The 2014-15 team is full of confidence
By Jon Waldman
Midway through the 2014-15 NHL season, the MTS Centre was more boisterous than it had been in a couple of years.
Though NHL teams have always feared coming into the building due to the loud, intimate setting that the building and its inhabitants provide on game nights, that crowd of hockey hungry souls has been noticeably more vocal than it had over the past seasons. You have to look back to the inaugural campaign of 2011-12.
The reason for it? Improved, unpredicted play that has the Winnipeg Jets on pace to make the playoffs for the first time since the team moved to these parts from Atlanta. At the All-Star break, the Jets found themselves comfortably in one of the two wildcard spots in the Western Conference and mere points behind both Chicago and St. Louis.
As a club, the Jets have more confidence and are more cohesive than they’ve been. Look around the locker room and there’s more jubilant feelings and confidence than there has ever been.
This boosted sense has been buoyed by two of the team’s leaders: Jim Slater and Blake Wheeler. Veterans of the club, Slater and Wheeler have been two of the biggest positive influences on the ice and in the locker room. Here are their stories.
The book on Jim Slater began in one of the most pressuresome spots in the NHL – a selection to help bolster a bottom-feeding NHL franchise.
Just one year after taking Ilya Kovalchuk with the first overall pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft and later in the night after taking Kari Lehtonen in the second spot of the 2002 edition of graduation day, the Atlanta Thrashers returned to the podium and picked Slater with the 30th overall selection.
Slater was coming off the first of what would be four seasons in the NCAA as a member of the Michigan State Spartans. Joining the Atlanta system in 2005-06, Slater played all of four games in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves and 71 games in the big league. Since then, he’s only played three games in the AHL (all in 2007-08) while earning the title of the longest tenured player to be part of the Thrashers/Jets franchise.
What has kept Slater going? Unquestionably, it’s one of being a locker room leader and being one of the grinders on the ice. His attitude and positivity have helped keep spirits high, even though he himself has been hampered by injuries which have kept him from playing a full season of NHL hockey.
It’s this outlook that Slater shared – knowing where his importance lies in the Jets roster – before the NHL All Star Break amid a strong start to the 2014-15 campaign.
“The main thing is we go out there every night and we know how we need to play to win hockey games. Everyone in this room understands that,” Slater said. “Everyone knows their roles and what they can do to help this team win. It’s been a good start for us. We’ve got a ways to go, but we like where we’re at right now, and we’re going to try to get better every single day and make a push.”
Equally as important, Slater has become one of the faces of the franchise with an incredible amount of work off the ice in the Winnipeg community, supporting a number of local charitable efforts.
“I’ve always felt that the fans support us when we play hockey, and it’s important to get out in the community and support them too,” he said. “I feel it’s an obligation for us to help out in any way we can. The way my parents raised me, any time I can lend a helping hand, I’m willing to do that and a lot of guys in here are too.”
Among the efforts that Slater eagerly participates in is Bring a Jet to Work. The program is one that Slater has brought to Winnipeg from his days in Atlanta and has grown himself. It has taken the 32-year-oldto a variety of jobs, ranging from being a sushi cook at Wasabi to being part of the police’s tactical support team. And each and every moment is enjoyable for Slater.
“They’re all good in their own ways. There hasn’t been a bad one. It’s good because a lot of guys want to come to them. I try to take one, two or three guys with me every time now,” he said. “It’s been a great thing for myself, the Jets organization, the fans and this community. It’s fun for me and I know it’s fun for them too. I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Those who wonder which Jet has been the biggest offensive producer since the team returned to Winnipeg need not look any further than to the team’s elite right winger, Blake Wheeler.
In 2011-12 and 2013-14, Wheeler, a native of Robbinsdale, MN, led the team in points, and during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, he placed second to team captain Andrew Ladd.
The 28-year-old Wheeler came into the NHL as the fifth overall pick in the lauded 2004 NHL Entry Draft, the same year which saw Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ladd and Travis Zajac go in the first round. Selected by the Phoenix Coyotes, Wheeler took his time to make his NHL debut, first playing with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers for three years before turning pro. When Wheeler debuted during the 2008-09 season, he made an immediate impact with the Boston Bruins after signing with the team over the summer. He registered 21 goals and 45 points in his rookie campaign and showed promise for the future.
After a couple seasons, Wheeler was dealt with Mark Stuart to the Atlanta Thrashers, mere months before the club moved to Winnipeg. Instantly, he became one of the feature stars of the new Jets, quickly gaining an immense fanbase. But Wheeler doesn’t push himself to get a spot in the limelight; rather he does it to help push his team forward.
“I just come to work every day and just try to work as hard as I can every single day. That’s the one thing that won’t change about me – the stats come and go, the individual stuff comes and goes, but I’m going to bring my work ethic every day and that’s what brings me success.
“The individual stuff comes and goes, but the real fun in this game is playing well as a team, coming to the rink every day and taking pride in what you do. That’s what we’re coming to now and we’re starting to establish an identity.”
That spirit has put Wheeler in high standing among his teammates as a player to model their game after. “He’s a great player and you can learn a lot from someone like that,” said rookie Adam Lowry. “You just watch the way he comes and plays every day. He’s battled really hard for us, and some nights when the rest of us aren’t going, he starts things off. He’s had some fights and high-spirited games, so when one of your star players comes out like that, it’s fun to follow.”
This year, Wheeler has seen the Jets enjoy immense success, hitting a pace that puts them securely in a spot for the playoffs through the All Star break. Wheeler comments that the biggest change has not been in any preparation over the summer, but instead attributes the change to the Jets’ coach, Paul Maurice. “With Paul, he brought a different and better game plan for us. A different way of playing, a different way of thinking and that’s made all the difference for us,” Wheeler said.