The Boston Bruins have the best record in hockey, and one of the reasons has been the play of rookie forward Blake Wheeler. A 22-year-old native of Plymouth, Minnesota, Wheeler has been even better than advertised since signing with the black and gold in July, four years after being taken as the fifth overall pick in the NHL draft by the Phoenix Coyotes. A standout for three seasons at the University of Minnesota, Wheeler netted the goal that gave the Golden Gophers a 3-2 overtime win over North Dakota in the 2007 WCHA championship game. The MVP of last weekend’s Young Stars Game, the 6-foot-5, 205-pound winger has 14 goals on the season and ranks second on the Bruins in Plus/Minus. Wheeler, whose father played in the Detroit Tigers‘ system, sat down with BP to talk about the allure of tradition, the importance of numbers in hockey, and the difference between a fastball and a slap shot.
David Laurila: How would you describe Blake Wheeler?
Blake Wheeler: I’m a pretty easygoing person. I’m from Minnesota, and I guess that probably helps in that department. As a player, I work hard and just do whatever it takes to help the team win. I know that sounds kind of clichéd, but I try to simplify things because that helps me to be prepared every night.
DL: You studied applied economics at the University of Minnesota. What impact does that have on your life?
BW: It gives me some perspective in terms of being able to understand what’s happening in the world, although I’m not saying that I have a good grasp on it. What I studied was more with foreign relations and trade, and stuff like that, but it’s an important part of our world today, just with the economy and our changing presidents. Having some idea of what they’re talking about on CNN does help.
DL: What is your background in sports?
BW: I played football, baseball, and hockey growing up. I played all three until my junior year, and after the draft I kind of had to give up the other two. Playing high school hockey in Minnesota was a great experience. I did technically play my senior year in Green Bay [for the junior hockey Green Bay Gamblers] but I only had half a year of high school there. Other than that, I was in Minnesota.
DL: How do Minneapolis and Boston compare as sports towns?
BW: They’re similar in the sense of their passion, but I think that the Boston fans can probably be a little more ruthless. If the teams aren’t doing very well, they can be pretty impatient. Minnesota fans are normally pretty patient with the teams, and they have to be because it’s a small market. They have to be patient with the teams and just ride the ups and downs, and when the times are good in Minnesota it’s really fun.
DL: Which sport carries the most weight in your home state?
BW: The Vikings and Twins are the two biggest. The Wild have obviously been developed into a very good team, but the Twins and the Vikings are the longest-tenured franchises, so I think they have the most devoted fans. The Twins have really picked up their popularity in the last five or six years as they’ve got back into prominence a little bit.
DL: I understand that your father played baseball at the professional level.
BW: Yes, he played some minor league baseball in the Detroit Tigers’ organization. He grew up in Michigan and played Division III baseball and football at Olivet College, and was given an opportunity to go to spring training with the Tigers. He ended up playing for three years before he got hurt. Baseball was a big part of my childhood. When I played, I pitched and played first base because I was always the biggest kid; I just had to throw the ball hard and stay at first base. Hockey was always kind of my first love, though. It was what I felt the most comfortable with, and what I felt that I was best at. I loved baseball, but for me, personally, hockey and football were kind of my two big sports.
DL: What are your thoughts on the Red Wings and Blackhawks having played outdoors, at Wrigley Field, on New Years Day?
BW: It was awesome for the sport. Being on a prime-time network like NBC gave a lot of exposure to our game, which was unbelievable. Having the game at Wrigley Field, which is one of the most historically great sports venues in the United States, made it even more unbelievable. Hopefully they can spoil us a little bit and we’ll get one out here next year. I think playing at Fenway Park would be phenomenal; it would be a lot like it was at Wrigley. Having the Green Monster incorporated with everything would be awesome. I think the city of Boston actually has a couple of great venues that could help sell the sport.
DL: You played in the Young Stars Game in Montreal over All-Star weekend. What was that experience like?
BW: It was a lot of fun to be out there, just to be around all of the All-Stars and see how they carry themselves and how they prepare themselves. Getting a closer look at all of the All-Star players was a huge thrill. The game itself, of course, was completely different. Any All-Star game is like that; you’re just kind of coasting around out there and making plays. That’s what it was all about: making good plays and trying to score goals. It was fun.
DL: In signing with the Bruins, you reportedly placed a lot of importance on being with an original six team. Why was that?
BW: You want to be in a hockey market where the team has already planted its seed, because the fans care about you. I had an opportunity to really pick where I wanted to go, and there’s no better way to get a good feel for this league than by playing in a market where the team has been around for a long time. And I think that the marketing of a team goes hand in hand with history. If you look at the best revenue teams, I think that the original six have to be up there, with the Red Wings, the Blackhawks, and whatnot. The history of the franchise is definitely important, because there are deep-rooted fans; there are people that care about the game. That was a really important thing for me.
DL: When you think of hockey history, what comes to mind?
BW: That it’s a hard-nosed game. When you think about hockey back in the day, you think about the guys skating around with no helmets on. It was just a lot of fun to watch, with guys like Gordie Howe and the Bobby Orrs and the Bobby Hulls. They were the stars of the league, and as an American kid they’re kind of cool to look at in the history books.
DL: Statistics are a big part of baseball. How important are they in hockey?
BW: It depends on what kind of player you are. If you’re a top-line player, you look at your stats to see your goals and assists, and your Plus/Minus-all that kind of stuff. But there’s so much more to the game than that. There are so many different roles on the team that are needed to be successful. A guy like P.J. Axelsson is as important as anyone we have on the team because of the defensive presence he brings at the forward position. He’s our best penalty killer, and he blocks a lot of shots for us, so he’s as important as the guys scoring the goals every night.
BW: You can argue for or against Plus/Minus. Some people don’t like it, because you can be out on the ice and not touch the puck and still get a plus, and you can get a minus the same way. But, for the most part, that stat does show which guys are responsible both offensively and defensively. You can’t have a high Plus/Minus if you’re not being responsible in your own end of the ice. So I think that it shows an ability to be able to play a good two-way game. You can make an argument that it’s a fairly reliable stat.
DL: Is shooting percentage important?
BW: No, I don’t think so. If you look at Alex Ovechkin, he’s the best goal scorer in the league, and he might have the lowest shooting percentage because he shoots the puck 10 times a game. I guess the philosophy is: the more you shoot the more you score. For me, I don’t take a whole lot of shots, so that’s something I need to work on. I need to let the puck go a little more, because I tend to hold onto it a little too much.
DL: You’re a right-handed shooter playing left wing. How does playing on your off-wing affect your game?
BW: I think that once you get used to playing on your backhand, there’s no transition at all. You just have to stay on the left side of the ice and shift everything to the other side of your brain. It’s not anything too difficult, as long as you can play on your backhand a little bit. It actually helps in the offensive zone, being able to open up and take a one-timer-a quick shot.
DL: Do you see any similarities between pitching and shooting a puck?
BW: Pitching is more of a science; there’s more behind pitching. I think you look at scouting reports a lot more when you’re a pitcher, so there’s more that goes into it. When you’re shooting a puck, you just look up and you react. Pitching isn’t really a reaction, it’s more calculated. It’s where you feel comfortable putting the ball, and that’s why they’re so good at it. They know weaknesses and strengths and how to exploit people. When you shoot a puck, you just look up, look for a spot to shoot it, and let it fly. You don’t really think about it.
DL: Is a fastball analogous to a slap shot, or an off-speed pitch comparable to a deke followed by a quick-wrister?
BW: Quite simply, the speed-that’s one way to compare them; they’re both going close to 100 mph at times. And you watch some guys-we all joke around with Phil Kessel quite a bit because he’s always throwing changeups at the goalies. So yeah, I think there are different ways to fool batters and goalies alike. Sometimes the best shot is the one where you don’t even know where you’re putting it, but it finds a hole. Mixing it up a little bit, and not just throwing the heat at them every time, is actually a pretty good thing.
DL: Which takes more guts: standing in against a 95 mph fastball, or going into the corner against some of the nastiest players in the NHL?
BW: I don’t think either one takes more guts. I think that going across the middle on a football field takes the same amount of guts. It’s a part of your sport, and once you’re comfortable in that setting I don’t think it takes any guts at all; it’s just the norm for you, and you get comfortable doing it. For me to stand in against a 95 mph fastball would be pretty scary, and for a baseball player to go into the corner against Z [Zdeno Chara] would probably be pretty scary. It’s just a matter of what you’re used to.
DL: You told one of the Bruins’ beat writers, Joe Haggerty, that one of your assistant coaches at the University of Minnesota “had a secret love affair with Tomas Holmstrom.” What did you mean by that?
BW: His biggest thing was tipping and screening. He loved traffic in front of the goalie, and for good reason. When you watch games, so many times goals are scored just because guys are going to the net and guys are in front of the net. It’s just a dirty area you need to get to, and Holmstrom is as good as anyone at taking the goalie’s eyes away. He gets rewarded for it quite a bit, and his teammates are rewarded equally for him being in front of the net. Every week we’d see a couple of clips with Holmstrom in front of the net and taking away the goalie’s eyes, just doing what he does best.
DL: Who do you have a secret love affair with?
BW: No one, I guess. I’m past the point of being in awe every time I step on the ice. I obviously love my line mates; I love playing with guys like [David] Krejci and Rides [Michael Ryder], and whoever I’ve played with all year, but I’ve kind of gotten over being star-struck because you have to go out and compete against these guys every night.
DL: Earlier this season you scored a hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and along with headwear, a bra was thrown onto the ice.
BW: Yes, I guess that somebody got a little too excited and felt the need to gear down. I don’t know-it was on the ice and people were throwing it in my face. We have it hung up on the bear, in the room where all the hat-trick memorabilia goes.