Winnipeg forward Blake Wheeler has admitted being Jets captain has become a burden, which he has now been relieved of by new Jets coach Rick Bowness.
The Jets announced Friday that they will enter the 2022-23 season without a captain and with a group of assistants to be determined.
“There’s nothing in my life I’m more proud of than [being Jets captain]besides being a husband and being a father,” Wheeler said during a press conference at the MTS Iceplex.
“Every day since I’ve been made 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, for this team and for this organization. So yes, at some point it can wear you out. I’m just incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity. This is how I feel.”
Wheeler said he was surprised when Bowness told him he would be stripped of the “C”.
“You know, there was some upset I think,” said Wheeler, who had captained the team for six years. “Have the kind of year [the Jets had], the first conversation with the new coach was surprising. But I had time to let him in, so he gave me a head start. I had time to process it.
Jets forward Mark Scheifele, speaking to reporters in Henderson, Nevada, during the NHL and NHLPA player media tour, said the news was “a shock to me.”
“Blake told me before I left just to let me know,” Scheifele said. “I haven’t had much of a chance to talk to him and immerse myself in how he feels.
“First and foremost, I just want to be there for him. He’s a great friend of mine and a guy I’ve learned a lot from. He’ll always be a great leader for our team. Letters really don’t want to say nothing.
Wheeler and Bowness declined to describe what would have been an unpleasant conversation.
“With new staff, now is a good time to consider changing the direction of the hall,” Bowness said. “I can tell you this… I was very encouraged all summer to talk to the players about the fact that it’s a much tighter group than the perception of the room. It was very encouraging for me.
“Also, you could tell their tone and wording, they want to take on more responsibility. They are all disappointed with what happened last year and now it is behind us. Now we have changes. It just included how we’re going to approach team leadership.
The Jets failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, which sparked a lot of speculation about their future. This included a discussion of trading Wheeler, who has two more seasons on a five-year contract with an annual cap of US$8.25 million.
“I think, yeah, when you have a bad season, you’re going to have to have those conversations,” Wheeler, 36, said. “I’ve been here 11 years and you’d be crazy not to look at yourself in the mirror and then also look at an 11-year-old relationship and say, ‘Is it still in our best interests going forward?
“In the end, we decided that was it, so here I am.”
Wheeler said he is no longer discussing a possible trade with the team.
“I’m here and I’m committed to this team and motivated to have a great season,” he said. “I had a few days to process it and the feeling I rolled out of bed with today knowing I had to talk to you was how grateful I am to have had this opportunity.
“I just can’t wait to see the guys I coach grow because it’s their time now and like I said I’m not going anywhere. I will continue to do the things I would have done with the “C” on my jersey. You might not talk to me as much.
Bowness said he has yet to decide how a rotating assistant captain position will be developed.
“That’s what we need 21 days and six [exhibition] games to figure out,” Bowness said. “And, at the end of this, we are going to make the right decision.”
But a new captain will probably be appointed eventually.
“It will evolve naturally,” Bowness said. “We are not the only team that will not have a captain. It will evolve.
Wheeler took over as captain of the Jets ahead of the 2016-17 season. He replaced Andrew Ladd, who transferred to Chicago at the 2016 trade deadline.
The Jets made the playoffs three times with Wheeler as captain and advanced to the Western Conference Finals in the 2017-18 season. They also made the qualifying round of the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, but lost to Calgary in four games.