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Jets’ Wheeler: ‘It just felt right to take a stance’

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Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler was one of the few NHL players to make some sort of an unprompted statement in response to President Donald Trump’s weekend comments regarding NFL players and their protests during the National Anthem.

During a speech in Alabama on Friday the President urged NFL owners to fire players that “disrespect” the flag by taking a knee during the National Anthem.

On Saturday, Wheeler was critical of the President’s comments in a series of Tweets.

On Monday, Wheeler was asked about why he spoke out and ended up talking for several minutes on the subject.

“I think crossing over into the sports world it hits home a little more,” said Wheeler, via the Jets’ website. “I think a lot of people, similar to my wife and I, it has been kind of a slow boil. The rhetoric over and over, he has just kind of gone a little too far too many times. It just felt right to kind of take a stance.

“There have been a lot of players who have felt a certain way, one way or the other, when you start coming into their territory a little bit. Some of the language that he used referencing NFL players, I think that was kind of the last straw for a lot of guys, whichever way they feel about it to voice their opinion.”

Wheeler was later asked if he would support a teammate if they decided to take a knee during the National Anthem.

“I’m absolutely for the first amendment,” said Wheeler. “I’m a big believer that what makes America a special place is you’re allowed to stand up for what you believe in. With just cause, if someone were electing to do that they would 100 percent have my support. Even if I don’t necessarily agree with why they do it it is their right to feel that way, it is their right to behave that way. If I didn’t agree with it, I would absolutely sit down, have a coffee, talk about it, try to understand why they feel that way and maybe you become a little more sympathetic.”

His entire media session is available via the Jets.

Jets coach Paul Maurice said he supported Wheeler’s Tweets while adding that Wheeler is “one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met.”

During NFL games on Sunday pretty much every team took part in some sort of a protest during the National Anthem, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans who remained in the locker room prior to their games.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, announced that they will be accepting their invitation to visit the White House just one day after the NBA’s Golden State Warriors announced they would not be attending.

Donald Trump tweets about Penguins’ White House visit

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Earlier today, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced that they would accept an invitation to visit the White House. You can read all about that here, including the Penguins’ brief statement on the matter.

On a day in which NFL teams are drawing attention for how players (and owners) are acting during the national anthem, Donald Trump took a moment to confirm the Penguins’ visit, and also to praise them on Twitter.

Trump issued this tweet on the matter:

This came about four minutes after he addressed the NFL once again, finishing with this tweet:

While NHL players haven’t been as outspoken as athletes in other sports, there have been some reactions to Colin Kaepernick and the situation as a whole.

A year ago, Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said he would bench a player who sits during the anthem, something Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones stated was not a problem. Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown, however, did have an issue with Tortorella’s stance.

Of course, those comments surfaced about a year ago, so it’s plausible one or more of those opinions might be different, in either large or small ways, as of today.

Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler (one of the standouts of the 2010 U.S. Olympic men’s team) criticized Trump on Twitter last night:

The 2017-18 regular season kicks off on Oct. 4, so we’ll see if there are any larger protests or statements from teams and/or players.

For more on how this situation is playing out with other sports, check Pro Football Talk (including this post), Pro Basketball Talk (Mark Cuban’s comments are the latest there), Hardball Talk (noting that Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to kneel during the anthem), and other sites under the NBC umbrella.

Jets ink Bryan Little to six-year, $31.75 million extension

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The Winnipeg Jets took care of some business this morning, as they signed Bryan Little to a six-year, $31.75 million extension ($5.291 million AAV), according to Sportsnet’s Elliott Friedman.

Little was going to play out the final year of his current contract this season, but this deal will keep him in Winnipeg for the foreseeable future. He’ll be making $4.7 million in 2017-18 before his new contract kicks in at the start of the 2018-19 season.

The 29-year-old had 21 goals and 47 points in 59 games last season. In 672 games with the Thrashers and Jets, Little has 184 goals and 432 points.

He’s been limited to 57 and 59 contests over the last two seasons. At the beginning of 2016-17, he suffered a lower-body injury during the first game of the season and he was forced to sit out until Nov. 27.

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Little’s new contract comes with a no-movement clause through the 2019-2020 season. That turns into a modified no-trade clause after that point.

Scheifele is ‘pushing to be better’ than McDavid and Crosby

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Mark Scheifele became a household name last season, as he put up 32 goals and 82 points in 79 games with the Winnipeg Jets last season.

It was a terrific campaign for the 24-year-old, but he’s clearly looking for more from himself going forward. Scheifele doesn’t just want to be mentioned in the same breath as players like Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, he wants to be better than them too.

“In this sport, you can’t say, ‘Oh, you know, that was great. I just hope to stay amongst them.’ I’m pushing to be better than Connor, better than Sid,” said Scheifele, per NHL.com.

“Obviously they’re pretty lofty goals. Those guys are special players. They work unbelievably hard at their game. But at one time last year, I was top in the league in scoring.”

Scheifele ranked seventh in the NHL in points last season behind McDavid, Crosby, Patrick Kane, Nicklas Backstrom, Nikita Kucherov and Brad Marchand.

As good as he was last season, the Jets still didn’t manage to make the playoffs. Of all the players that finished in the top seven in scoring, Scheifele’s team finished the lowest in the standings.

Winnipeg finished ninth in the Western Conference with 87 points, which was seven points behind Nashville for the final Wild Card spot.

“It’s about getting your team into the playoffs and trying to win a Stanley Cup,” added Scheifele. “That’s why I try to get better and I hope every guy on the team is trying to get better.”

Maurice sees Scheifele as future captain of the Jets

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Over the past two seasons Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele has developed into one of the best offensive players in the NHL.

Since the start of the 2015-16 season his 61 goals and 143 total points place him 15th in the NHL, ahead of superstars like Alex Ovechkin, John Tavares, and Ryan Getzlaf. Along with Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, he is one of the young players that is giving Jets fans a little bit of hope that the team might one day be able to climb out of the depths of mediocrity.

Coach Paul Maurice, who just signed a new contract extension to remain with the team this past week, sees more than just a great offensive player. He sees a future captain.

“Mark Scheifele is going to be the captain of this hockey team at some point in his career for sure,” said Maurice on Prime Time Sports this past week, via Sportsnet. “He is, in so many ways, the driver of that offense. Blake is a big part of it; Mark, as a centreman, certainly drives it.”

Here is more from Maurice:

“If you get a chance to spend some time with this guy, this is the guy you want your kids to grow up to be — he is that good a person,” Maurice said of Scheifele. “He does everything he possibly can to become a better hockey player and then does it with a smile on his face. There’s lots of those guys who grind through their life and kind of grumble about how hard they’ve got to work — Mark does all that, and enjoys every minute of it.”

Blake Wheeler is currently serving as the Jets’ captain after taking over the rule during the 2016-17 season. He replaced Andrew Ladd who was captain for six years before being traded during the 2015-16 season. Wheeler is under contract for two more seasons and will then be eligible for unrestricted free agency following the 2018-19 season.

Even with Maurice and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff getting new contract extensions this week the pressure is going to be on for the Jets to make some real noise this season in the Western Conference. They have a lot of talent throughout the roster and finally attempted to address their goaltending issues by adding veteran goalie Steve Mason in free agency. There is a lot of promise with this team when looking at the roster on paper. But there has to come a point where that promise turns into results. The Jets have qualified for the playoffs just one time since relocating to Winnipeg seven years ago.

The organization (even dating back to the Atlanta Thrashers days) is still looking for its first ever playoff win having been swept in the first round in its only two playoff appearances.