WINNIPEG - When he took over as captain of the Winnipeg Jets, Blake Wheeler was both proud and humble.
“There’s a distinction that comes with wearing the C on your jersey,” Wheeler said at the time. “Whether you like it or not, everyone looks at you a little bit differently. They look at what things are supposed to look like, how you’re supposed to act, how you’re supposed to prepare and how you’re supposed to play on a nightly basis.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have your A-game 82 times a year. But people are going to look at you when you don’t have your A game, and how you’re going to respond to that. For me, this is obviously a huge honor. I got to learn a lot from Andrew Ladd. To see what it looks like every day to be the leader of the team, especially in a market like Winnipeg, is a pretty special honor, an honor I know Andrew took with a lot of pride and I look forward to carrying the torch for him.”
Over the past two seasons while wearing the C, Wheeler has been a tremendous team leader in Winnipeg and on Tuesday, he was noticed by the National Hockey League.
Wheeler, along with Deryk Engelland of the Vegas Golden Knights and Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers, were named the three finalists for the 2017-18 Mark Messier Leadership Award.
The award is presented each year “… to the NHL player who exemplifies great leadership qualities to his team on and off the ice during the regular season and who plays a leading role in his community growing the game of hockey.” as selected by six-time Stanley Cup champion and Hall of Famer Mark Messier.
On the ice, Wheeler led Winnipeg to a 52-20-10 record and 114 points - the most wins and points in franchise history and a 12-win and 27-point improvement from 2016-17. In his second season as captain, he shared the NHL lead in assists (68) and topped the league in primary assists (48) and power play helpers (34). The Plymouth, Minnesota native also led the club and finished ninth in the NHL in points (91). He's in his 10th season in the NHL and his eighth with the Jets franchise and he passed Ilya Kovalchuk for the franchise lead in assists earlier this season.
Wheeler's accolades in 2017-18 included playing in his first NHL All-Star Game in Tampa Bay. He was selected as the NHL's First Star of the week for Nov. 27-Dec. 3/17 after a 10-point (2G, 8A) week.
Off the ice, Wheeler is an ambassador for the True North Youth Foundation, the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Academy, Camp Manitou and the mental wellness program, Project 11.
Atlanta acquired Wheeler with Mark Stuart from Boston in exchange for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik. Wheeler was originally drafted by Phoenix in the first round (fifth overall) in the 2004 NHL Draft.
Wheeler is the second Jet to be named a finalist for an NHL award this season. He joins Connor Hellebuyck, who is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, given to the NHL's top goaltender.
The 2017-18 winner of the Mark Messier Leadership Award will be announced on Wednesday, June 20 during the 2018 NHL Awards Show from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, NV.
PHOTO JAMES CAREY LAUDER