RALEIGH, N.C. — When team Managing Partner Wayne Gretzky stepped to the podium to make Phoenix’s first-round selection in the 2004 NHL Draft, the crowd of mostly Carolina Hurricanes fans, draft prospects and their families, stood to salute ‘The Great One’ with a rousing, heartfelt ovation.
Just moments later, the reaction changed to agape jaws when Gretzky announced the selection of Blake Wheeler, a junior at Breck School in Minnesota, and over a year away still from matriculation at the University of Minnesota.
Not any less surprised was Wheeler himself, and his family, who were shown in full shock and awe on the arena video screen.
“[My father] was just saying, ‘Oh my god, oh my god,’ and ‘Congratulations,’” said Wheeler. “It took him a while to gather himself. I think he was more surprised than anyone else.”
Wheeler figured he would go late in the first round, or early in the second.
“It was a complete shock,” he said.
“The interview [at the Toronto combine] went really well. I thought they were interviewing me for No. 5 on the second round.”
As if not already stunned, Wheeler then had to meet Wayne Gretzky.
“It’s somebody I’ve been looking up to my whole life,” Wheeler said. “Every hockey player in the world would love to shake Wayne Gretzky’s hand, and I got to shake his hand today.
“Being in an organization with the greatest hockey player that ever lived is a great honor.
Wheeler’s stock shot up as he helped lead his team to the Minnesota state high school championship this spring. He went from 46th on the Central Scouting mid-season rankings among North American skaters, to 17th in the final rankings.
Perhaps the only disappointed person watching the proceedings was Minnesota Golden Gophers coach Don Lucia, who could be worried that Wheeler may never even get to ‘The U’ now. But Wheeler is still expecting to go, and Gretzky seems ready to oblige.
“That’s something I don’t even know yet,” said Wheeler about whether he’s still in line to go to Minnesota. “I’ll be talking with the organization and we’ll decide my future pretty soon.
“I hope it doesn’t change. It’s been one of my dreams in my hockey career, to play college hockey and play for the University of Minnesota.”
Gretzky seemed more sure.
“It’s up to him. He’s a really astute young man and a great athlete. He’s got his whole life ahead of him,” Gretzky said. “He’s just a young kid. There’s no race here. We know that what we drafted is a young man, we expect him to be with us for a long time and we’re not going to race him.”
Boston College coach Jerry York, who heavily recruited Wheeler, said Wheeler is similar to Minnesota star Thomas Vanek with his skills, with some differences.
“He’s a great physical presence,” said York. “What impressed us most in the recruiting process was just his skill level. He made some terrific passes and individual one-on-one plays. He’s shifty. He works really hard. He gets dirty. He’s wiry, but potentially he could be one of those 230[-pound] kids.”
There had been speculation that Phoenix would select Michigan goalie Al Montoya with its pick. But Gretzky said the team ultimately decided against it, especially considering it has former Cornell star Dave LeNeveu in its system.
“We think Montoya’s a great goaltender,” said Gretzky. “It was a tough decision for us, and probably the biggest reason we decided to go the other way was the fact that our best young prospect is a goaltender.
“It’s always a tough decision when you have people sitting there and everyone has their opinions and thoughts. We know Montoya is going to be a great goaltender. Good for him. But we just felt that the youngster we took is a pretty special kid and has great upside, and we’re really happy with LeNeveu.”
Wheeler is a two-sport star at Breck, also excelling as a tight end on the football team. But he knows his football career is over.
“I’ll just be watching Vikings games, I guess,” said Wheeler.