Blake Wheeler drew praise from coach Paul Maurice Wednesday as the winger was named the new captain of the Winnipeg Jets.
Blake Wheeler celebrated his 30th birthday in unique fashion Wednesday, receiving a gift only the Winnipeg Jets could give him: the team’s captaincy.
Wheeler was officially introduced as the second captain in Jets history Wednesday after much speculation that he would be the successor to Andrew Ladd, Winnipeg's former captain who departed at the trade deadline this past season and has since signed a long-term deal with the New York Islanders.
Jets fans likely won’t be shocked by Wheeler’s appointment as the team’s captain, and he was the favorite to take over, despite others such as Dustin Byfuglien or Bryan Little having good cases to don the ‘C’. During the Heritage Classic roster and jersey announcement in early August, fans assembled in downtown Winnipeg chanted “Captain Wheeler” when the 30-year-old stepped on stage, so this was a result the fans saw coming.
“Since coming to Winnipeg, I’ve been able to develop in a lot of different ways,” Wheeler said Wednesday. “My kids were born while we’ve been here. I’ve developed as a person, as a father and as a hockey player, as well. To take this next step in that evolution, I can’t really explain what it means to me and my wife to have this honor. We look forward to leading on the ice and in the community, and trying to be an example and role model, not only for my teammates, but for the kids and everyone in this community.”
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) August 31, 2016
Though he was introduced as the second captain in Jets history, Wheeler is actually the ninth player to wear the ‘C’ in the history of the franchise, which dates back to its days as the Atlanta Thrashers. Traded to the Thrashers in February 2011, Wheeler has been a staple of the organization through its transition to Winnipeg, and he signed a six-year, $33.6-million contract to remain with the club just three short years ago.
And while his time spent with the organization that predates the move to Winnipeg may seem insignificant to some, it’s there where Wheeler began to really grow as a player and started to become the high-scoring, speedy winger he is today. Wheeler’s growth, especially over the past few seasons, has made a serious impression on coach Paul Maurice.
“I’ve been very fortunate to coach a lot of players who have worked hard, a lot of players who have worked hard, who you could say, ‘He’s a good example of a leader,’ ” Maurice said. “I’m not sure I’ve ever coached a man that while standing on the ice or standing behind the bench, if I thought a player was looking for direction, that I could so easily say, ‘Just watch him.’ ”
Wheeler’s climb to the captaincy — and to being one of the better power forwards in the league — has been gradual. In fact, he may have flown somewhat under the radar this past season despite the fact he finished sixth in the league in scoring with 26 goals and 78 points. The breakout campaign this past season has been years in the making, though, and he has consistently been a 25-plus-goal scorer since coming to Winnipeg.
It’s not just his scoring that has ingratiated him to Jets fans and the organization, however. Wheeler has been outspoken about his disappointment during tough stretches for the team and he’s shown a willingness to play any way he has to in order to help the club win. Jets coach Paul Maurice said Wheeler’s ability is something that few players possess.
“I’ve had captains of teams in the league that are now general managers, coaches, in the Hall of Fame. But the best of them, I learn from,” Maurice said. “They don’t just lead the players, they teach. And they lead the coach and teach. I’ve never had a player that has developed the ability to drive himself on a daily basis as hard as Blake does. It’s unique.”
Joining Wheeler as part of the leadership group will be Byfuglien and Mark Scheifele, both set to wear an ‘A’ this coming season. Maurice cited Byfuglien’s big personality and love for the game as two major factors in his appointment as an alternate, while Scheifele was praised for his ability to learn, teach and lead players both young and old.
“It’s not just going to be us three,” Wheeler said. “We have an absolutely great group of men in our room, and we have since Day One. This is going to a joint obligation for everyone. Everyone is going to share in this responsibility, and I’m happy to be the leader of that group.”
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