From: Twin Cities
From the Athletic:
For those of you who have watched Blake since his days at Breck and the Gophers like I have......
Blake Wheeler’s 1,000th game puts the spotlight on the people who make him what he is
Sam and Blake Wheeler met at the skating rink as children — Sam the figure skater, Blake the supportive little brother to his big sister Brooke.
They did not know then what we know now — that Sam would become the central figure in Blake’s life — but the world can be small when love is involved. Sam and Blake’s love story, accepted innocently through the eyes of kids, starts young.
It becomes romantic in high school, flourishes in college and continues through 1,000 games and counting of NHL success.
On the night that Blake plays his 1,000th regular season game, Sam and their three children — Louie, Leni and Mase — stand with him on the (blue) carpet. As their names are announced, the arena’s video board shows Blake give in to the emotion of the evening; his face transforms from a failed attempt at stoicism to an expression of love. His eyes read somewhere between those of a husband seeing his wife on their wedding day and a father, proud to be feted with his children under his wing. He hugs Louie, Mase and Leni, before kissing Sam and posing for the inevitable photographs. It is an intimate moment, spotlit for 15,000 fans.
Cameras flash and then give the Wheelers a reprieve. A video tribute will be shown on the big screen in just a few seconds but, for one moment, no one knows where to look.
I remember what Blake said about Sam in the lead-up to this moment.
“Obviously, my parents were a big part of my youth hockey and growing up and the way up,” Blake had said. “But to share it will Sam and our three kids … Sam, she’s the only one that sees the day in and day out, the highs, the lows. She’s been there for me through it all. Having her there, that one means the most to me. Nobody knows what 1,000 good days and bad days or in between has looked like more than her. She’s the one I’m looking forward to sharing that with.”
To talk to anyone close to Blake — his parents Pat and Jim, his sister Brooke, his college roommate Ryan Stoa, his current and former teammates like Paul Stastny and Andrew Ladd — is to be told the Sam is at the core of him. She is the one who remembers the birthdays, who demonstrates consistent thoughtfulness, who does the heavy lifting in the parenting of their three kids.
Blake goes so far because Sam helps him get there.
“Sam’s been right there with him for the whole ride,” says Blake’s dad, Jim.
“We’re in awe of the accomplishment,” says Blake’s mom, Pat. “But the other thing about it is the partnership of Blake and Sam, because Sam’s been with him the entire journey — before the journey started. We’re in awe of the partnership.”
Blake’s sister Brooke, who skated with Sam way back when they were in elementary school, adds a loving joke.
“If only you knew then,” she likes to tease him, “That back when you were a kid, watching your sister figure skate, that your future wife was there.”
Blake’s on-ice accomplishments have put so many spotlights on him over the course of his life.
Before he had played 1,000 NHL games, he was a hockey star for Breck High School and one of the most renowned youth players in Minnesota. Sam went to Breck High School, too — it’s where they reconnected and became high-school sweethearts. When Blake scored one of the most famous goals in college hockey history, Sam was at the University of Minnesota too — it’s where she earned her International Relations degree with minors in Mandarin and Marketing.
The years go on and Blake’s accomplishments reach greater heights.
He inherits the Jets captaincy. He becomes one of the most dominant five-on-five players of his generation, scoring the fourth-most even strength points in the NHL from his Winnipeg debut in 2011-12 through the end of 2016-17. In 2017-18 and 2018-19, Wheeler puts together back-to-back 91-point seasons, finally earning the leaguewide acclaim commensurate with his even strength excellence.
Meanwhile, Sam develops her fluency in Mandarin. She becomes a board member of the True North Youth Foundation. She works with multiple Winnipeg charities, including the “Ride Inside” fundraiser for Cancer Care Manitoba she participates in with Blake. She continues to do the heavy lifting with Louie, Leni and Mase.
Ladd puts Sam’s importance this way.
“My wife (Brandy) and Sam were close, especially when we were in Winnipeg. From the outside, people tend to miss how hard that life can be on a wife and three kids. I’m sure the last year, with all the COVID stuff and time spent in bubbles and all of that, someone’s at home keeping things on track and keeping the kids engaged with school and sports. And, as your kids get older, that becomes a tougher job. So I know Sam is the rock from that standpoint,” he said.
Then the spotlight grows fickle.
When the Jets are playing well, Blake receives accolades. He is named a finalist for the Mark Messier Leadership Award when Winnipeg makes the 2018 Western Conference finals.
In 2019, when Winnipeg fails to meet expectations, losing to St. Louis in six games, he leans on Sam for help.
He can’t figure out exactly what went wrong. Was it him? What if he were holding the team back?
The two of them flew to Florida after those playoffs ended, where Sam became Blake’s rock. He put every difficult question about Winnipeg’s season on the table and the two of them talked it through.
“Ultimately, I talk to my wife about everything,” Blake told The Athletic in 2019. “She’s not going to have an answer to these types of things but sometimes, when you say things out loud it either sounds better or worse, you know what I’m saying? Just talking about it out loud is sometimes helpful. She’ll look at me like, ‘Really?’ And it’s kind of like, ‘Yeah, I know. That was stupid.’ With some of these things, there are moments where she’s like, ‘Well, yeah, but do you think that makes you a better player? Yes or no. Does that make your team better? Does that make your line better?’ So she’s really good at, not necessarily understanding the context or the sport but she’s able to follow up with insightful questions … Through all of it, that’s who I go to.”
Somewhere along their many journeys together, the Wheelers fall in love again — this time, with a city.
Blake believes Winnipeg is where he’s been allowed to be himself. He says he doesn’t have to fit himself into a mold that other people have forced on him.
Imagine being 6-foot-5 and built like he is. An awful lot of people would demand that you play hockey like a power forward. Hit more. Fight more. Play the game with brawn instead of brains. But Winnipeg gives Wheeler the space to use his body in other ways — to protect the puck, shielding off defenders to make plays that sometimes only Wheeler can see develop.
“It’s the first place that let me be me,” Wheeler says. “Everywhere that I went before this was trying to make me into something that I’m not … I think the people here embraced the way that I play. I try to play hard for our fans every night and it’s why I’ve committed my career here. This is where I want to be and this is where I want to win. I think it’s a relationship that has allowed me to flourish and it’s been over 11 years now, it’s been an honour to play in front of these people every night.”
I’ve heard Wheeler talk about the freedom to be himself and what that means to himself before.
I think I understand that he’s talking about more than his play on the ice.
So, I ask him about Sam.
Can he put into words the sacrifices and strength she has given him to help him be his best self?
“Oh, you’re going to make me cry,” Wheeler says the day before Game 1,000. “I can’t, no. Being a pro athlete, it’s a glamorous job when it’s good and it’s not so when it’s not so good. That’s when you have people that you care about that care about you. She’s been my support system for the last 14 years. We’ve had a lot of … We’ve celebrated a lot of highs and when it’s as bad as it gets, I mean that’s when you need her. That’s when she’s been there for me. I’ll never be able to pay that back.
“She sacrificed what she wanted to do with her life to follow me and to take care of our kids and support me. So no, I can’t really put into words what she means to me but I try to show her. I try to let her know but … Yeah. Tomorrow will be a good day to try to remind her.”
The game itself is a barn-burner that the Jets win 6-3.
Wheeler sets up Winnipeg’s first goal — a Pierre-Luc Dubois power play tally — after Kyle Connor does some nice work to pull the puck off the left wing boards.
Wheeler skates well throughout the evening, consistently making line changes before Connor and their centre, Mark Scheifele. He wins some 50/50 battles on the boards and loses more than he did a couple of hundred games ago. At five-on-five, his line gets doubled up in shots, mostly at the hands of William Nylander and John Tavares.
Connor rips a wrist shot to make it 4-1 Jets 7:38 into the second period, giving Wheeler his second assist of the night — the 540th of his career.
Wheeler gets a breakaway in the same period that Maple Leafs goaltender Joseph Woll stops, leaving Wheeler inexplicably goal-less with 12 assists in 19 games this season.
He takes a bad penalty, slapping the puck at the boards in disgust when it’s called; Toronto scores. Wheeler gets a point-blank chance in the third period; Woll makes the save on his deflection.
If it were not Wheeler’s milestone game, the story would be about how Winnipeg’s power play finally came to life and therefore about Wheeler all the same. (It could also be about the third-period violence, starting with Dubois wrestling with Auston Matthews, continuing through Neal Pionk’s knee of Rasmus Sandin — whose reverse hit on Wheeler last April looked particularly dangerous, given Wheeler had just returned from a concussion, and into Logan Stanley’s WWE inspired exit from the game after Brenden Dillon’s fight with Kyle Clifford.)
After the game, Wheeler speaks to reporters next to the 23-year-old Dubois, who sports a sleeveless T-shirt with Wheeler’s face on it.
Pierre-Luc Dubois and Blake Wheeler (Jonathan Kozub / NHLI via Getty Images)
“So, this is a Jansen Harkins original,” Dubois explains. “We all had them and then (Harkins) cut the sleeves off and then a few guys were like, ‘You gotta wear it for the media.’ So I asked Wheels if that was OK, got his permission, and he said, ‘Honestly, I would rather you do it with it.’ So, here it is. It’s going on sale next week, sleeved options available too. No, it’s his 1,000th game, I’ll do whatever he says.”
“He just wants to show the tats off,” jokes Wheeler.
He’s in great spirits, buoyed in part by the win, in part by the levity, and in part by the fact that the spotlight is finally off of him.
“I think the best is yet to come, you know what I mean?” he says when I ask if he’s had time to reflect. “I feel that way about our group, and that’s where my focus is — just having a blast with this team. We take care of each other like you saw tonight. They took care of me and performed, and we got a hell of a win. It was a great night.”
Winnipeg’s story is inextricable from Wheeler’s — even now, even after 1,000 games, even at 35 years old. They go as he goes and they work as hard as he works, even as his career works its way toward its inevitable end.
And Blake’s story is inextricable from Sam’s.