It has been a dozen years since Blake Wheeler was shipped out of Boston, dealt to Atlanta in a trade that helped the Bruins win their most recent Stanley Cup title. He has since become so established in Winnipeg that he doesn’t think much about his Black-and-Gold memories. But they are fond.
“The leadership was so strong,” Wheeler recalled outside the Jets’ dressing room last Thursday. “By the time I got there, it felt like they were already onto something. The veteran guys in the room had success and had won. It felt like they had it figured out. It took a couple cracks to get through, a couple Game 7 heartbreak kind of losses, but the nucleus was there in place and I was lucky to learn from guys like that.”
Wheeler thought he would be part of a franchise on the rise when he signed a free agent deal with the Bruins in the spring of 2008 (the Coyotes, who had drafted him fifth overall in 2004, said he turned down a fair entry-level contract offer). A right-shot center at the University of Minnesota, Wheeler established himself as the left wing for a fellow Bruins newcomer, David Krejci. Working between him and Michael Ryder, Krejci established a career high in points (22-51–73) in 2009.
When they faced off Thursday, Wheeler was playing in his 1,106th game, Krejci in his 1,024th.
“Obviously I keep track of him,” Wheeler said. “Haven’t seen him in a little bit, but it’s always good to get on the ice with him and chat with him a little after the game. I know he’s doing well. I’m still a big fan.”
Wheeler will always wonder what could have been, but seeing his old mates (with the essential pickup, Rich Peverley) lift the Cup in 2011 doesn’t sting as much as it once did. After the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg (and became the Jets) following that season, Wheeler became a premier five-on-five offensive player for a half-decade before back-to-back 91-point seasons from 2017-19 cemented him as a star. He led the league in assists (68) in 2017-18.
This year has been a reset for Wheeler, who inherited the Jets’ captaincy from Andrew Ladd in 2016 and held it for six seasons. Last summer, incoming coach Rick Bowness stripped him of the title. The Jets have gone with a group of alternate captains in 2022-23.
Bowness said Wheeler was not pleased — but the shock wore off.
“That’s how I hoped it would go,” said Bowness. “He had been carrying a burden. It’s a tough, Canadian market. He had been the face and voice for so long. He’s got three kids. He’s got a family. There comes a point where you need to spread that out to other players. The hope was this: Now you just focus on being a hockey player and a father and a family man.
“He’s still going to be a leader, whether he wears an ‘A’ or a ‘C’ or nothing.”
“There’s definitely been a growth factor for our group,” the 36-year-old Wheeler said. “A lot of guys have had to take on a little bit more. There’s been a challenge from the organization, our coaching staff, for our core younger players to take a little bit of responsibility and step up a little bit. It’s been great for me to watch the development and guys coming full circle.”
He has been living more freely without the “C.” He doesn’t have to answer for everything that happens to the team.
“I call it the [BS],” Wheeler said. “The [BS] is off my plate. The weight of that in a small Canadian market adds up over the years, when you’re trying to raise a young family. Everything that goes into it just took its toll. The load’s been lighter in that regard. But in the room, I don’t think much has changed. Just trying to bring what I’ve always brought to the table.”
Wheeler and his wife, Sam, live in the Winnipeg suburbs with 10-year-old Louie, 7-year-old Leni, and 5-year-old Mase. Dad is helping coach them on the ice when he can.
At work, the 6-foot-5-inch forward is fighting Father Time, but he remains productive. He had 15 goals and 50 points through his first 60 games this season.
Wheeler wasn’t the first veteran to have the “C” removed. The Kings stripped Dustin Brown in 2016, two seasons after their second Stanley Cup title in four seasons. The same happened to both Patrick Marleau and successor Joe Thornton in San Jose. Mike Modano lost his “C” in Dallas, as did Trevor Linden in Vancouver.
Tough, contentious moments, those. But they were not the lasting memories of those players’ careers. Neither will it be so for Wheeler.
Cap in need of adjustment?
Marty Walsh takes over as head of the NHL Players’ Association Monday. It is sure to be a whirlwind first few months in office for the former Boston mayor. One issue that is surely on his agenda: a possible inflation of the salary cap.
Commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged at the general managers’ meetings near Palm Beach, Fla., this past week that the league was open to negotiating with Walsh’s NHLPA for an increase in the cap, which is on track to expand by $1 million to $83.5 million next season before merging back on the superhighway to riches.
In a system in which owners and players split hockey-related revenues 50-50, players incurred debt during the hard times of the pandemic, earning their money even though fans weren’t buying tickets. As such, the salary cap has been mostly flat since 2020, after rising an average of 5.6 percent every year since its post-lockout installation in October 2005 (when it was $39 million).
The league estimated the player debt — reportedly less than $150 million at this point — would be paid off by the fall of 2024, when the cap could rise by some 5 percent (to $87.5 million, then $92 million the season after that). But Bettman was open to negotiating more cap room.
▪ Another issue we hope was discussed at the GM meetings: offside reviews that wipe out goals scored a minute after a team enters the zone. They’re just so good — no, great — for the game. Can’t get enough of ‘em.
▪ Video review, as it related to friendly-fire high-stick penalties and the rare erroneous puck-over-glass, was a topic. It seems there’s more appetite for leeway over reviews. Makes sense; anecdotally, reviews aren’t lasting as long as in previous seasons. It’s a tough look for the NHL when the four officials are the only ones in the building who can’t see the correct call on video.
▪ NHL GMs don’t like fights after clean hits. Is managing that as simple as tacking on an instigator penalty?
▪ Overtime starts with just a brief break in the action because Bettman — this nugget from Elliotte Friedman — once saw people leaving a game at Madison Square Garden during a dry scrape and canned it.
If the game lasts longer, it had better be good. One interesting wrinkle reportedly discussed at the GM meetings: expanding overtime from five to seven minutes, a system the ECHL has been using the last four seasons.
That two extra minutes of wobbly legged, freewheeling hockey produces more three-on-three winners. Of the 146 ECHL games to go to overtime (as of Thursday), 28 were decided in shootouts (19 percent). Of the 483 overtime games in the NHL’s five-minute system, 150 were decided by shootouts (31 percent).
▪ The league also discussed making cut-resistant equipment mandatory. Some players already wear such undergarments.
Brad Marchand said recently he would be against it — he’s so finicky about his gear that he spraypainted a pair of his usual black gloves to match the Bruins’ brown alternates, rather than get new ones. He also might have the oldest shinpads in the Spoked-B dressing room.
Next generation of hockey fans
Had a chuckle at ESPN’s press release trumpeting a 19 percent increase in viewership for NHL games on ABC. Wonder if it has anything to do with the network finally promoting hockey again.
Also wonder where hockey would be if the most powerful sports content brand in America — the average person may not know what ESPN stands for, but everyone knows what it means — hadn’t all but erased the sport from its channels from 2005-21. Who would have become a fan? It’s fun to imagine what kind of people, whether determined athletes or energetic coaches or sharp executives or brilliant creative minds, would have seen something about hockey as a young person and thought, “Cool.”
The NFL scored a kiddie hit with its Nickelodeon games. It was only a matter of time before the NHL’s dalliance with Disney led to similar.
For last Wednesday’s Rangers-Capitals game, the NHL merged its puck-and-player tracking with the cartoon “Big City Greens.” On an alternate feed, it superimposed a virtual cartoon game with real players and action as animated versions of themselves. It turned Madison Square Garden into an outdoor game in “Times Circle” in the “Big City” universe.
Four characters from the show were inserted into the game, replacing players: Vincent Trocheck became Cricket Green, Evgeny Kuznetsov became Tilly Green, Igor Shesterkin became Gramma Alice, and Darcy Kuemper became Bill Green. Commentators Kevin Weekes and Drew Carter wore motion-capture suits to appear as characters. A referee was reimagined as a flying chicken. A bodyguard named Vazquez protected the penalty box.
Naturally, footage of scrums was treated with kid gloves — danced around by the commentators, the focus put elsewhere.
Reviews from my parent group said it was a minor hit with the little ones. It did, however, make them want to watch more “Big City Greens” than NHL games.
Maybe in 20 years, someone influential in hockey will credit the Big City game with turning on a light.
“I think it’ll be really exciting for the people in that town,” Kuemper said in a pregame interview, playing along and speaking about the cartoon citizens of Big City. “This is a great opportunity to share the game with people that don’t get a chance to see live hockey. I’m sure they’ll really enjoy the moment.”
Svechnikov’s injury really hurt
Knee injuries are mysterious — witness Taylor Hall, who may or may not be returning any time soon — but the Hurricanes were pretty definitive last Wednesday about Andrei Svechnikov. They said their third-leading scorer was due for knee surgery the next day, and it would end his season.
Carolina, which has been running in second overall for most of the season, led the Metropolitan Division by 8 points Feb. 1. As of Wednesday, when the Svechnikov news broke, the Hurricanes had fallen into a tie with the Devils (94 points).
Skilled and brawny — his green-light hit in Game 2 last year concussed Hampus Lindholm — the 22-year-old scored three goals in seven games (3-1–4) against the Bruins in the first round. He had 23 goals and 55 points in 64 games this season.
Tough blow for the Hurricanes, who didn’t do much of anything at the deadline, thinking in part that Max Pacioretty would be back. They never knew what they were missing with Pacioretty, who played five games before tearing the same right Achilles’ that caused him to miss six months. Svechnikov’s absence will hurt more.
Serious lapse in judgment
Flyers interim GM Daniel Briere started his tenure dealing with a player not in his organization.
Briere said he was “shocked” by the actions of his 23-year-old son, Carson, who was suspended from the Mercyhurst College hockey team after a video emerged of him at a bar pushing an unoccupied wheelchair down a staircase.
The younger Briere, who in 2020 was booted from Arizona State for violating team rules — “too much partying,” he later told College Hockey News — said in a statement he would “do whatever I can do to make up for this serious lack of judgment.”
Two other Mercyhurst athletes were also suspended. As police assessed what happened and the incident went viral, immature online commenters were laughing about it. Chanel Keenan was performing corrective labor.
Keenan, contributor and community manager at Hockey of Tomorrow, is a 23-year-old UMass grad and Dorchester native who has consulted for the Kraken on intersectionality matters. She has osteogenesis imperfecta and has used a power wheelchair since she was 3.
“What’s so funny about being caught on camera, sitting in a wheelchair that doesn’t belong to you, and then flippantly chucking it down a flight of stairs?” Keenan wrote on her blog.
“What’s funny,” she wrote, “is how little disregard we have for disabled people, really, for people in general. It’s made us so cruel.”
And she pointed out, this was Briere’s second chance. And he will likely get more.
Ray Bourque is dipping his toe into coaching. The summer three-on-three barnstorming tour known as 3ICE returns for a second season June 28 with a Team Bourque, featuring the Hall of Famer behind the bench and sons Chris and Ryan on the ice. Chris Bourque is scouting for the Maple Leafs, while Ryan Bourque is an assistant coach with South Carolina of the ECHL … Vladislav Gavrikov — whom the Bruins liked, but not as much as Dmitry Orlov — has been predictably excellent in Los Angeles. In his first six games, the Kings outscored opponents, 7-1, with him on the ice … Ryan O’Reilly (broken finger) will return before the playoffs, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said … Wonder how thin Jordan Binnington’s act is wearing in St. Louis. Binnington was docked two games and more than $60,000 in pay for a dust-up with the Wild this past week. His save percentages since the 2019 Stanley Cup run: .912, .910, .901, and .892. He will make $6 million a year through 2027 … The NHL confirmed dates for the start of the playoffs (April 17), draft lottery (May 8), Cup Final (June 3, which could be moved up if prior series are short), scouting combine in Buffalo (June 4-10). The NHL awards (June 26) and draft (June 28-29) are in Nashville … Connor Bedard Watch: San Jose became the first team to be eliminated from playoff contention, after a 6-5 overtime loss to Columbus on Tuesday. All focus now turns to May 8. The craziest lottery scenario would be Florida, if it misses the playoffs, landing No. 1 overall and watching it transfer to Montreal (via last spring’s trade for rental defenseman Ben Chiarot). Canadiens GM Kent Hughes looks like a genius for landing an unprotected first-rounder in what is billed as one of the most loaded drafts in years … Commissioner Gary Bettman continued to brush aside the idea of reverting to a 1 vs. 8 playoff format, rather than the current wild-card setup. He claimed both systems would produce the same matchups, which is not true. He also said he knows of no players who prefer the old system. He must not have paid attention to Sidney Crosby saying exactly that last month during All-Star Weekend … New England schools produced half of the Hobey Baker Award finalists, a list released Thursday. Harvard forward Sean Farrell (Hopkinton) and Boston University defenseman Lane Hutson (both Montreal draft picks), Northeastern goalie Devon Levi (Buffalo), and the undrafted Quinnipiac pair of netminder Yaniv Perets and forward Collin Graf (of Lincoln) were named top-10 finishers. The rest of the list: Minnesota forwards Logan Cooley (Arizona) and Matthew Knies (Toronto), Michigan forward Adam Fantilli (a top 2023 draft prospect), and Western Michigan forward Jason Polin and Michigan Tech netminder Blake Pietila, both undrafted … Pietila is apparently not related to the former Devils winger of the same name, also out of Michigan Tech … The Bruins shouldn’t feel bad about that loss to Arizona earlier in the season. The Coyotes were, incredibly, 19-11-3 at home entering the weekend (while losing 29 of 36 games on the road). Weird stuff happens in the desert … Happy birthday to Bobby Orr, who turns 75 Monday.