It’s not uncommon these days to hear Minnesota kids name Plymouth’s Blake Wheeler or South St. Paul’s Alex Stalock among their list of hockey heroes. NHL pedigrees with the Winnipeg Jets (Blake) and Minnesota Wild (Alex), talent in their respective forward (Blake) and goalie (Alex) positions; what’s not to like?
But beyond Blake’s offensive capabilities and captaincy in Winnipeg, and behind Alex’s shutdowns and shutouts in Minnesota, you have two men who are exemplary human beings, too. Just ask the folks who know them best: mom and dad.
Jim and Pat Wheeler, and Brian Stalock shared their experiences on raising hockey players who had to navigate successes – and failures – all while keeping a level head and solid character.
Because in hockey, it’s far more than what you can do on the ice, but who and what you are off the ice that defines you as a person and player.
The Big Picture
Humble people tend to come from humble beginnings.
“We raised them like we were raised,” explained Brian, who grew up in the same South St. Paul town Alex did. “A lot is different today than things were, but if you keep it simple and go back to some of the simple things – the fun, the focus on life experiences, the value of respect and treating people the way you want to be treated – you’re bound to have a kid who easily learns and retains what’s important.”
For the Wheelers, simple meant playing hockey just to be with friends – not to make it to the NHL.
“We signed Blake up to play hockey because that’s just what you do in Minnesota,” said Pat, a Minnesota native. “We wanted him to socialize. It’s where he was going to meet and make friends. To us, especially here in Minnesota, that’s really what hockey is about.”
“Being successful wasn’t even a thought for any of us until well down the road,” added Jim.
While most research focuses on the benefits of playing multiple sports in terms of athletic development, the Wheeler and Stalock households quickly agreed that playing other sports were a key part of developing their kids into well-rounded individuals.
“When you play other sports, you develop other skills, not only physically but mentally,” said Brian. “You learn how to compete in different ways. When you’re developing your skills for one sport, sure you’re going to be skilled, but when you get to a point that you feel like you’re better than everyone, you lose that humility, and you lose that drive to compete at the same time.”
Keep It Simple
While no one can fault any parent for wanting the best for their kids, teaching kids to be content with what they have is also a valuable lesson.
“It was a lot of used equipment,” Brian said of Alex’s pads and gear. “A lot of Play-It-Again stuff and whatever we could find. There wasn’t a lot of personal training things or pressure to do this camp or that.”
“A stick isn’t going to make a player better,” Brian added. “But I think if you can provide what you can, you’re going to have a kid who appreciates you and the game and what they do have so much more.”
Let Them Fail
Jim and Pat easily label Blake a late bloomer. The now 6-foot-5 staunch forward wasn’t always that big, and he wasn’t always the most talented, cut from various select camps at ages 15-17.
“He had a lot of adversity growing up through the ranks,” said Jim. “That in itself helps create a mature, humble athlete. Those who excel sooner than later and have that outstanding success early on, sometimes they get to an age where they don’t know how to deal with the adversity or expect everything to be handed to them. That wasn’t the case with Blake. It wasn’t always an easy ride for him, but he didn’t pout and quit. He just said, ‘I gotta work harder.’”
Brian said one thing that stands out to him about Alex is the fact he always welcomed a challenge that most shied away from.
“He wasn’t afraid to lose and he wasn’t afraid to fail,” said Brian. “That not only kept him humble, but it taught him that some of the best successes come from the greatest failures.”
Hard Work + Teamwork
“We eliminated real early on, as far back as Mites, that ‘I scored a goal’ type of talk in the locker room and car ride home,” said Jim. “We taught Blake that we are in a team-first type of situation, and as he grew older, that was ingrained in him that his success was the team’s success.”
“It taught him to work hard for not himself, but for his team,” added Pat. “He never was bigger than the team or the work in front of him.”
As a goalie, Alex worked extra hard for his spot, and for the guys in front of him.
“There’s always someone trying to take your spot, so you better give it your best every time you’re on the ice,” said Brian. “And Alex knew, if he wasn’t going to play for the guys in front of him, they weren’t going to play for him. It’s that brotherhood, that family, that’s what keeps a hockey player humble. That’s what keeps a person humble – remembering it’s about the others you’re in this life with and not just yourself.”