Tommy Wingels remembers his Chicago youth hockey days. A native of Wilmette, Wingels said the leagues were pretty good then but nothing like the opportunities area kids have to play hockey here now.
“This city has so many youth programs, so much ability for kids to play at every level. If they want to travel, pursue it professionally, if they want to go to college or they just want to enjoy it because their buddies play it. You can do it everywhere around here, and it’s such a unique aspect,” said Wingels. “I think the expectation has changed now. Kids think everyone can make it now. Back then, nobody thought they would make it.”
Count Wingels among those who wasn’t sure he’d make it. But he did, and on July 1 he made a childhood dream come true when he signed a one-year deal with the Blackhawks. Wingels was elated when Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville called him about his potential signing. The details of those calls? Well, those are a little sketchy.
“I don’t even remember half the stuff they said to me because you’re on cloud nine and you’re saying, ‘Yeah, when can we sign and where?’” Wingels said at the Blackhawks convention on Saturday. “My wife commented on how big of a smile I had [walking] off our porch and back into the living room. It was very exciting.”
As a kid growing up in the Chicago area, Wingels played plenty of travel hockey. He watched the Blackhawks when he could, trying to catch what games were on television at that time. But the thought of playing in the NHL, let alone suiting up for the Blackhawks someday, wasn’t in his mind at that time.
“I wouldn’t say until the middle of high school did I ever think playing professional hockey was a possibility,” Wingels said. “Coming into high school you think college might be one [possibility]. But not until then did I ever talk about it or think about it.”
Wingels said he talked to a good deal of teams in 2006, the first year he was eligible for the NHL Draft, but he wasn’t selected that summer or the next. It wasn’t until the 2008 NHL Entry Draft that former Blackhawks defenseman/now San Jose general manager Doug Wilson picked Wingels, then playing for Miami University, in the sixth round. Wingels was a steady presence for five-plus seasons with the Sharks, putting up career numbers in goals (16), assists (22) and points (38) in the 2013-14 season. Wingels is forever grateful to Wilson for the opportunity.
“He’s the No. 1 reason why I’ve had an NHL career,” Wingels said. “[He had] the confidence to draft me and he was extremely patient in developing me through my years at Miami. He’s one of the best guys I’ve met in the game and I’ve enjoyed all the interactions we’ve had with him. He’s a guy I’ll definitely keep in touch with while I’m here and for many years.”
On the ice, Wingels should help the Blackhawks’ penalty kill and add some necessary grit – “bring in some sandpaper, finish checks and at the same time chip in some goals, all kind of things I think [Quenneville] and Stan expect me to bring here,” he said. Wingels has gone on long postseason runs (2016 Stanley Cup final with the Sharks and the 2017 Eastern Conference final with the Ottawa Senators), and he can be another veteran voice and presence for the Blackhawks’ young players.
“Your star players will lead and be the best players that they are. But for a young guy coming up on the third or fourth line sometimes it’s tough for those guys to relate to the star players, not because what the star players do but they’re guys who are up and down and they’re guys who have different roles. [I’ll] be a part of that group who can help transition the young players, who can play a similar role to some of those other players and be a sounding board for guys as well. I’m 29 now. I feel young but somehow I’ve become a veteran. So I’ll just try to help out any way I can.”
As excited as Wingels is to be home, he said his family may be more so. His parents, Bob and Karen, get to spend more time with Wingels’ 1 ½-year old daughter. The Wingels are close to Scott Darling’s family, and know from the Darlings how great it was to have their son play here.
Wingels grew up wondering how far hockey would take him. Now it’s bringing him back home.
“It didn’t take long to decide this is where we want to be. My wife is extremely happy – she lived here a couple of years out of college and knows the city very well – and I have a ton of friends here with my family being from here,” Wingels said. “It’s going to be a fun year for us and I can’t wait to get started.”