to play scenarios, players of participating teams are congregated together in an isolated hotel in a hub city, where they live for the duration of the 2019-20 postseason until their team has been eliminated from contention. This idea does not go over well with the Jets’ captain, but he does know that sacrifices may have to be made.
“That’s hard, especially after the last nine or 10 weeks seeing what my wife goes through when I’m on the road, and what all the parents go through when their partner is away,” Wheeler reflected. “It’s really tough and it’s challenging… but if we can make sure that the players are safe and we are doing this really responsibly, and we’re not taking away from people that really need to be tested, all those things that are way more important than our sport.”
“I think even just seeing some of the other sports come back a little bit, seeing the golf match last weekend at Seminole down here, I think having something to look forward to does a ton for people, people need something like that right now. It’s definitely going to be weird. Now that this has gone on for as long as it has, I think that everyone has come to terms with it. The German soccer league is already playing without fans, it’s weird watching these guys play and there’s nobody there – no environment. But It is what it is; you’ve just gotta suck it up and make the best of it, and know that there’s going to be tons of people watching.”
After having the season put on hiatus back in early-March, even the most casual hockey fan will be champing at the bit to see live action. And much like those eager Jets fans, Wheeler is excited to see what his now-healthy, full-team roster is capable of down the stretch.
“Finally we were healthy, we were playing well, we had made a couple trades at the deadline that really helped out our team,” he said. “I think we were feeling really good about our opportunity and our chances to make the playoffs, and then obviously this comes up. So for us it’s going to be the same thing: if and when we are able to come back, nothing is going to change, let’s hit the ice and leave it all out there and work, because we have a lot of great guys on that team and in that room. And hopefully we get the chance to finish it off and see how far we can go, because you never know at this time, especially with everything that has gone on. I mean, everything is up to chance now; if you can get on a little bit of a run, who knows.”