2009 NHL All-Star Game: Wheeler sticks it to sophomores

By Ken McKenna

Blake Wheeler arrived in Montreal for Saturday’s 2009 YoungStars Game missing his most important tool – his hockey sticks. He’ll be leaving Montreal with an added treasure – the MVP award he earned in the YoungStars Game.

Wheeler bagged his trophy on the strength of a three-goal performance in the newly formatted YoungStars contest that pitted NHL rookies versus NHL sophomores. Wheeler added an assist to his hat trick as he and his rookie teammates bested the sophomores at Bell Centre, 9-5.

Wheeler might not have been in this position, as he suffered a near calamity when his sticks went missing. But the big Boston Bruins winger seemed to take the whole escapade in stride.

"When I got off my plane, they had vanished" recounted Wheeler. "So the Air Canada people said they’d call me and let me know when they arrived, but I never got the call. But this morning I showed up and was expecting to have to borrow someone else’s stick, and there they were. I guess someone from the airlines made a special stop at the rink. But it was a good thing to have my own sticks. Out of good faith someone decided to bring them over, so there are good people in the world."

Wheeler, a former first round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes, has turned in a fine rookie campaign so far for the surprising Bruins. He has scored 14 goals and added 16 assists for 30 points in 47 games, tying him for third in rookie scoring.

In a game that was perhaps the epitome of pond hockey, Wheeler seemed to adapt well to the more wide open format employed in this contest. Each team iced three skaters and one goaltender, with the game consisting of three six-minute periods that featured time stoppages only in the last minute of each period.

"That’s what it’s all about, it’s about making great plays and showing the fans what everyone is capable of and having a good time out there" said the MVP. "It was fun to see a couple of guys getting bumped out there and having fun with it."

Of course, with a Boston Bruin playing in Montreal, there is an added element provided by the fans of the Canadiens. Wheeler seemed to take the good-natured razzing in stride.

I think it’s a great thing to have, to have that rivalry, and to hear the fans who are so passionate about the sport to share their feelings about the Bruins’ players” grinned Wheeler. “It’s a great thing for the sport, a great thing for our teams, and it’s fun to be a part of.”

Aside from Wheeler, the rookie squad also received a two-goal performance from Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos, with New York Rangers defenseman Mark Staal also netting a pair for the sophomores. Shots on goal favored the rookies, 25-24.

The smile on Wheeler’s face following the victory certainly captured the attitude shared by many of the players taking part in the All-Star festivities this weekend.

"I think (I’ll remember) the atmosphere, for sure" beamed the big winger. "Walking out there and seeing the crowded building. Even in the YoungStars Game and the Skills Competition events, just to see how passionate the fans are and the noise they make, and how enthusiastic they are about our game."

The former University of Minnesota star is currently in the thick of the rookie scoring race. A performance such as this could spur the youngster on to another award later this season – the Calder Trophy given to the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.