There was a time that Blake Wheeler didn’t “think about what life may be like, even with the prospect of a lucrative professional career on the horizon.”
He was more concerned about remaining anonymous — or as anonymous as a 6-foot-5, top hockey prospect could possibly hope to be.
Wheeler was finishing off his freshman season at the University of Minnesota, not long after being selected by the Phoenix Coyotes as the fifth overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft to Phoenix. But before he knew it, life took him down a different path.
Instead of launching his NHL career in the desert, Wheeler ended up in Boston, where he learned that the difference between being a prospect and a suspect is measured on a nightly basis.
After scoring a goal in his first NHL game, Wheeler earned his way into the hearts of the Beantown faithful. Still, it wasn’t enough to keep him from being the cornerstone of a four-player swap that sent him to Atlanta, along with American teammate Mark Stuart. It wouldn’t be long before the pair would watch their former teammates hold aloft the Stanley Cup.
It might seem like an odd career trajectory, more like a top prospect than a flash in the pan, but Wheeler credits those hard lessons with making him the player and person he is now.
“I think everyone has their own path and everyone has their own development curve. Some people are just late bloomers,” Wheeler says of his two-plus seasons with the Bruins.
“I think the biggest challenge for me was maybe more the mental side of the game than the physical side. I had games that were really good games in Boston and Atlanta, and I knew that I could have that impact on games. Doing it consistently was the biggest thing.
“Would I have liked to go right from college to the NHL and play 18-20 minutes right from the bat? Obviously, yeah. But I wasn’t ready for that.”
Although he developed skills in Boston — learning firsthand from some of the best in the business — it was in Atlanta where he really came into his own.
“I learned more about myself than anything,” he says. “I learned that I could be an impact player and take on a lot more of a workload and grow into a role where I thought I could make an impact on a game every night, and learn how to be consistent in that role by preparing for that role — preparing to be an impact player, a guy who plays a lot of minutes and makes some plays.”
When it was announced that the Thrashers would be moving to Winnipeg in June of 2011, they were greeted with the sort of fanfare typically reserved for the likes of royalty — arms bearing the new insignias of the team were held wide open. They were loved unconditionally.
“I think a lot of people were in the honeymoon stage. They didn’t really care about the results, they were just happy to have a team back,” says Wheeler.
“I think we kind of learned pretty quick after about the first 10 to 15 games that maybe that wasn’t going to be the case, that they wanted to see us be competitive and win some games. We finally had the long homestretch in December and kind of got our game together.”
While there were some bumps early on, as he readily admits, both the Jets and Wheeler have since come into their own. The Robbinsdale, Minn., native has already exceeded his career-best 45 points that he notched during his rookie season, due in large part to his torrid month of February when he tallied 18 points to propel the Jets into the thick of the playoff chase.
Ultimately, however, what made the difference has been his effort, night in and night out. As his fifth season in the NHL winds down, Wheeler has learned that consistency is the key ingredient to a long and prosperous NHL career.
“It’s easy to play well once a week. It’s hard to play well and have good games three times a week,” he says.
“You need to find that consistency level, and that’s not just in hockey, it’s in life.”
Photos courtesy of Getty Images
Annie Bitner is a rink rat. How that’s possible, however, is anyone’s guess. Her current schedule — band, honors band, basketball, track practice, track meets, schoolwork and hockey — sounds hectic to the point that it might spook a day trader.
What’s more, the young renaissance girl’s story becomes all the more impressive when you consider the composition of her league. Aside from one other girl player, the league — not just the team, the league — is all male.
To hear her mother describe her daughter makes you realize that this all follows very much in line with her personality: “She’s very competitive, very active, and whatever challenges come her way, she just takes ‘em head on,” says her mother Nicole. “Anything that’s outside of the norm, that’s her.”