WINNIPEG - There are no doubt those who’ll view last May 31 as a life-changing event.
For others it was just another day before the flip of the calendar.
Most of us probably fall somewhere in between, the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg not dramatically altering our lives, but certainly adding something to them.
A 24-year-old hockey player from Minneapolis had a special interest in what was happening up the road in Manitoba that day.
In retrospect, that moment changed both his life and career.
“I had a good feeling it was going to help me take my game to the next level,” Blake Wheeler told the Sun the other day.
He was right.
But at the time he couldn’t have envisioned the career-high, 64-point season he’d have with the still-to-be-named Winnipeg Jets, or the adoration that would come with the team’s move from Atlanta to a heartland-of-hockey hotbed.
The truth is there was some uneasiness about the whole relocation thing running through a Thrashers team that was never completely embraced, and never learned how to win, in Georgia.
“Everyone kind of had mixed emotions,” Wheeler said. “Guys were a little bit reluctant to move their families and uproot everything. Anytime you have to move, that kind of stings.”
Having been traded from Boston just three months earlier, Wheeler was in a different boat than some of his more entrenched Atlanta teammates. He wasn’t tied to a home, hadn’t put any roots down, didn’t have a family to move.
“I never really was thinking too far ahead about where this franchise could go, because I was brand new to the franchise in the first place,” he said. “I never really paid it much thought until we started hearing rumblings that it was a realistic possibility we could be moving to Winnipeg.
Those rumblings had been increasing since the end of the Thrashers regular season, even following Wheeler to the World Championship in Slovakia.
“We were getting our news the same way everyone else was,” Wheeler said. “We didn’t have any inside (information). We were just waiting and seeing.”
Playing for Team USA, Wheeler and fellow Thrasher Mark Stuart, a defenceman on the American team, talked about the possibility of moving.
It wasn’t until he got back in mid-May that he really started paying attention.
But you could count Wheeler among the skeptics at the time.
He’d believe it when he actually saw it.
May 31, he was glued to his television set in Minneapolis.
“We were at home, my wife and I,” he said. “And we watched everyone talk at the press conference. That’s when it became very real.”
What struck Wheeler was the the feeling that oozed from his TV set, the passion at that news conference some 800 kilometers away.
If Wheeler needed any selling that day, car dealer/entrepreneur Mark Chipman, the Jets co-owner, closed the deal in a heartbeat.
“You could see Chipper definitely meant business,” Wheeler recalled. “This had been an ongoing thing for him, that he wanted to bring a team to Winnipeg. That’s when I started getting excited, seeing all the people who were going to be running the ship and seeing the passion they had for hockey. I just knew this was going to be a first-class organization.”
His and his wife’s families were thrilled they’d be closer to home.
And Wheeler, who’d already been thrust into a more prominent role since the trade from Boston, was relishing the chance to build on that in a hockey town, like his own.
“I was just excited to have that opportunity continued and to be playing in front of fans that cared what we were doing on the ice and cared about us as hockey players and people.”
It’s funny how things work out sometimes.
Wheeler was originally drafted by Phoenix, the original Jets franchise.
He never played a game for the Coyotes, but seems to have found a home in their old home, a marriage not only good for Wheeler, but good for the game.
“It sure looks that way,” he said. “We have a rabid fan base. There can’t be enough said about that. You can’t take markets for granted that care about hockey. There probably aren’t enough true hockey markets. And we’re definitely one of them.”