When Phoenix prospect Blake Wheeler was struggling earlier in the season, he was probably expecting to get some advice on how to turn things around.
It came as a pleasant surprise though, that one of those people was Wayne Gretzky.
The Great One, who is also Managing Partner of the NHL's Coyotes, phoned the team's first pick (fifth overall) in the 2004 draft and the two had a conversation about how to deal with the tough stretches of the season when the team is down and a player begins to lose focus.
"(He) just kind of gave me some advice on how to deal with losing seasons because he'd been there," Wheeler explained in an interview with McKeenshockey.com. "It was really cool to hear from him because the early losing that we did was really tough for me to handle."
Wheeler opted to play this season in the United States Hockey League and is skating for the Green Bay Gamblers. Although the Gamblers have had their share of struggles and sit with an 18-29-1 record with 12 games to play, the team still has a legitimate shot at making the playoffs. They just split a pair of games this past weekend and with a strong finish the Gamblers can still edge out Indiana for the final spot in the USHL East.
Wheeler sits 24th in the league's point race with 17-21-38 in 46GP and the winger says he was able to apply Gretzky's advice to his own game and help reverse the bad habits.
"Yeah, for sure," said Wheeler. "You really can't get too low, which is what he said. You really just have to do what you can control and help your team as best as possible. That's what I try to do, is just do what I can control in whatever I can do to help the team win."
And it's really not too hard to heed any advice imparted by the greatest hockey player to lace them up, is it?
"Exactly," smiled Wheeler. "You live and die by it"
Making the transition
The presence of 99 has been a factor for the youngster since the Coyotes made waves by selecting him with the fifth pick in the draft. Wheeler says after he got over the initial shock of being selected so early, it began to sink in that he would be part of a Gretzky product.
"As I kind of calmed down I was excited about the opportunity to be in Phoenix," he said. "Obviously Phoenix is a great city and having Wayne Gretzky as part of the organization just really kind of puts things in a different light because he was the best player. So after I kind of came down from the buzz I realized just how cool it was."
The general consensus is that Wheeler will need several years to both bulk up on his 6'-4", 185-pound frame and hone his impressive, but raw, skills - something Wheeler himself recognizes.
"I think now it's a matter of me putting on some muscle weight and I guess that's the goal for me now, is to get to work and get into the weight room," he said. "If I'm going to reach my goal, that's how I have to do it."
In the meantime, Wheeler is plying his trade in Green Bay. A high school student in Minnesota last season, Wheeler decided to use the USHL this year as a way to improve his game and make the transition to his beloved University of Minnesota.
"I've watched the Gophers for my whole life and it's always been a dream for me to play there and it's just something that I wanted to do," he told McKeen's. "I just can't wait to get on that campus and be a part of it because it's such a great tradition. It's something I've looked forward to my whole life."
In good company
The winger will join an impressive USHL graduate list when he leaves Green Bay to return to his native Minnesota. Among them are former NHL stars Phil Housley and Gary Suter, as well as current vet Brian Rafalski. A small sample of some talent that has spent time in the league includes Tyler Arnason, Jason Blake, Erik Cole, Ty Conklin, Joe Corvo, Mark Eaton, Ruslan Fedotenko, John Grahame, Greg Johnson, Rostislav Klesla, Ryan Malone and Landon Wilson.
Wheeler says the USHL was just a good fit for him. "The decision basically came down to me wanting to push myself in a new direction with new challenges, I guess. The World Junior tryouts were a great experience because it was really the first time I'd been out of the Minnesota High School scene and I got to see how I stacked up against some of the best players. I really felt that I wanted to push myself so that I could excel in my game and have a bigger impact at the college level."
Wheeler should make quite a splash when he joins the Gophers and it's only a matter of time before he's turning heads in the NHL.
You can read the entire chat transcript with Blake Wheeler tomorrow by visiting McKeensHockey.com.
Chris can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.