Big Wheeler part of strong-performing Gopher freshman class

By Jeff Dahlia

Some said back in 2004 that the Phoenix Coyotes went off the map selecting Blake Wheeler with the fifth overall selection in the NHL Entry Draft. Other said that the Coyotes were not the only team eyeing Wheeler in the first round. Regardless, Wheeler is more than thankful for getting drafted, but overall, he knows it’s in the past.

“It’s in the scrapbook,” he said of the selection. “You can’t dig into the past too much because there is still a lot of work to be done.”

He has being doing a lot of working in the past year. After leaving the Breck School with a 2004 Minnesota Class A State Championship on his resume, Wheeler took to the road to play with the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL.

He knows it was the right the move, regardless of how many points people expected him to put on the board.

“It was eye-opening just to see how good players were there outside the state of Minnesota,” he admitted. “There was an adjustment period where I had to get my legs under me and feel the game out a little bit.”

He didn’t make as big as splash as many would initially hope, but to Wheeler, it was all about progression and learning.

“You have to be intense all the time,” Wheeler explained about the increased level of play. “In the high school game you can have lapses, or you can pick your spots. Playing in the USHL, you have to being going all the time because you can’t afford to make the mistakes that will cost you or your team.”

He went on to score 47 points (19 goals, 28 assists) in 58 games played, in his only season in the USHL. He was also named to the league’s All-Star game.

“It was the right move for me,” he said. “It was an invaluable experience just to grow up, mature and prepare myself for the college and beyond.”

Back on the home front

This season, the now 19-year-old Wheeler is in his first year with the University of Minnesota. He is off to a good start, scoring 8 points (4 goals, 4 assists) in 11 games. While the season is only a month old, his points are good for third overall in team scoring and are second only to Phil Kessel (2006 eligible) for the lead in freshman scoring.

“Like the rest of the guys, I’m just going out there and having fun,” Wheeler said about his first year with the powerhouse. “It’s hard to go out there and not have a smile on your face. It’s great to be a part of something special here at Minnesota, especially when you grew up following the program all your life.”

Something special could be an understatement. Wheeler is just one part of the strongest recruiting classes in some time at Minnesota. Besides he and Kessel, the Gophers also snagged impact players in Ryan Stoa (COL), Jeff Frazee (NJ), R.J Anderson (PHI) as well as free agent Justin Bostrom.

“It was fun coming in here because we all felt our freshman class was good,” he explained. “We wanted to contribute as much as we could from the start.”

They have indeed contributed both as individuals and as a group, but Wheeler credits the strong veteran leadership already in place with the Gophers.

“It’s also great having the older guys because they are doing a great job of leading us,” Wheeler said. “We knew there were going to be strong leaders coming in, so it was really refreshing from the start.”

Having so many pieces of the puzzle already in place at Minnesota, Wheeler has fit in rather nicely so far. And because of that fact, he says he doesn’t even feel an extra level of pressure that could follow any young and upcoming prospect.

“To be honest, I felt more pressure last year,” Wheeler explained. “That’s behind me now. I want to continue to move forward. I’m just trying to play some good hockey.”

On top of the vets, Wheeler appreciates head coach Don Lucia’s trust and confidence in the freshman class.

“He’s going to put us in positions where he thinks we’re going to be successful,” he said about Lucia’s system. “He wants us to learn, but he also wants the older guys to help us learn. I think he’s done a good job preparing us all and giving us opportunities to succeed.”

On the horizon

Wheeler has made two giant steps over the last two seasons. Like many athletes on the way up the ladder, things can become very tedious and flat out stressful.

To his credit, the young budding forward has taken everything in stride and doesn’t forget to smile. He gazes at his future and knows he’s got far more work to do.

“I have to play to my size,” Wheeler explained. “You have to take the body and do whatever it takes to win those little one-on-one battles. When you’re a bigger player, you have to win those little battles. Puck possession is also a big thing too. I have to learn to find ways to keep the puck on my stick longer and not do too much overall.”

He also realizes there are adjustments to an increased level of play, talent and skill in NCAA Division I hockey.

“It’s faster,” he said. “You have to think and execute a lot faster.”

Wheeler is truly focused on the Gophers and what he can do to contribute right away.

“We’ve got to keep working hard and stick to the program and our systems,” he said. “We all have to keep plugging away and hopefully things will continue in the right direction.”

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.