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Jets’ Blake Wheeler, an ex-Gopher, is center of it all for hockey-crazed Winnipeg

April 18, 2018

The Winnipeg Jets had played a shutdown third period and finally scored an empty-net goal with 11 seconds remaining to defeat the Wild 2-0 on Tuesday night. This reversed the blowout loss two nights earlier in St. Paul, and gave the Jets a 3-1 series lead entering Friday nights game in Winnipeg.

The NHL has an abundance of players from the Twin Cities. Jets captain Blake Wheeler is one of those, from Robbinsdale, a superstar at Breck School, a three-year Minnesota Gopher, and he was asked a version of whats a traditional question:

Any extra excitement in getting a first playoff win back home in Minnesota?

Wheeler shrugged, not indifferently but as a candid response, and said: This is really for the people in Winnipeg. The way they have supported us, the way our building was for Games 1 and 2 we were hoping to come back with a chance to win a series in front of them.

Winnipeg has a metropolitan population of 780,000. Its the smallest city to serve as home to a team in the four major pro leagues, other than Green Bay.

There are players who come to Winnipeg and they dont want to be there, Walt Dixon said. Were too small for them. Blake has embraced Winnipeg. Thats reason No. 2 we are fans of him. Reason No. 1 is that hes an outstanding player and the leader of this team.

Rob Fulton nodded and said, Thats what you always hear and read from the locker room: Blake Wheeler is our leader.

Dixon and Fulton were at a booth with four other people in Jets jerseys on Tuesday in Tom Reids Hockey Pub on West Seventh St. An hour earlier and three blocks away, the Jets had taken the 3-1 lead in the series.

If we can win on Friday, I dont think Saturday and Sunday will be enough of a weekend to take care of the celebration, Dixon said. Theres going to be very poor work attendance on Monday, maybe Tuesday.

These are the people and the city that Blake Wheeler and his wife Sam have embraced, and have been embraced in return. It is the place on the Manitoba prairie that suffered the heartbreak of losing the original Jets in 1996.

Winnipeg built a new arena in the hope of regaining the NHL, even though commissioner Gary Bettman had no interest in seeing a team land there. Then, the Thrashers became the NHLs second failed franchise in Atlanta, and against all odds, the all-new Jets arrived for the 2011-12 season.

Wheeler and Roseaus Dustin Byfuglein both made the move from Atlanta, metro population 5.8 million, to Winnipeg. The endless choices for an evenings entertainment in Atlanta were replaced by a need for substantial winter wear, yet Winnipeg had something the Capital of the New South could not offer:

Rabid enthusiasm for hockey.

It was terrific to be playing in a city that really wanted to have you, Wheeler said. It was a lot like when the Wild first came to St. Paul. The hockey fans were so happy to have the Wild after losing the North Stars that they didnt need a win they just wanted to be back at an NHL game.

It was the same way in Winnipeg. You would see people out in public and they would tell you how great it was to have the Jets again. Winning or losing, the building was full and the crowd was fired up.

Theres a bit of twist to Wheelers career timeline. He was drafted No. 5 overall in 2004 by the Phoenix Coyotes, the team that was the heir to the first version of the Jets.

A dozen years after the move to Phoenix, the Coyotes were a financial mess, and they couldnt reach a contract deal with Wheeler after his junior season with the Gophers. Wheeler signed with Boston as a free agent on July 1, 2008.

Immediately, the 6-5, 225-pound winger broke into Bostons lineup, and then was traded to Atlanta late in the 2010-11 season. A few months later, he was in Winnipeg, and now its home, for Blake and Sam, who is extra-active in community and charitable events, and the two young kids, Louie and his sister Leni.

Things are different now, Wheeler said. Its more than just having the NHL back. The fans in Winnipeg see a chance for this team to accomplish something in the playoffs.

Weve had our first playoff wins, but we all would like to turn this into something more memorable.

All, being the Jets and the hockey-mad residents who surround them a small city with big dreams in Year 7 of its NHL revival.

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. preusse@startribune.com