Some of the attributes of a team captain are work ethic, leadership, accountability, and saying what needs to be said – at the right time. Blake Wheeler provided many examples of why he wears the “C” for the Winnipeg Jets during an almost 45 minute video conference call with media on Tuesday morning.
Wheeler, speaking from his summer home in Florida, addressed two main topics: the message he posted Saturday night about racism in his hometown, home state and America; and the NHL’s return to play plan for later this summer.
Wheeler’s heartfelt response to the death of George Floyd while in custody by the Minneapolis Police Department just over a week ago has resonated with a lot of people. Especially in his NHL home market. And the Jets captain admitted that it has clearly struck a nerve on a personal level because of where, and how it happened.
“Never did I envision that Minneapolis St. Paul, my hometown, would be the epicenter of these things happening. I have a lot of family there, obviously. My wife has a lot of family there. We have a lot of friends there. And, you know, there’s a lot of people scared. We’re scared,” said Wheeler.
“The overwhelming majority has been a really positive response. If you watch the news you see tons of peaceful protests and people clearly upset — clearly sick and tired of the same conversation — but doing it in a way that is promoting real change. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with everyone.
“Unfortunately, there there are people that are taking advantage of those situations and doing some destruction to people who have worked a long time to establish small businesses. And so that’s been really heartbreaking, getting pictures from our family of businesses being boarded up where I’m from, which is 20 minutes outside of Minneapolis. But for the most part, I’d say I’m proud of my hometown for the response and for the people standing up and not tolerating this anymore. Helping each other clean up the mess that was made by the unfortunate people that took advantage of the situation.”
Wheeler, like many other white athletes, took his time to respond to the death of George Floyd, and the very public reaction that followed on social media as well as in many major U.S. cities. The better part of five days in all. But Wheeler feels he should have been on board long before any of this happened. “When Colin Kaepernick was taking a knee during the national anthem and trying to do it in a peaceful way in 2016, and trying to raise awareness of this in a peaceful manner. And I wanna be real clear here. I look in the mirror about this before I look out at everyone else. I wish that I was more involved sooner than I was. I wish that it didn’t take me this long to get behind it in a meaningful way.”
It’s Wheeler’s belief that in going forward, white athletes have to be just as involved as their Black counterparts when speaking up — and out — against racism and instances of police brutality. “I want to be a part of the change going forward, and whether that resonates with everyone, whether that spreads with everyone, I’m only one person. But I do have a small platform to try to promote this and promote change.”
Wheeler’s former Atlanta/Winnipeg teammate Evander Kane of the San Jose Sharks was one of the first prominent NHL players to publicly denounce what happened in Minneapolis, and the Jets captain could not have been more supportive of how Kane addressed the situation. “I think he did a phenomenal job. And to be completely honest with you, Kaner was on this even when I played with him. So I really applaud him for the work he’s done and the job he’s done, kind of being the voice of this movement, especially in our sport.”
Wheeler has his “home team” to look out for as well, as he and his wife Sam have three young children ranging in age from almost 3, to 7 years old. And the Wheelers have decided they are not going to hide their kids from what has been going on. “They watched George Floyd die on TV. So that has been really challenging, especially to (7-year-old) Louis.”
Wheeler says the impact of the moment has not registered with his two younger children, Lenny and Macer, but the couple’s oldest has questions. “Louie’s asking why won’t he get off his neck? Why won’t he get off his neck? And to have to explain that to him, to try to explain to that to a 7-year-old that the police that he feels are out there to protect us and look out for us, that that’s not always the case. And that’s a hard conversation to have.”
Wheeler says it has been five or six years that the family has summered in Florida, spending only a couple of weeks each offseason in the Twin Cities. And they would have taken the opportunity to let their trio of young ones witness, first hand, the positive aspects of what has been a demand for change. “Clearly, during a pandemic, our first responsibility is the safety of our kids. But we would have loved to take our family out to the protests to show them how powerful it can be. And what a beautiful thing it was. All the people coming together in our hometown. We’ve talked about it a lot and showed them as much as we can to just try to continue that education and really have it be imprinted in their mind that this is what it should look like.”
Being out of Canada does lend itself to uncertainty.
Will the border reopen after June 21? And will the Trudeau government and Public Health Canada still be enforcing a 14-day quarantine for all travelers re-entering the country when it is time to return to Winnipeg?
And then there are questions about the NHL’s return-to-play plan, and the challenges that could bring if players have to be isolated from their families for a two to two-and-a-half month stretch. “There’s not going to be a perfect formula just the way it is, no matter what you do. Somebody is gonna be unhappy. So I think you try to weigh as many positives as you can and come up with a solution that is going to check as many boxes as you can,” is how Wheeler analyzed the situation.
“We still have a lot of things to figure out, mainly the safety of the players. Having three small children in the house and doing it as a team with Sam is really challenging and thinking about her doing it alone, it would be really tough. So those are things that are really important to the players.”
“It’s going to be different, there’s no question about that.”“The three teams we played, Minnesota, Nashville, Vegas — you could argue in the Western Conference — there’s only one other building, and it’s in Winnipeg, that has a better crowd than those three. So that was special. I think the team or the teams that get over that the quickest and know the format and the fact that it’s not changing, we just got to get on with it. But people need an outlet right now and there will be a lot of people watching those games.”