The Winnipeg Jets have stripped Blake Wheeler of the team’s captaincy and will enter the 2022-23 season with a collection of alternate captains instead, the team announced Friday. Those players are still being determined.
“It is our goal to expand the leadership base within our hockey team,” Jets coach Rick Bowness said in a statement. “We have high expectations for our core players, and we want to provide them with the opportunity to step into those greater leadership roles as a group.”
Wheeler, 36, had been the Jets’ captain since 2016. He joined the organization while Winnipeg was still based in Atlanta and remains its longest-tenured player.
The veteran admitted Friday he was “surprised” to learn about the Jets’ new direction but maintained a positive outlook.
“I don’t need a letter on my jersey,” Wheeler told reporters. “There was a time in my career when that validation was important to me. I don’t need that anymore. I’m really looking forward to watching a lot of the guys I’ve had the privilege of watching grow up and step into an expanded role. If you think that because of this I’m just going to fade into the background and not be a leader on this team, you’re sorely mistaken.”
The decision to go without a single leader is Bowness’ first major move since becoming the Jets coach in July. He replaced interim bench boss Dave Lowry, who took over in December when Paul Maurice resigned after nine seasons, and said the Jets needed “a new voice” to reach their full potential. That sentiment now extends to the team’s dressing room, where frustration had been mounting.
When Winnipeg failed to make the playoffs last season for the first time since 2016-17, alternate captain Mark Scheifele publicly questioned where the franchise was heading. Scheifele has two years remaining on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent. The Jets also hope to lock up Pierre Luc-Dubois long term, but the pending restricted free agent has so far committed to a one-year deal only.
Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff chose Bowness and his 33 years of coaching experience to steer the Jets back in a competitive direction. Bowness changing up the leadership group sends a message already about the importance of moving away from the status quo.
“It’s kind of hard to digest right now because I have not had really any conversations with anyone about it. Players, coaches, staff, kinda anything,” Scheifele told ESPN. “I think it will definitely be interesting to get their input on why they decided to do it and what was the reasoning. Blake’s been the heart and soul of his team for a long time, so it definitely was a shock to me to hear it. I’m definitely excited to hear what the reasoning is.”
Scheifele first learned about the decision early Thursday morning ¬ a full day before the team released the news. He was leaving for Las Vegas to attend the NHL/NHLPA Player Media Tour when Wheeler reached out to tell Scheifele in person that he was no longer going to be the Jets’ captain.
Scheifele said it was a quick interaction with Wheeler. But his main concern was to ensure Wheeler was doing OK with the decision.
“Obviously, it was a shock to him as well,” Scheifele said. “Then, Bones called me this morning to tell me that it was going to be released and wanted me to know. It was one of those things you don’t know how to react to it. You just kind of take it in and not being around the guys, that’s the even tougher part. Because when the big stuff happens, you rely on your buddies, you rely on your teammates to bounce ideas off of and understand a little bit.”
“I think we’re all excited to have a new coach, have a new system, have a new structure, understand that system, understand the structure of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Scheifele said about the upcoming season. “Just excitement. A lot of guys are excited to get going. Guys are excited for a new voice, a new system and understanding that. I think when you come to the rink and you know the purpose and you know why you’re doing something, that changes everything.”
ESPN’s Ryan Clark contributed to this report.
Source by www.espn.com