Former Gophers hockey star Blake Wheeler returned to the Xcel Energy Center on Thursday and left with a victory — just like he’s done many times before.
Wheeler had an assist and scored in a shootout as his Winnipeg Jets defeated the Minnesota Wild 4-3.
Seeing Wheeler’s name on the score sheet has been common for Jets fans this season. He has 11 goals and leads his team in assists (35) and points (46).
Playing at the Xcel Energy Center was nothing new for Robbinsdale, Minn., native. It’s a building that holds many fond memories from his past.
“I was telling some of the guys, there’s almost too many [memories] to be honest,” Wheeler said. “I think winning the [Minnesota] State High School hockey tournament, that’s always going to be one of my fondest memories.”
Wheeler won a state championship while at Breck School during the 2003-04 season. He tallied a state-high 44 goals and 56 assists that season and recorded a hat trick in the Class-A championship game at the Xcel Energy Center, which the Mustangs won 7-2.
His three-year Gophers career is most remembered for the diving goal he scored to beat North Dakota in the WCHA Final Five championship game in 2007.
“That goal against North Dakota — that’s always going to bring back great memories when I come back to this building as well,” Wheeler said.
A cut above the rest
Wheeler said he struggles to explain to his teammates — especially the Canadian ones — how big of a deal the state tournament is in Minnesota.
“I went with my dad since I was able to walk to watch this tournament,” Wheeler said. “For me that was my first goal in life as a hockey player: to play in this tournament. To win it … is always going to be one of my most special memories as a hockey player.”
But Wheeler also had greater goals.
“You could tell he had goals and dreams of playing hockey at the next level,” then-Breck head coach Wally Chapman said.
Chapman said he wasn’t surprised that Wheeler made it to the NHL given his unique mentality on the ice.
“Some kids will start out a game, and they might not have a very good first period or first couple shifts, and you can kind of see how that kid is going to play the rest of the game,” Chapman said. “Blake always had the ability that if he had a bad first period he could somehow change that mid-stream and end up dominating the game.”
Wheeler played many sports during his youth, including football, baseball, hockey and golf. But once he was drafted into the NHL right out of his junior year of high school in 2004, the choice was essentially made for him.
“[Being drafted] kind of made it clear that hockey was going to be my sport,” Wheeler said. “So they made it easy on me.”
After his championship season at Breck, Wheeler decided to forego his senior season and play for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League.
“It was probably one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make,” Wheeler said. “I think hockey-wise it was good for my career, but I think just personally it was a good move to kind of grow up a little bit.”
Wheeler had 19 goals and 28 assists during his one season with the Gamblers before choosing to attend the University of Minnesota in 2005.
Wheeler said there were a lot of schools in the mix, but his choice eventually came down to Minnesota and Boston College. He chose Minnesota because of its coaching staff and the prestige of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Wheeler said he traveled to Boston for the Beanpot, a yearly tournament between Boston University, Boston College, Harvard and Northeastern.
“That was a huge tournament, and it was a lot of fun,” Wheeler said. “I remember coach [Don] Lucia saying the Beanpot’s a big thing, but that’s every night in the WCHA. That kind of hit home for me. You want to play in the best league, and I think the WCHA’s the best league in college hockey.”
Lucia was no stranger to Wheeler when he was recruiting him. Wheeler and Lucia’s oldest son Tony played on the same bantam team. Lucia said Wheeler was someone the coaching staff felt could become an “elite player.”
“What I liked about Blake more than anything else is just his attitude,” Lucia said. “Blake was a great team player, he was a great teammate, he wanted to get better each and every day [and] he worked hard to become a better player.”
Like Chapman, Lucia said he wasn’t surprised that Wheeler has become an NHL mainstay.
“I think we knew that a guy that’s that big — 6’4”, 6’5” and 215 [pounds] — that can skate the way he can would find a role with an NHL team,” Lucia said.
During his three seasons at Minnesota, Wheeler tallied 42 goals and 54 assists.
Wheeler was drafted fifth overall by the Phoenix Coyotes in June 2004, but it wasn’t until 2008 that he signed his first contract — an entry-level deal with the Boston Bruins.
He made the team during his first season and wasted no time stuffing the stat sheet — a feat he credits to the Gophers’ coaching staff.
“They helped me become more of a complete hockey player,” Wheeler said. “I was able to go right from college and play in the NHL so that speaks to how good of a coaching staff we have in Minnesota.”
In his first season with Boston, Wheeler scored 21 goals and had 24 assists. He was named to the 2009 NHL Young Stars Game to represent the rookies and was awarded game MVP honors after a four-goal performance.
Wheeler played two and a half seasons with the Bruins and put up 50 goals and 60 assists. Near the trade deadline last season, Boston traded him to the Atlanta Thrashers.
His former team went on to win the Stanley Cup.
“It was bittersweet. You know you’re happy for the guys, I’d been through the battles with them,” Wheeler said. “It was tough to watch them carry the cup around. You feel like you wish you could be out there with them. But at the same time, I think it was kind of a win-win situation when you look back on it.”
‘A hockey culture’
The Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg over the offseason and were renamed the Jets. Wheeler signed a two-year, $5.1 million contract with the Jets.
Wheeler is currently the first-line right-winger for Winnipeg and has impressed Jets head coach Claude Noel in the short time he’s been there.
“He’s getting an opportunity to play here in Winnipeg, more so than possibly in Boston,” Noel said, “and now he’s taken his game to another level for us.”
Noel said he has noticed Wheeler playing with more emotion, and it has shown in his production. He also said Wheeler is evolving into more of a leader.
“That’s what happens when your game starts to go — you end up creating a lot more, you end up being a bigger part of what’s actually happening in the room,” Noel said. “So I think for him, his leadership follows his game.”
Wheeler said he enjoys playing in Winnipeg — a city that gives the team far more fan support than Atlanta did.
On Thursday in St. Paul, 4,000 to 5,000 Jets fans were in attendance to watch their team take on the Wild.
“Winnipeg’s a hockey culture,” Wheeler said. “People love hockey up there — they live and breathe it. Every game’s kind of put on a pedestal there, especially this year. It makes it fun to play in front of fans that care about what’s going on on the ice.”
The change in location, as well as the addition of Wheeler, has helped turn the franchise from an Eastern Conference bottom-feeder into a playoff contender.
Winnipeg holds the 10th-best record in the East and sits just one game out of first place in the Southeast Division. If the Jets finish first in their division, the franchise would earn home ice in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.
While they were the Thrashers, the franchise made the playoffs just once in 11 years.
Leading a playoff push
Despite his size, Wheeler has made a career of being a playmaker rather than an enforcer — and he showed it Thursday.
Late in the first period, Wheeler skated around Wild defenseman Nick Schultz and the back of the net before finding teammate Evander Kane for a wide-open backdoor goal to tie the game at 1-1.
“It was a heck of a play by him,” Kane said. “He showed a lot of speed taking on two or three guys.”
Two days later, he had a goal and two assists as Winnipeg upset Boston 4-2.
He added four assists in a 5-1 win Sunday against Colorado, and on Monday, he was named one of three stars of the week by NHL.com.
Winnipeg will put its winning streak on the line Tuesday when it hosts the Philadelphia Flyers.
“We pretty much control our own destiny,” Wheeler said Thursday. “We have just about the right amount of games left to make a good push.”
If the Jets make the playoffs, they could look back to Thursday’s win as the spark for that push — just as Wheeler has used games at the Xcel Energy Center to spark his career.
“There have been a lot of good memories here,” Wheeler said. “I’ve been lucky to play in a lot of important games here and to have success here as well, so whenever I come back here and whenever I drive past this building, I always take a trip down memory lane.”
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