Winnipeg Jets strip C from Blake Wheeler, go without captain for upcoming NHL season
Team will have 'a group of assistants' instead, says new head coach Rick Bowness
The Winnipeg Jets have taken the C off Blake Wheeler's jersey and tucked it away, choosing to hand out a whole bunch of As instead.
The NHL team has decided to go captain-less, announcing a restructuring of its leadership ahead of the 2022-23 season.
It's the first time in the franchise history of the NHL team, which began play in the 1999-2000 season as the Atlanta Thrashers before relocating to become the Jets for the 2011-12 season, that it will not have a designated leader.
Rather, the team will appoint "a group of assistants, still to be determined," said new head coach Rick Bowness.
"We're a family here and that's what I'm trying to tell them. We're all in this fight together every day and we all have to be held accountable," Bowness said in a news conference with reporters on Friday afternoon.
"We have to support each other, we have to help each other, we have to push each other."
It took time to make the moves — the Jets pre-season camp begins next week — because there are several new coaches and the staff needed time to talk to and get to know the players.
And the changes won't end there, he said.
"We're going to change the way we play. We want to be a much more aggressive team … and be a harder team to play against."
Bowness insisted "Blake's a key part of this team" but was evasive when asked if Wheeler would be one of the assistants.
"We'll see. And when I say we'll see, that means I know what I'm gonna do and I'm not ready to share it with you."
Asked how the conversation with Wheeler went, Bowness said "that's a conversation between a coach and a player and that's how it's going to stay."
Bowness has been in the league in one capacity or another for 47 years, including playing for the first iteration of the Jets in 1980-81 and later serving as an assistant and then head coach of the team. He was most recently the head coach of the Dallas Stars.
"Some of the best leaders I played with and coaches never had an A, never had a C. What we're trying to do now is get …. more guys in that group to take that responsibility and be proud of it," he said.
Wheeler, 36, was named the team's second-ever captain on his 30th birthday, Aug. 31, 2016.
He replaced Andrew Ladd, who was named the Thrashers' captain in 2010 and retained the title when the team moved to Winnipeg. Ladd was dealt to Chicago at the 2016 trade deadline.
On Friday, Wheeler smiled awkwardly when asked about how he took the news.
"Having [that as] your first conversation with a new coach is surprising but I've had time to let it sink in," he said.
For the most part, he came across as conflicted.
"I don't need a letter on my jersey. I think there was a time in my career where that validation was important to me. I don't need that anymore," he said, but moments later described how much it did mean to him.
"There's nothing in my life I've taken more pride in than that, outside of being a husband and a father," he said. "Never in my wildest dreams as a young player growing up, I never thought I'd be in that fraternity of being a captain of an NHL team."
Wheeler said wearing the C was a burden at times but "everyday, since I was named captain, that's what's gotten me out of bed: how can I be a better teammate, how can I be a better leader, how can I be a better player on the ice for this city and this team.
"I'm incredibly grateful that I've had this opportunity. That's how I feel."
After a disappointing season, he expected tough conversations and decisions, but this one was unanticipated, he said.
The Jets qualified for the playoffs three times with Wheeler as captain and advanced to the Western Conference final in the 2017-18 season. They also appeared in the qualifying round of the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, but lost to Calgary in four games.
The Jets finished sixth in the Central Division last season and missed the playoffs.
Team's direction questioned
Their season was marked by the departure of head coach Paul Maurice and some players, including star Mark Scheifele, who questioned the team after the campaign.
"I just have to know where this team is going and what the direction is and what the changes are going to be, if any," he told reporters at the close of last season, raising suspicion he might be looking to be traded.
"I have to think about my career and what's going to be best for me."
The team had made the playoffs for four consecutive years before dropping out last season.
"It just feels like we're back to square one," Wheeler said in April as the Jets were eliminated from post-season contention. "We built so long to get to a championship level and sitting here is pretty deflating.
Having had time to digest Bowness's decision, Wheeler said on Friday he is looking forward to watching other players step into an expanded role.
"You want to have a more successful season than we had last year. If this is what's needed to do that, then that's great. I guess we'll see how it plays out," he said.
At the same time, he's not planning on skating into any shadows.
"If you think that because of this I'm just going to fade into the back and not be a leader on this team you're sorely mistaken."
Rumours of discord
There have long been rumours of division within the Jets' locker room, suggesting Wheeler and Scheifele have too much control, and Wheeler had even being accused of bullying star forward Patrik Laine out of Winnipeg.
Asked about the alleged estrangement in the room, Bowness said it's a "much, much tighter group than the perception" people have "and that was very encouraging for me."
"They're all very disappointed with what went on last year but that's behind us," he said. "Things just went sideways, for whatever reason, I wasn't here. All I know is they're very anxious to get back on the ice, they're very anxious to get back together."
Scheifele more recently said he always intended to be back in Jets colours and is looking forward to the new season. Regarding the alleged conflicts and animosity, he told 680 CJOB last month "that was just a load of B.S. that there's problems in the room."
Wheeler on Friday also addressed reports over summer that he was looking at a possible trade as well.
"You'd be crazy not to take a look at in the mirror at yourself and also look at an 11-year relationship and say, 'is this still in our best interests going forward?'" he said. "Ultimately we made the determination that it is, so here I am."
Asked if that might not be a factor in him losing the C, Wheeler wouldn't answer.
With files from The Canadian Press