Great expectations fuel Wheeler forward

Freshman forward Blake Wheeler has two goals in two games thus far.

Chris Lempesis

Minnesota’s men’s hockey forward Blake Wheeler is a member of a freshman class that has some pretty high expectations attached to it.

Not that expectations are anything new to Wheeler.

When the Phoenix Coyotes, whose managing partner, Wayne Gretzky – maybe the greatest hockey player ever – takes you higher than expected (fifth overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft) before you’re even a senior in high school, you know a thing or two about expectations.

To garner such attention, you must also know a little bit about strong performances – and Wheeler has already turned in three for the Gophers this season.

He had two goals in last weekend’s series with Alaska-Fairbanks – one in each game – and also had a goal and an assist in Minnesota’s exhibition win over Alberta.

“I guess, more than anything, I’m just trying to go out there and play as hard as I can,” Wheeler said. “Do whatever

I can to help the team out and it’s translated into a little bit of success.”

Junior forward Ryan Potulny said Wheeler has been a “great spark” for the team’s offense. And both Potulny and coach Don Lucia said they weren’t surprised by his strong early showing.

“I’ve seen him a long time,” Lucia said. “My son played youth hockey with him, so I’ve watched him grow up over the years and I’ve watched him score a lot of goals, a lot of points.”

Lucia also said Wheeler has the potential to score 20 goals as a freshman.

His ability to rack up a lot of points was a big reason why the Coyotes drafted him as high as they did. Wheeler had 45 goals and 55 assists (100 points) in just 30 games as a junior at the Breck School in Golden Valley.

Wheeler used the words “surreal” and “incredible” to describe the draft day experience. The fact that it was Gretzky who drafted him made it all the more memorable, he said.

“He took all the picks out for dinner (after the draft),” Wheeler said of Gretzky. “So it was pretty special to get some advice from him and just see what he has to say.”

Gretzky also called Wheeler with some advice last season when Wheeler was going through a bad stretch as a member of the United States Hockey League’s Green Bay Gamblers.

Wheeler chose to play for the Gamblers instead of returning to Breck for his senior season, a decision he said was definitely the right one to make.

He said he learned a lot from his time in Titletown.

“You always have to play as hard as you can and just try to be a better player every day,” Wheeler said. “So I think I was able to do that out there and it helped me, you know. It’s starting to pay off a little bit now.”

Outside of that experience, Wheeler’s size is another benefit freshmen usually don’t have. He is listed at 6-4, 219 pounds in the Gophers media guide and his weight is up nearly 35 pounds from draft day.

“I think it helps out if you can be bigger and a little stronger maybe, coming in as a younger guy,” Potulny said. “Because one of the big differences is the strength of the (college) game. You’re playing against older guys – 20-year-olds, 21-year-olds, 22-year-olds, some even 24.”

While all of these elements add up to high expectations for Wheeler, he said those are things he doesn’t even think about anymore.

Another thing Wheeler said he doesn’t really think about is when he will leave Minnesota to begin his trek to one day possibly reunite with the man who drafted him – Gretzky – who is now coaching the Coyotes.

“To be honest, all I’m worried about is just every weekend,” Wheeler said. “Taking it weekend by weekend and I guess when the end of the year comes, or when the time comes, then I’ll know. And other than that, you don’t really think about it too much because it obviously takes away from the experience right now.”