By Scott Taylor
Photos by James Carey Lauder
Calling Blake Wheeler a “tremendous family man and a true professional,” Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff announced on Wednesday that Wheeler was now the new captain of the Jets.
Certainly no one was surprised by the announcement. Nor was anyone surprised that Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Scheifele were named the team’s assistant captains.
“Today, on his 30th birthday, it’s my great privilege to congratulate Blake on becoming the captain of the Winnipeg Jets,” said Cheveldayoff. “Over the past five years I’ve had the pleasure of watching and getting to know Blake off the ice. It’s there that you can begin to appreciate what a tremendous family man and a true professional that he is. This is a proud moment for both the Winnipeg Jets and True North Sports & Entertainment.
Wheeler, 30, has been with the organization for the past seven seasons. The last three years, he was the assistant captain to Andrew Ladd.
He is one of the top forwards in the National Hockey League. Last year, he finished tied for sixth in scoring with 26 goals and 78 points. He is clearly one of the best players in the National Hockey League.
Born in Plymouth, Minn., he’s been in the NHL for nine seasons, playing for the Jets, Thrashers and Boston Bruins. During his career, he has 173 goals and 440 points in 615 career NHL games. He is fourth all-time in franchise scoring with 330 points (including 123 goals) in 394 games. He signed a six-year contract extension with the Jets in 2013.
He was originally selected by the Phoenix Coyotes (fifth overall) in the first round of the 2004 NHL entry draft out of Breck High School in Golden Valley. He also attended the University of Minnesota helping the Golden Gophers to a WCHA title in 2007, scoring the game winning goal in overtime.
“It is truly an important day in our franchise’s history and for the fans of the Winnipeg Jets,” said head coach Paul Maurice. “We started this process back back in March of last year, not only identifying the men who were capable of handling the captaincy in a market like Winnipeg, but also the things we would ask of that person. Blake has already done so much for this community.
“There is something just as important from the coaches’ point of view, from the on-ice point of view. Something that is paramount. Leading by example is not a strong enough statement. It’s not a strong enough to understand what Blake has developed into, how he’s pushed himself to develop into the type of player he is today.
“I have been fortunate to coach a lot of players who have worked hard and who have competed hard, so that people can say. ‘He’s a leader.’ I don’t ever think I’ve coached a man standing on the ice or standing behind the bench, if I thought a young player was looking for direction, that I could so easily say, ‘Just watch him.’”
Internationally, Wheeler will represent the United States at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey two weeks. He also played for the U.S. at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. He has also played in a World Championship and World Junior Championship.
“My wife Sam, son Louie and daughter Lenny, I know they’re watching so I wish you guys could be here,” said Wheeler, whose son was a little under the weather. “For me, this is a huge honor. I’ve had a really distinct privilege playing for two captains in my career. I’ve played alongside Andrew Ladd in Winnipeg for the last five years and with Zdeno Chara in Boston. To see what it’s like to be the leader of the time, especially in a market like Winnipeg, is a special honor. I look forward to carrying the torch for him. I’ve had two really good captains to look up to in my NHL career.
“I’m really looking forward to being the leader of this team.”
Blake, along with his family, have been very charitable to community endeavors in Manitoba. He commits his time to organizations such as: The Children’s Hospital of Manitoba, Special Olympics Manitoba, the Winnipeg Pet Rescue Shelter, the Future Goals program and visiting local schools.
Meanwhile, the other Minnesotan who will wear a letter on his Jets jersey this season is Dustin Byfuglien, thought by many to be one of the most exciting players in the NHL.
Entering his seventh season with the franchise this gifted 30-year-old will actually be an assistant captain for the second time. Byfuglien was an assistant from 2010-14 for the organization, before he fell out of favor with former coach Claude Noel.
Byfuglien hails from Roseau, Minn., and is sixth all-time in franchise scoring with 97 goals and 288 points in 418 games with the Thrashers and Jets. He is a Stanley Cup Champion, a four-time NHL All-Star and he signed a five-year extension with Winnipeg last February. Byfuglien will suit up alongside Blake Wheeler for the United States at the upcoming World Cup of Hockey.
Scheifele, 23, enters his fourth full season with Winnipeg after the Jets made him the team’s first draft pick after the Thrashers relocated to Manitoba. Scheifele had a breakout year in 2015-16, finishing the season with 29 goals and 61 points in 71 games. He recently signed an eight-year contract extension with the Jets and will play for Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey taking place in Toronto.
“We’re proud of these young men and very happy for them,” said Cheveldayoff. “They have earned the respect of their teammates and the entire organization and have become the leaders on this hockey team.”