Blake Wheeler the family man and Blake Wheeler the NHL captain were of like mind on the most appropriate path toward a recovery from his recent injury.
Listen to the medical staff. No reason to rush things.
Winnipeg's veteran winger suffered a concussion April 5 and was off skates for about five days before making incremental steps toward a return to the lineup. And that meant watching a sixth consecutive game from home Saturday night — a 3-0 shutout loss to the visiting Edmonton Oilers — even though a part of him really wanted to participate.
"I think, you know, sometimes you need to take a step back and, being away from it for a week, allows you to take a step back and just realize what the injury was that I was dealing with. I’ll try to be there. If I’m physically able to do it, but there’s just no sense rushing back from something that happens to your head. It just doesn’t do anyone any good," Wheeler said Tuesday, following an up-tempo workout at the Jets' downtown home.
"Even though I’ve been cleared and have been skating and ramped up, I hadn’t had a full practice with the team yet. The guys went 4-1 on the road and they were playing great. It was unnecessary, to put it quite bluntly."
Wheeler was caught by an elbow from Ottawa Senators forward Brady Tkachuk late in the second period of an eventual 4-3 Jets victory and was left with a red scrape on his left cheek. The durable 34-year-old played the rest of the contest, while Tkachuk was assessed a two-minute penalty on the play.
But he felt unwell the next day and was excused from practice, only to be diagnosed with a concussion a day after that.
The Jets went east without their longtime leader and, indeed, took eight of a possible 10 points before returning home and falling to the Oilers. Winnipeg took Sunday and Monday off, and still have another skate planned Wednesday before the Toronto Maples Leafs visit Thursday.
"That’s where those guys allowing me to take a step back and not only think of myself as a player and trying to get back for the team and be on the ice wherever I can, that was an important conversation. Honestly, getting these four days in addition to the extra two days, in the long run, is going to make a world of difference," said Wheeler.
Watching the team take four of six during his absence lessened some of the sting of being sidelined.
"It just makes it so much easier to miss time. You feel like you let guys down, especially when you’re dealing with a head injury. You’re already kind of down on yourself a little bit, so you feel like you’re letting everyone down. It was just great to have that to look forward to, to watch them play, and how well they played," said Wheeler. "It made it a lot easier to give myself time to get healthy. It was the first time I’ve gone through it, fortunately, in my career, knock on wood. It wasn’t easy but certainly the quality of the play on the ice and the success those guys had made it a lot easier."
Judging by his pep during drills, the Plymouth, Minn., product is ready to go.
Reunited with centre Mark Scheifele and left-winger Kyle Connor, Wheeler had his tires spinning at optimal speed, streaking down the right side after accepting passes on the fly and then busting back to try and break up a rush going the other way. He worked the corners with force on puck-battle drills and launched some blistering drives at his teammates who tend the twine.
"I feel good… I’ll just leave it at that. Taking it through the stages of day-by-day doesn’t do any good. I feel really good and I’m thankful to be on a team with a staff that allowed me to fully heal," said the 13-year pro, preferring not to discuss his struggle with symptoms the past two weeks at home.
"The most important thing for me was to still be engaged in things. We have a pretty crazy household, with three young kids and a couple of dogs. There is no quiet time in our house, in a way that’s a blessing in disguise. As much as you just want to lay in bed and sort of close the door and close the blinds, it’s important to be engaged in different things and different activities and get outside and go for walks."
The father of three, who registered 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) in 39 games before getting hurt, has been the epitome of an iron man since he debuted with Boston, the the fall of 2008. He suited up for all but two contests over three seasons with the Bruins and Atlanta Thrashers (2008-11), and was sidelined just six of 732 games since the franchise moved to the Manitoba capital from Atlanta.
Starting goalie Connor Hellebuyck said Wheeler's return is a boost to the team's collective psyche.
"It's awesome. We need our team at full, especially in this North Division. It's tough. And it's a grind. We need every single guy," he said. "He adds depth to our lineup and a voice in our locker room so he's going to be our confidence going forward, for sure."
The Jets (27-15-3) are second in the division, four points behind the Maple Leafs (who play the Vancouver Canucks in a late game Tuesday) and just a point ahead of the Edmonton Oilers (27-15-2).
Wheeler's return has had a domino effect on the lineup. Adam Copp rejoins Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton, dropping Mathieu Perreault to the fouth trio with Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis. Pierre Luc-Dubois centred a line of Paul Stastny and Nikolaj Ehlers during line rushes.
Hinting he battled through an undisclosed injury earlier in the season as well, Wheeler said he's excited about contributing to the club down the stretch.
"I’m just happy to be feeling good, you know, feeling like myself. From a personal standpoint, I’m just looking to be firing on all cylinders by the end of the season, playing my hockey, our team playing our best hockey. I’m looking forward to these 10 games being the first time being healthy all year, 100 per cent," he said.
"(Scheifele and Connor) are two guys I’ve played with quite a bit over time and they’re having great individual seasons. I’ve just got to try to fit in and get those guys the puck and have a little bit of fun here."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).